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Creating a performance culture at Saudi Telecom

Creating a Performance Culture at Saudi Telecom

by Tarek Elmasry and Nikola Jurisic

Telecommunications has exploded in the Middle East and Africa over the past decade, accounting for about 10 percent of telecom revenue globally and nearly 20 percent in profits. That growth has driven Mideast telecom companies, such as Saudi Telecom Company, to transform their operations and cultures to best capture the expanding opportunities.

The first in a series, this conversation with Saudi Telecom Group CEO Nasser Al Nasser explores how the company – one of the most valuable in the Middle East North Africa region – has transformed its mindsets and behaviors, and the impact this has had on its performance.

Q: In your role, you have recognized the impact of culture and people’s behavior on performance. How did that come about?

Eng. Nasser: In 2012, as a company, we could clearly see that although we had the latest technology, our market share and customer experience were significantly below our expectations. We realized this was because we were focusing much more on improvements in business performance over our culture. In some ways, we were seeing only half the picture and, therefore, managing only that half. So, we decided to focus equally on improving our business performance and building our performance culture.

Q: What results have you achieved?

A: We have more than doubled our Organizational Health Index (OHI) score – a measure of our organization’s ability to get things done – over the past five years. When we started, nine of our top 10 surveyed organizational values related to such unproductive principles as hierarchy, conflict and bureaucracy. Now they are all positive and our “Customer First” and “Employee First” values are both at the top of the list.

Q: Did this improvement lead to improved business results?

A: Absolutely. On many metrics, we have more than doubled our performance. Our market capitalization has almost tripled to nearly 180 SAR billion (~$48 billion). Our Net Promoter Score (NPS) is 50 percent and our call center service levels have more than tripled to 95 percent. Our brand value has soared, making Saudi Telecom one of the top three most valuable brands in the Middle East.

Q: How did you achieve these improvements?

A: First, we established clear expectations of what we meant by the new culture, including values and specific behaviors linked to each value that would apply to everyone. We developed this new culture on one page – and it’s still just one page. Then, we made the new culture personally meaningful to our people – beginning with the top team, then the next 350 leaders, and then the next 1,000 – by designing tailored leadership and learning journeys. Finally, we have worked to change the environment, signaling to staff to not behave in the old way. This includes aligning everything to the new culture, from our HR processes – such as recruitment and performance management – to changing out our physical work environment, to reflect our new values.

Q: Who did this work?

A: My predecessor CEOs – in particular Dr. Khaled Biyari – and I invested 1-2 days a week to leading the culture journey, and so did my colleagues in our top team. Culture became one of our key business priorities. I also had a small “core culture” team led by Mohammed Alkabti that took a whole system view. They ensured we implemented the culture initiatives as planned and helped the top team lead the journey. Essentially, it’s all about being close to our people, understanding where they wanted the organization to evolve next and how we could facilitate that process.

Q: What lessons have you drawn from the journey?

A: Doing this well requires the total commitment, adoption, role modeling, and continuous involvement by the CEO and the top team. Changing mindsets and behaviors takes time. You need a dedicated, highly passionate team to drive the implementation over the years. Also, look at the organization as a whole system and figure out what will really make the difference at each point in time for your organization. Embrace diversity. Build on your strengths. Measure your progress. And finally, don’t forget to have fun!