Mteto Nyati – CEO MTN South Africa

We had a leadership conversation with MTN SA CEO Mteto Nyati this week – listen here. MTN has always been a remarkable South African success story, but Nyati concurred that something had gone wrong; the proud vibe on the MTN campus changed over the years to that of strikes and different forms of commotion.  Fortunately every success story has it’s ups and downs, and MTN is no exception.

Nyati is of the view that experiences like the Nigeria debacle, while an unfortunate incident, has humbled leaders and raised a sense of urgency, even offered a burning platform for those that are driving positive change within the organisation. The Nigerian debacle remains unresolved although one hopes that Executive Chairman Phuthuma Nhleko will be able to reach an amicable settlement so that MTN can put the messy case behind it.

So how is Nyati and his team looking to get the South African operation back on track? What is different about Nyati – an Engineer and MBA graduate with comprehensive experience, including leading Microsoft SA – is that within a very short space of time, he has become well attuned with what needs to be done to fix MTN.

The first order of business in any “turnaround” is to reset focus on what matters, “and what matters is the customer” says Nyati. He adds that hard questions should be asked, like: “Are we relevant to the customer?” If the answer leans more towards the negative, the follow up questions are simple: “What is it that we need to do in order for us to remain relevant? What are the changing needs of the customer and what capabilities should we bring into this organisation in order to be relevant?”

This is the process they have been following in MTN. They have realised they need to be much closer to their customers, “with a deeper understanding of their needs and make sure that we either build or acquire capabilities that would help us to make this company do better in the future”. This includes a programme called “It’s about simplification” that focuses on simplifying three areas: Processes, systems and products.

According to Nyati,

even before looking at the customer the organisation must look at its own people:

“How are youmtn staff treating your own people?” Great plans and even intentions of spectacular customer service need to be delivered by employees. “If your people are not happy, there is no way that you will be able to achieve your objective” Nyati told us in our wide-ranging conversation. He believes this is where MTN may have lost its way – believing their people were their most important asset, “but their actual experience was completely different”.

He wants the people to start believing that they are important, respected, understood and leadership cares about their ideas, which is why they are creating platforms for them to contribute towards the positive change. Nyati is convinced that the MTN one finds now is already different from the one of six months ago, “because people are engaged, they are trying to build a new MTN and they are being listened to”.

They are at a phase in MTN where “the orders are not just going to come” says Nyati. They actually have to go out there and fight for business, “build a new value proposition for our customers”. He also believes they need to look at other industries as to how they transformed themselves and use that as a template. So, for Nyati emulating success stories inside the Telco space is not part of the answer, seeing as all the other players are struggling with similar challenges, give or take.

During the first part of our Leadership Master Class conversation we debunked leadership myths with Prof Theo Veldsman of UJ, listen here. One of these was that the leader can come into the organisation and save the day. It is a myth! At best we concluded that a new and credible leader may temporarily change the atmosphere and attitude, even spark hope of a better future. But this is short lived if the above essences and more don’t follow – it has to become an organisation wide effort, which will be no different for MTN SA. If his leadership team and the rest of the organisation quietly or overtly resist Nyati, for whatever reasons – rather than unite with him – they will not succeed! Their level of unity will equal their level of performance!

While trying to fortify unity he and his team have been and will have to continue making difficult calls that drive to the heart of emotional attachment by long standing employees to products, systems or processes that they themselves created. This comes at the risk of being unpopular. Fortunately Nyati believes while it is pleasant to be liked by others, it does not appeal to him as much as doing what’s right. Sacrificing being liked for being respected, is exactly what MTN SA and Group need.

The events at MTN over the last while teach all of us an invaluable lesson – the world that leaders operate in has changed dramatically; any organisation can fall from grace…fast. No organisation is exempt in our society that is so interconnected; where every misstep is amplified a hundred times by such platforms as social media.

So where to from here? Mteto Nyati is the fifth CEO in approximately 8 yrs. The time has come for a leader to stay on and regain that MTN SA success rhythm; for the Group CEO – whomever that will be – to trust Nyati and his team; allow them to take the helm firmly and steer to calmer waters, stabilise and then confidently take on the never ending raging storms that in 2016 and beyond will simply be par for the course, especially in the telco space.

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.  Follow him on Twitter: @AdriaanG_LP or @LeadershipPform.




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)

Call: +27 (0)12 653 3022

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Leadership Platform is a specialist leadership development consultancy, focusing on creating measurable impact to the bottom line through the enhancement of leadership understanding and engagement.


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