University of Southern California

Profiles in Business
June 18, 2007 • by News at Marshall

In this installment, Mr. Owens interviews Arun Sarin, Chief Executive Officer of Vodafone Group Plc. Vodafone is the world's largest mobile telecommunications company by turnover, with an April 2007 total market capitalization of approximately $140 billion. Vodafone's portfolio of services, supported by its global brand, are available in more than 60 countries throughout the world.

Mr. Sarin is a native of India and graduated from the Indian Institute of Technology in Kharagpur with a B.Tech in Engineering. He subsequently earned an MS in Engineering and an MBA at the University of California, Berkeley. He has also served as a director of The Gap, Inc., The Charles Schwab Corporation, and Cisco Systems, Inc. He was recently appointed as a non-executive director of the Court of the Bank of England. He is a U.S. citizen and currently lives in London.


James Owens: What makes a CEO effective?

Arun Sarin: An effective CEO is able to make things happen and get things done. They have to achieve this through effective leadership and, in my view, leadership is split into three elements: strategic leadership, operational leadership, and people leadership. It is also important for a CEO to use these three skills simultaneously.

Strategic leadership is knowing where the industry and company are going. Operational leadership is organizing the company, motivating the people and producing the results. Finally, people leadership is creating a strong team and having people with common values that work towards a common goal. These are the three attributes that leaders need to run any organization, but especially large organizations.

JO: What three factors have led to your success?

AS: The three things that I highlighted a moment ago: strategic leadership, operational leadership, and people leadership. Over my career, I have honed my own skills in order to do these simultaneously. I have also had a lot of international experiences. I grew up in India, moved to America and now I'm living in the UK. I have done business in many countries and I have a good view of global trends and issues.

In addition to those factors, I would cite hard work, and just being plain lucky—being at the right place at the right time!

JO: What traits you would like your employees to emulate about you?

AS: I like my employees to have a passion for the business, a passion for their role and for good teamwork. They must also have a desire to win and, specifically, to win with the customer.

JO: What traits would you least like them to emulate?

AS: I would ask my employees to try and ensure they maintain a healthy work/family balance, which is pretty tough to do. I would ask them to think hard about the choices they make throughout their career and to take some time to smell the roses along the way.

JO: What three traits do you look for when you are hiring someone?

AS: The first thing I look for is a fit with our culture, which is based on three 'Rs'. This stands for Red, Rock Solid and Restless, which means passion, dependability and innovation respectively. The other thing I look for is integrity. You cannot be a leader without having integrity. People must know that you are someone they can follow, someone they can trust and someone who will take them places they might not otherwise go. Finally, I also look for the three leadership traits that I have mentioned: strategic leadership, operational leadership, and people leadership.

JO: What do you find absolutely unacceptable in potential employees?

AS: If you lack integrity, if you cannot operate in a team and if you cannot deliver your objectives—you will not fit into our culture or company.

JO: What motivates you?

AS: The ability to do good motivates me. As CEO of Vodafone, operating in 30 countries around the world with big balance sheets, big cash flows and lots of people, you can actually do a lot of good in the world. We can achieve this through the policies of the company and through the management style of the employees. We have the ability to do good, while at the same time doing what is right for our shareholders and what is also right for our customers. We also have several charitable foundations that are helping the less fortunate and this puts us in a position where we can be a force for good throughout the world. That motivates me.

JO: How do you motivate others?

AS: Everybody is motivated in different ways. You always have to ask yourself when looking at an individual whether they are motivated by money, challenge or impact? I personally spend a lot of time thinking about how to motivate people in the appropriate way. The core thought here is that you are motivating people differently.

Another theme that often motivates people is the 'what is next for me' question. It is therefore important that we create a work place environment where people can grow. It is important to have an open environment where people can shine, can develop, can make mistakes, and can have rewards. I motivate my people to create and participate in such an environment.

JO: How do you view time?

AS: Time is a very precious resource. You do not realize this when you are younger but as you grow older, I am just over 50 now, you realize that time is the most precious commodity of all. One therefore has to use time very, very effectively. I'm very much an 80/20 person, which is getting to the 80% mark pretty quickly. That's where the leverage is.

You should also use time sensibly. If your goal in life is to do as much good as possible, you have to ask yourself how to apply time against that. While you are managing an organization for success, you also have to make sure that you can get things done in a fast manner, but still find time to do good.

JO: What lesson do you wish you had learned earlier in life?

AS: People issues are by far the hardest decisions I take in my role. The ability to practice those and the three leadership skills early in your career pays huge dividends later on. You get out of business school, start work and spend most of your time doing what I call 'operational management'. Make sure the books are closed, sell this or market that, et cetera.

Strategic leadership and people leadership come with time. But the sooner you can start doing these things simultaneously, not with an 'or,' but with an 'and' in between them, the better off you are likely to be.

JO: What do you hope to achieve in the future?

AS: We changed our strategy about one year ago. We are now very focused on making sure the new strategy takes root, grows its trunk, grows its branches, grows its leaves, and that the company prospers under this new direction.

We are in an industry that connects people. There are over two billion phones on the planet and there will be four billion by 2011. There is an enormous opportunity for us to continue doing good and not just with voice communications, but also with data and entertainment services. We can also extend our services to economies as widespread as the US, South Africa, Europe, India and China. I am keen on making sure that we spread the magic of wireless around the world in coming years.

JO: What is your personal mission statement?

AS: Add value in life and make the world a better place.

JO: Whom do you most admire?

AS: I've had the good fortune of meeting a lot of world leaders in my tenure. The person that stands out for me is Nelson Mandela. We have a business in South Africa and when I first became Group Chief Executive, I went down to visit the region and spend some time with him as he runs some important charities in which we also participate. He has been a great friend to Vodafone and he has been a great friend to me. I admire him greatly. When he tells you his stories about the people who imprisoned him for a long time and then being able to forgive them unconditionally, it is amazing.

JO: Any final words you would like to share with our readers?

AS: I can only underscore that the core in life has to be to do good and leave the world a better place. One doesn't realize until much later in life that you are really here for that purpose. The earlier you get it, the better you are going to be.


James J. Owens, Assistant Professor of Clinical Management Communication at the Marshall School of Business Center for Management Communication, holds an MBA from Columbia University and a Master of Professional Writing from USC. He has extensive international business experience in England, France, Germany, Africa, and Saudi Arabia and he has authored more than 100 articles published in local, national and international magazines and newspapers.


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