Game On for Shameel Joosub – CEO Vodacom

Shortly before interviewing Shameel Joosub, the recently appointed CEO of Vodacom, I watched the fourth round tennis match between the 22 yr old Canadian talent Milos Raonic, world number 15 and Roger Federer, world no 2 at this year’s Australian Open. It was clear that Raonic had too much respect for Federer.

He seemed intimidated and frankly overpowered by a legend that he probably idolized throughout his teenage years. Remember that Federer turned professional in 1998 when Raonic was about eight years old. This analogy came to mind as I sat in front of Joosub. He was mentored, brought up and given opportunities by Alan Knott-Craig the founder of Vodacom, who today is an active rival as the CEO of Cell C.  Is he intimidated by this fact?

Taking the tennis analogy further, no doubt Andy Murray, the current world number three also admired Federer in his teenage years as Federer dominated the tennis scene world over. But Murray beat Federer in the semi-finals of the Australian open this year. What is the difference? Murray has been on the ATP scene for a couple of years now. He has gone through tough times to earn the right to be confident and believe that he can in fact beat the iconic Federer. Murray has experience and an experienced team around him, which includes the former world number one Ivan Lendl as coach.

Joosub’s response to competing against his mentor, and whether or not Cell C is just a nuisance was as follows: “Certainly I learned a lot from Alan and we have always had a good relationship, but I am also very confident in my own capabilities.  I ran the commercial side of the company for many years, 11 or 12 years before I went to Spain.  So on the one side I have great respect for him, we are good friends, we can chat and have a good laugh and so on.  On the other side I think we’ve built a very good platform from which to grow and also to compete.” Joosub was also quick to add that Vodacom is not losing market share to Cell C. Question is whether he is a Raonic or a Murray in this great competition for market share of the mobile industry.

He further explained a crucial part of absorbing intense competition: “The environment is quite competitive so yes, we have to look after our customer base and customers.  What’s more important is that you don’t get fazed by competition no matter where that competition comes from, that you’re executing on your own strategy, that’s what’s important – you have to have your own plan.  You can’t react to everything that competitors do.  There will be times when you will need to react but what’s more important is that you have your own plan and strategy that you’re executing.” It sounds like the attitude of a confident ‘player’ or leader. If Joosub lives by this philosophy he may very well be compared to Andy Murray, depending on his experience levels and on whether he has an experienced world class team around him.

Joosub’s 18 month secondment to Spain as Vodafone CEO certainly topped up his existing experience and confidence as leader of Vodacom, a company that has changed significantly and now competes in a very different market. When he arrived in Spain that business was the 3rd biggest in the Vodafone stable. It has since been bypassed by Vodacom.  This opportunity was enriching for Joosub because it was a different market, with intense competition – 34 different competitors.  It was fixed lines and mobile within a constantly changing environment.  The economic crisis was also a big factor in terms of the market dynamics and the role it started to play on customer spend, customer optimising, and much more.

In a way Spain was a bit of a turnaround situation, though still profitable but not quite like it was in years gone by. Sound familiar? The objective was to win back market share on the one hand while turning the company around on the other, from a processes and systems perspective. His Spain experience also exposed him to the larger group, to appreciate more from a Vodafone perspective what it is like operating in different countries. 

When Vodafone became the major shareholder of Vodacom it required some adjustment from everyone in the company. Joosub now sees the bigger picture even clearer. He served on the strategy board and operations committee, which helped him understand the value that can be gained from Vodafone.  He explains: “I think what I learned most in Spain was how to extract that value and make it work for you.  I had a golden rule, especially in the turnaround situation, where I used to say that I know what’s wrong, I don’t need to know what’s wrong, but what I can do with is some resources – if you want to help, send me some resources.  But you can draw from the expertise – that’s what’s nice – when you have a group that size and you’re not sure about a particular issue whether it’s pricing, whether it’s customer value management, or all these new technologies.”

Spain seems to have been very appropriate preparation for Joosub’s next leadership challenge!

Joosub is confident they have a clear plan and strategy and he believes everyone must know exactly what is expected of them, with clear targets that are cascaded down and used to measure people. So they have clearly set targets with 5 priorities for each person 3 levels down, to make sure everyone is aligned. Every quarter they review the priorities and set new ones.  Joosub believes this “helps to create common goals, common purpose, and common vision.  That’s extremely important – to know that the different teams within the company are pulling in the same direction.”

But has Vodacom lost its “sexiness”? Joosub would rather say that the company is in a different phase, more mature, which simply makes it different, not necessarily less sexy. He adds: “But the sexiness is still there and we will improve the sexiness as we go on, making sure we keep that same attraction, that iconic brand that we have built over the years.  Also remember, your age profile is also getting a little bit older.  You have different products that target different sectors – that’s how you keep the sexiness alive.  You have to make sure you have products targeted at the youth so you keep that market – in fact, the brand at the youth level is exceptionally strong.  I would also call Vodacom a trusted brand”.

The battle for market share rages on! All three leaders of Vodacom, MTN and Cell C seem confident, which makes for a very interesting competition – our own corporate grand slam.


BRLP: Happy to be back from Spain?

SJ:           Very much so, coming back home to South Africa and coming back home to Vodacom is always good.  I’ve always felt that when you’ve played such a big role in the success that you’ve created in Vodacom; it’s like coming home – that’s always exciting, you know everybody, you know the people, you know the culture – so it’s great. And family is here so it’s always nice to come home.

BRLP:     Leadership is about creating movement – that’s how a leader is judged.  Over the last year, what has positively moved in Vodacom?

SJ:           Quite a few things.  Firstly from an international perspective, we have now cracked the international model – into Africa, and we’re doing exceptionally well.  Growth is coming from Africa where South Africa started to slow down a bit – that has created some great movement.  It’s also made us more confident as a team.  In coming back one of the things that I’ve been pushing is a growth agenda.  Why?  Part of my role is to ensure the future success of the company, not just the current success of the company. 

Some of the other things that I think has evolved are our approach to what we are doing with the technology in the different countries. Also our approach to enterprise and the business, and what we started three years ago and how that has evolved.  And then trends have changed, and that has forced us to make some evolutions.  The other thing is that there has been some movement in people as well – making sure that we have the right skills to be able to deliver.  That also plays a big role.

BRLP:  You have changed your strategy, or the execution thereof. Tell us more?

SJ:           We’re focusing on three broad pillars.  One is making sure we give our customers the best competitive value as we like to call it.  The second is making sure that the network is a clear differentiator for us, making sure we continue to improve our coverage and the quality of our network, but at the same time to lead in terms of new technologies. Thirdly what we’re trying to do is make sure we can provide our customers with an unmatched customer experience – to improve the customer experience at all touch points.  Obviously that does not happen overnight but I’m confident that we’ve set the ball rolling.  I mean when I benchmark it against international standards I think we’re doing very well, but there’s more to be done.  One needs to constantly evolve and create those WOW experiences.

BRLP:     If I asked you to describe Shameel the leader, how does he lead, how does he think about leadership, what would you say?

SJ:           First and foremost it’s about team – you need to have the right people around you to be able to deliver and that was one of the things that was as glaring in Spain as it was here.  If you have the wrong people, things aren’t going to happen.  So yes, more emphasis on the quality of the team, and making sure we have the right people one level down, two levels down – our ability to execute really comes down to the quality of the people as far down as possible.  And then removing oneself from the detail and rather playing the role of coaching, guiding – you actually don’t have the time to get into the detail even if you wanted to.  Also, a big change in the role now is the whole investor relations – so on one side you’re operationally involved, guiding, and so on and then on the other side it’s the investor relations, government relations, all the different stakeholder relations.  You need to find a happy balance.

BRLP:     Sitting and looking at Vodacom from the CEO chair, what has changed?  What are you seeing now?

SJ:           Firstly and obviously, the environment has changed – the competitive environment.  I would say that South Africa lags by about 18 months, so it was very good to see what the trends were, what to do and what not to do.  So I’ve come back in and said that these are some of the areas we will want to improve on – to give you an example one would be Customer Value Management.  South Africa was quite advanced in what we would call Customer Relationship Management but the world has moved on into Customer Value Management which is all the systems and processes that ensure you are managing the value of a customer – one is the loyalty part – how you manage your most valuable customers, all those type of programmes. But there’s another part to that, for instance as you go through a pricing transformation which is what we’re doing at the moment – then how you manage that, the kind of process, the kind of expertise, the kind of systems that you have to manage that become extremely important. 

BRLP:     How do you keep your mind and awareness sharp and remain leadership fit as the CEO?

SJ:           I can think of a couple of things.  Firstly the exposure to Vodafone and the different development programmes that we run.  They don’t allow you to become non-leadership fit, so they run leadership development programmes a couple of times a year to help keep you abreast of trends and so on.  Then things like being part of the strategy, being part of the bigger decisions, and playing a role.  So constantly you’re getting feedback and seeing where the world is going and so on.  Then I think one needs to stay abreast of technological advancements, what’s happening, feedback from your own teams, reading extensively.  All of these things I think help you to evolve yourself in terms of making sure you stay leadership fit.

BRLP:     How do you see Vodacom’s role in making a difference in South Africa?

SJ:           I think, and this is part of my strategy I have implemented when I came back, is to clearly align ourselves with government in every country in which we operate and help government to achieve its objectives.  There is a strong association between access to mobile telecommunications and GDP growth and I think Vodacom has a key role to play in helping deliver those objectives.  From a telecoms perspective in South Africa there is a policy that says we want to have access in every home – mobile access – by 2020.  So the discussions I have been having with the President, the Deputy President, the Ministers and so on, is to say we can help you to deliver that strategy.  We can and we will help you to deliver that strategy.

BRLP:     You have been around for a long time. What has kept you here? Is it the exciting environment? Give us the bigger picture regarding technology

SJ:           Yes it is, I am moving into my 20th year. The beauty of it is it’s constantly evolving, constantly changing, there’s always a new trend, there’s always something new you’re busy with.  And that keeps it exciting.  The nature of the industry provides so many opportunities as you go forward, and ones we have not even thought of yet.  Just to give you an example, Oxford University reckons that the average person will have 16 SIM cards by 2020 – all the technology, everything that we need to develop to evolve to create the different eco-systems and everything necessary for that to happen – it’s going to be the world of connected devices.  This puts you into a world where you walk into a store and you swipe your phone to pay for your purchases – all your loyalty cards, everything is in your phone.  The reality is the technology is there now, it’s already been developed – now we have to create the eco-systems to take it to its full potential.  To put it in perspective, we have almost 14 million people accessing the internet via their cell phones – just in South Africa. When we look at fixed line penetration to access the internet we have via your desk top computer, this is what’s happening on the mobile – it’s huge.  And every quarter when we look at the numbers, the amount of growth, and how much people are using – data grew by 40% in terms of usage per customer – you’re starting to see more and more of that. 


 This article appeared in the:

Business Report

Do you recognize some areas in yourself or your team that need improvement? Email Adriaan on for more on creating “Leadership Fit” leaders that generate successful movement (performance) inside your organisation.




Adriaan, as an accomplished author and leadership advisor, has been interviewing and working with top leaders for more than 15 years. He is the Co-Founder and CEO of Leadership Platform. (Twitter: @AdriaanG_LP)

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