Michael Foley: I was passionate about the mobile
business and I got the opportunity to work where it
a real difference
For the last 13 years of his career Michael Foley has been
leading telecommunication companies in emerging countries
– starting in 2003 in Romania and Bulgaria, then
moving to the Middle East, Africa, Pakistan and in 2016 back to
Bulgaria. Why has he chosen to work in emerging
"After having worked for a North American cable operator I knew
I liked telecoms, I was passionate about the mobile telephony
business, and I got the opportunity to work where it made a
real difference," says Foley.
"So, you could ask yourself 'Why does anybody need another
mobile phone in Toronto, New York, Boston or LA?’,
and the answer is: 'It doesn’t make a lot of
difference.’ But when you put the mobile phone in
the hands of a young person trying to get a job in Nigeria or
somebody who wants to go to school and needs the security of a
phone to call his parents, or if a medical doctor needs the
access to the phone, it is a different story."
Foley has worked with companies that have been able to
establish phone services for the first time ever in a community
in north-eastern Nigeria "and we have done the same in
different parts of Pakistan," he says.
"That’s a unique opportunity to bring something
new to a community. And for me it became a great mixture of
service and a great business opportunity for me to do something
good with my life. That’s quite honestly why I am
doing it in these markets. And it’s fun."
It’s rewarding and it’s challenging
at times, he says. "But it is about getting yourself into other
cultures and understanding them, and trying to find out how to
get something done from a development point of view, but also
ensuring these markets were sustainable."
He likens the work Telenor does in Pakistan "to the work of a
development agency but one that makes good profits and has an
incredible impact on the community that you serve."
The joy of learning
He says that he is able to adapt to different cultures, to put
himself into the shoes of customers that very often are in a
different situation. Are there any other skills that he
believes are necessary for succeeding in emerging
"I think it’s an approach, it’s an
attitude," says Foley, who studied at McGill University in
Montréal. "It is mostly about respect, curiosity.
It’s about joy and learning about different
people. It is being very sure about who you are, but at the
same time being able to rejoice in what other people do.
"That’s part of our culture in Canada. About being
able to bring people into our country, not to assimilate them
but to rejoice in their differences. That is the way I was
brought up in my family."
A country by country approach
He has enjoyed taking part in festivals in Nigeria or meetings
in Punjab or districts of Pakistan, he says.
"When you do that, you actually create a connection with
people. When you connect with them, be they your employees or
your clients, you get the opportunity to understand more what
their needs are, empathise with them more –
that’s important – and then develop the
approach to the business which is more appropriate for the
community that you’re serving at that time." Does
that mean for him that managing is really about building
meaningful connections with the people in the countries where
he is a leader?
"That’s true. I would say invariably you get what
you give, and if you’re able to actually make the
step forward, especially as an expat and say,
'I’ll take a step of humility and
I’ll wear a national dress or I will learn a
language and adopt some of the culture’ without
losing your own personality and by bringing your values to the
game, then at that point you create opportunities for
conversation, opportunities for friendships, opportunities for
a deeper understanding of the culture that you’re
"And when you get that, you get the opportunity to do things
that otherwise you would not be able to do," says Foley.
What does he consider the key characteristics of a successful
leader in emerging countries?
"Leadership is something that is granted to you; it is not
something that you take, especially in business. You are given
permission to lead by the people who decide that they are OK
with following you. So, you have to approach it, in my view,
especially as an expatriate, with a high degree of enthusiasm
That is a difficult balance to get, he adds. "If you have that
ability to be both receiving, vulnerable and humble, but at the
same time highly enthusiastic and engaged, that balance
actually gets you where you want to go."
That is the core of the leadership style that makes executives
successful in Telenor, he says. "I am one of the first CEOs to
come in to Telenor from the outside. And the reason it worked
is that my boss could find somebody who was a cultural fit with
the values of the company – at least I think
Harvesting the information to lead
What are his recommendations for aspiring leaders? What should
they do to increase their chances of success?
"Always make sure that your team is better at what they do than
you are," he says.
"Secondly, encourage all team members to contribute beyond
their area of expertise. That is a condition of being at the
table with me: my engineer must have an opinion on commercial
and HR issues and my HR person must have an opinion and
contribute to technical and commercial discussions."
As a leader, he says, especially in a market that is not their
home, you need lots of different sources of information before
you make a decision – and that requires time.
Opening up to other cultures
"The next important thing for somebody that is doing this kind
of work is to just open yourself to other cultures. You
can’t be afraid and you just have to be able to
dive in. If you dive in, people love it, and it makes you a
better leader," he adds.
"In terms of your skill set, you are hired for something, for
the skill set that you have. You don’t have all
the skills. The most important for me when I look at people are
their characteristics. I hire you for who you are and, when
things get tough, I still want you to have those
characteristics, because that’s what
I’m depending on as a leader."
Value diversity is also important. "You must hire people that
are different from you. That is absolutely critical. If you do
not do that, you don’t get the diversity of
opinion around the table. You can’t make a
decision that is not based on group-think."
Changes in Pakistan and plans for
Telenor Pakistan had a very rapid growth for the first eight
years of its existence; then it hit a bump in 2013, says
Michael Foley. "Lots of redressing work was done at that point.
Telenor adopted a cluster-based operating model, which I think
is a business model for the industry. In 2014, when I came in,
we started to see some growth, but it was still not the
organisation we wanted."
At that point the management team looked at the business and
decided there were several things that needed to be worked on:
innovation, diversity and diversification of revenue streams.
"As a senior team, we made a very concerted effort on a very
limited number of things that we felt were the levers to create
performance in this company."
That included, he says, making sure that the leadership is
spending much more time in the field with staff. "In innovation
we’ve made a number of very specific steps in
terms of creating new innovation incentives and new internal
training programmes to change peoples’ views. This
was both for the core business’s operational
efficiency – finding billions of rupees of savings
there – and in terms of looking for new revenue
streams, in 2014/15 particularly in financial services," he
"For us it was about crystalising what we wanted to do, moving
us in a direction, and then as we got to the end of 2015,
building a plan to 2020 that saw us fundamentally changing the
mix of revenue streams – moving from being a
commodity-seller of minutes and megabytes to creating
value-generating moments for our customers."
And now, what are his plans for Telenor Bulgaria? "My
overarching goal for Telenor Bulgaria is to show our customers
the benefits of Telenor’s services and products
and the power of digitalisation. Today, our customers stay with
us because Telenor Bulgaria has been the first operator to
introduce 4G and our customers appreciate our quick and
friendly customer service."
But he admits that a lot of work is needed. "So, my feed on
Twitter (@Michael_Telenor) is also becoming a
connection with the client. If someone is not satisfied with
the service, they can write to me. When we sort the problem, we
get a client for life. And I try teaching my people to do the
same – to earn customers for life."
Karin Kollenz-Quétard is professor of strategy at
EDHEC business school