‘Never waste a crisis’: StarHub’s CEO on leading transformative change

This interview is part of the Leading Asia series featuring in-depth conversations with the region’s most influential leaders on what it takes to lead in Asia today.

If you’ve enjoyed a Premier League football match from the comfort of your sofa in Singapore or felt proud that Singapore can claim the world’s most sustainable telco, then you have Nikhil Eapen, CEO of StarHub, to thank. “We want to do things in Singapore that have never been done anywhere else in the world,” Eapen says.

Since its launch in 2000, StarHub has grown quickly to become Singapore’s second-largest mobile operator.1 But Eapen understands that maintaining and growing the company’s market share will require a forward-looking vision and relentless innovation. He wants to shake up the telecom industry along the way. During his first two years at StarHub, he has used his comfort with change—forged through a peripatetic childhood and an intense, varied professional life—to drive a transformation agenda that has touched every part of the business.

At the root of Eapen’s success is his focus on people and his belief that every setback is an opportunity for growth. This is a useful belief to have if you find yourself leading a telco through times of overlapping macroeconomic crises, and it has served him well. Enterprise revenue growth was 22.6 percent in 2022,2 and first half 2023 earnings were 26.0 percent higher than those of the previous year.3 StarHub also placed seventh in Singapore for policies and commitment to gender equality4 and has garnered multiple awards in recognition of contributions to its community.5

In this Leading Asia interview with McKinsey’s Denis Bugrov, Eapen discusses the complexity of StarHub’s transformation journey. He reflects on the importance of self-awareness, the traits he had to unlearn as a CEO, and how he balances the tripod of professional platform, family, and self.

An edited transcript of the discussion follows.

Leadership in times of transformation

McKinsey: Can you talk me through your career to date?

Nikhil Eapen: Change has been the thread through both my personal and professional lives. My parents come from a very old community of Syrian Christians in India but emigrated to other countries. We moved around Southeast Asia a lot when I was a child. As a result, I’m what’s known as a third-culture kid. Later, I went to boarding school in England, came back to Singapore to complete my military service in Singapore’s Naval Diving Unit [NDU], and then went back to England for university.

I started my professional life in banking with Salomon Brothers and then was hired by ST Telemedia, an investor. And now as CEO of StarHub, I’ve become an operator. I’ve been forced to learn a lot of things on the fly that I would have learned over ten or 20 years if I’d started in this business. Constant change has molded me, and it’s been good preparation for the aggressive transformation that is now my core task at StarHub.

I’ve been forced to learn a lot of things on the fly that I would have learned over ten or 20 years if I’d started in this business.

McKinsey: What are some of the challenges you face in trying to implement transformative change at StarHub?

Nikhil Eapen: In taking on the role at StarHub, I knew I was joining a good company—but in a legacy industry. Many of the challenges we face at StarHub are those the telco industry has been facing for 20 years. Competition is one: we’ve seen heightened competition in almost every market, and new entrants are constantly introducing lower-cost technologies.

Second, telcos have increasingly struggled to capture value from emerging technologies. Mobile connectivity is what has made the data revolution possible, but much of the value from these innovations has gone elsewhere.

Third, the heritage of the telco industry has sometimes prevented it from evolving. In the 1980s and 1990s, the industry benefited from this magic combination of growth and infrastructure continuity. Companies aligned on a few key priorities, and then everyone executed. Over time, a mindset developed that didn’t prioritize innovation. But there’s now a tremendous amount of uncertainty from many directions. Old metrics are no longer relevant, and execution has become much more complex.

These industry challenges are exacerbated by the fact that we at StarHub operate in a relatively small market. Our addressable wallet is finite, and in the mobile sector, we probably have more competition per unit of population than anywhere else in the world.

At StarHub, we want to leverage telcos’ core assets but also rescope and do business in a radically different way. This is a complex thing to do. At a town hall yesterday, I explained it like this: We’re piloting a plane, which is currently an old-school Boeing 747. While it’s flying, we’re both accelerating and upgrading different parts so we go from being a Boeing 747 to a F-35 fighter jet.

The ups and downs of the journey

McKinsey: What have been your proudest moments as a leader so far?

Nikhil Eapen: I’m really proud that we have gone where no telco has gone before. To take just one example, we have partnered with leading cloud providers and telco technology partners to create Cloud Infinity, which is building the world’s first autonomous metropolitan-area cloud network.6 This is a horizontal platform that uses telecom assets in a dramatically different way: it actively encourages an ecosystem to flourish.

And I’m proud that the whole of StarHub has been on this journey with me. I have an incredibly capable C-suite, who are leaders in their own right. I do a lot of one-on-ones with both them and more-junior colleagues.

2022 was a tough year, but while we invested a lot, we also grew our revenues by 17 percent. Revenue will grow again this year. There’s no finite end point to the journey we are on, but by early next year, we will be able to start harvesting efficiencies.

McKinsey: What have been the most challenging moments?

Nikhil Eapen: There are always times when things don’t go well on a complex transformation journey. One example was when we brought the Premier League to Singapore as part of our Infinity Play offering. We brought it across as a technologically front-footed, over-the-top offering that was app-based, feature-rich, and immersive. This was a new, bold strategy, and there were basic issues on the first weekend, which created service disruptions and a public backlash.

Great companies are forged by going through fire; you have to learn and adjust as a team.

But great companies are forged by going through fire; you have to learn and adjust as a team. Each challenging situation is an opportunity to achieve incremental improvements. Never let a good crisis go to waste.

Coming to this role as a first-time operator and first-time CEO has brought its own challenges. There was no straight line from where we started, and I couldn’t just focus on two or three priorities; we had to have ten. And people matter. Like football, this is a one-on-one game, but it’s also a team game in which every player matters. You have to savor the journey.

McKinsey: How do you think about StarHub’s broader role in society?

Nikhil Eapen: We don’t want to do the same old things that have always been done: harvest financials and our customer base. We want to move society forward. We want to do things in Singapore that have never been done anywhere else in the world.

We have the potential to create something that defies existing definitions and categories. We’ve already talked about Cloud Infinity and our approach to the Premier League, but we are also bringing ten-gigabit XGS-PON7 and symmetrical broadband connections. StarHub aims to bring our society new levels of delight, enrichment, and cultural experience. We want to help individuals bring about their own transformations by harnessing the power of the cloud, AI, and machine learning. And we’re willing to take some risks to do that.

Sustainability is a core value. We are working with JTC, the largest industrial developer in Singapore, on the Punggol Digital District Smart City Project.8 Together, we are building green connectivity infrastructure, with installed sensors that are managed on the cloud. These technologies have many use cases. For example, we will be able allocate bandwidth dynamically and with pinpoint precision, improving energy efficiency. No one has ever done a project like this before.

We think of ourselves as still being early in our sustainability journey, but Corporate Knights has already ranked us as the most sustainable telco in the world.9 We’re happy to have this recognition, but there is much more we want to accomplish. We want to use the cloud and digitalization to bend the energy curve.

The role of the CEO in setting an organization up for success

McKinsey: How has your leadership style evolved at StarHub?

Nikhil Eapen: An investor—which I used to be—will generally have a significantly higher risk appetite than a CEO. At StarHub, I am responsible for steering a steady course on our journey and working within the clear goals we have set. And while I will and should always have a higher degree of risk appetite than anyone else in the organization, I did need to temper it—for me, my shareholders, and the team.

I’ve also had to temper the algorithmic and clinical approach that I used to take to business decisions. As CEO, my decisions can’t just be guided by black and white numbers on a page. I also need to consider the human side and the journey my team is on.

I’ve also had to temper the algorithmic and clinical approach that I used to take to business decisions. As CEO, my decisions can’t just be guided by black and white numbers on a page. I also need to consider the human side and the journey my team is on.

A big part of the transition to StarHub was doubling down on my ability to quickly build meaningful one-on-one connections. Being open about who I am—including talking about the things that really matter to me—goes a long way. But it’s also challenging to always be on show. I aim to be 100 percent present at all times and to ask the right questions. But I have to do that 20 times today. It’s something I think I’ve got better at, but it’s an ongoing journey.

McKinsey: What are the essential attributes of a CEO that you find important and have helped you along the way?

Nikhil Eapen: CEOs need to learn from everything that goes right and, even more importantly, everything that goes wrong. They have to recognize and own up to their mistakes. On my worst day, I need to be able to sit back and say, “Today was tough, but I learned a few amazing lessons, and I am lucky to have had that opportunity.”

Finding ways to renew my personal energy has also been vital. Health and wellness are a big part of that.

If I cannot fully engage with everyone I meet, then I will not be able to succeed in this job.

McKinsey: I’d like to follow up on that second point. What does balance look like in your life?

Nikhil Eapen: I think in terms of my tripod: my professional platform, my family, and myself. And I work with my calendar, breaking my time up into small pieces. I then spread both activities, those that raise my energy and those that lower it throughout the day.

Most days, I get up at 5:30 a.m. for swim training. Healthy eating keeps my energy high. I try to take a break between meetings to breathe, and sometimes I can also squeeze in a quick afternoon workout too. I always want to have the energy to engage with my family when I come home, as well as carving out time to read.

McKinsey: What advice would you give your younger self?

Nikhil Eapen: I recently went back to visit the NDU. One of the current trainees asked me that same question, and I’ll give you the answer I gave him.

I would tell my younger self to double down on self-awareness, particularly in times of crisis. The NDU really helped me in that respect. I learned to distance myself from pain and to dispassionately assess my reactions to adverse situations. I’ve managed to take that ability and augment it throughout my professional life. My challenges at StarHub tend to be setbacks rather than pain, but the basic method is the same. Where I can face tough situations with a healthy degree of distance, I can emerge smarter, stronger, and faster.

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