Yasir Azman became the chief executive officer of Grameenphone on February 1, 2020, the first Bangladeshi to hold the position at the country's largest mobile phone operator. On Saturday, he spoke about his journey to the top, leadership qualities, importance of purpose, passion, ethical standards and values, and opportunities for the next generation at the first episode of the Chief Executive Show.
DS: How was your childhood? You may not have found a role model to follow the footprint compared to the current generation.
Azman: There was nothing like whether we had dreamed to become the CEO and whether I set out and prepared myself keeping that goal in mind. An important thing was to develop values as a human being and develop myself. My parents paid more attention to that.
My father was a journalist. From the very childhood, I got the lessons on how to speak the truth, behave well with people and be humble and respectful.
We had to study. But at the same time, there was an emphasis on sports although I was not deeply involved in sports. To prepare, we were told, one has to become a good human being first. When I look back, I can understand that the concept of being respectful and humble and to be curious to know and reading books were sowed in a bigger way in my childhood.
One can't advance without education and learning. I did not succeed in getting admission in the first batch of the BBA at the Institute of Business Administration under the University of Dhaka.
I was frustrated. But I did not give up. I planned to pass the bachelor of commerce first and then go for the MBA programmes at the IBA. The preparation for the BBA admission helped me a lot. So, after I passed the Bcom, I quickly got admission to the MBA programme at the IBA.
At our companies, I did not see many Bangladeshis at the top positions who I could follow. But many people were at the senior positions and I learnt a lot from them. The contribution of my organisation and my efforts played a major role in my journey.
DS: Now current generations can look up to you and feel that they can strive and achieve what you have achieved. What are the steps they can take?
Azman: Bangladesh is set to celebrate its 50 years of Independence. I am about 45. People my age are the new generation of Independent Bangladesh and they have achieved various responsibilities at various companies. This is something that was very much expected and we are on the right track. Now, the success of the people like us would depend on if the next generation gets similar opportunities and their confidence builds up.
Apart from Bangladesh, I worked in India, Pakistan and Europe. When I was in Europe, I used to work with nine European and Asian countries. It never came to my mind that Bangladeshis can't climb the ladder and reach the top at multinational companies. If I talk about education and hard work, we have plenty of resources and people with that resources should come to this stage.
People from neighbouring countries are leading major companies on a global scale. They are working as a model and idol for the new generation. We have the same responsibility.
As we move forward, we have to nurture our leadership. Performance alone can't bring you to this position. We have to look at the values and ethical standards as a human being and see how personal development takes place, how networking will be done, relationship will be built and leadership culture would develop.
I don't see why Bangladesh's talented people can't move to leadership positions not only in Bangladesh but also outside of Bangladesh. There is a lot of scopes to work in this area.
DS: There is a trend among mid-level managers to migrate to other countries such as the US, Canada and the UK. They are leaving behind good positions and settling at a far lower position. What do you say about this?
Azman: Why should Bangladesh be a factory to supply only unskilled labourers? The unskilled workers are contributing immensely towards our GDP. I have full respect for them. But there are 72 million youth population in our country. Why should we worry about the brain drain?
Our education system, corporate culture and grooming of the next leaders should be such that we should have thousands of people out there working for different organisations. When they leave the country, they should move to higher positions, not to lower positions. They should go, become successful, inspire others to join them and lead organisations. If they get opportunities, they should come back and serve the country.
If they move to other countries but skill development does not take place in Bangladesh, then it would be a problem for us. There should be a pipeline.
Why does an organisation hire somebody from outside of the country to lead its company in Bangladesh? Some kinds of expectation of the board or shareholders of the organisation work behind this. We have moved to today's positions and this happens when the capability grows to meet the expectations. When we can meet the expectations, this question will not surface.
I hear that many expatriates are working in Bangladesh. There are not many expatriates at Grameenphone like it used to be in the past. Expatriates are working in many other organisations. We have to be prepared for this. We can't be emotional.
It is not the fault of the expatriates. We have to nurture our resources so that they can take up these responsibilities. I think it is possible and it will happen.
DS: Local talents will migrate if enough opportunities are not created. The general people complain that enough opportunities are not being created. Do you agree?
Azman: In the current fourth industrial revolution, the way the world is transforming driven by digital connectivity, the skills that are being required, the way working culture is changing, the new generation should not just look for enough opportunities in local boundaries. We have to prepare ourselves to compete globally.
There was a time when an individual started a career based on a single skill and retired as well. It was possible through one kind of educational background. It does not work nowadays. It is now being said that an individual needs to have a minimum five skills and these skill-sets are changing very fast. Learning is becoming a major skill-set. I have to know how to learn or I would have to have the curiosity to learn.
We have to utilise the power of the internet and digital connectivity to prepare ourselves in line with the new trends so that we can work for foreign companies while sitting at home or foreign companies hire us. For those who are starting their career now, it is going to be differently way of recruitment, way of work and skillset five years down the line.
DS: We are going through a disruption. In terms of innovation, we are now at a stage where we don't know what the next is. How could our generation prepare for this?
Azman: Of course, we are saying that we have to develop digital skills and prepare ourselves for the new way of work. But first, there is no alternative to some things. An organisation can't function without performance even if other things are okay. Some goals or expectations have been set for me. Its exception may be accepted once or twice, but you must perform and the goals have to be delivered.
Performance alone will not suffice. How are you delivering the performance? Are you doing your work compliantly, with right ethical standards, values and transparency? Can you move to a leadership position where we can create an emotional connection with the people so that my leadership will be accepted? We have to create a together culture. You have to build a culture of collaboration so that people work to implement your vision, dream and strategy.
We have to accept the disruption and improve our skills. We have to develop products taking into account the consumer and technological trends. It is very difficult to say at the moment what new skills the new generation should acquire now. We have to grow the capability to learn.
None of us was like this. I never had the leadership or technology skill. I never studied these things. We have come to this stage by learning step by step within the organisation.
Organisations were silo in the past. Now it is an agile way of work where there will not be a structure of an organisation. People with various skills will work in a systemically chaotic situation and together they would develop something. How can we cope if we don't have the curiosity?
Globally, there are large platforms where we could receive training by identifying the areas by ourselves. You do what you like and you do it with a purpose. If you can instill your passion into the purpose in some way, then nobody will be able to stop you. Whatever you want to do, do it well. Try to be Number 1. Be Number 1. Utilise your time in the best possible way.
DS: How can corporates be connected with academia? Is there any platform where leadership can be practised and knowledge will be disseminated?
Azman: Businesses are taught at every university in Bangladesh. So, this type of collaboration can be developed. It can be done if we can start the industry and academia collaboration rightfully and with a concerted effort and right intention. One or two sessions would not be able to attain the objective. A proper programme has to be developed and the programme has to be incorporated in the curriculum of the universities where we can help develop human capital.
There might be initiatives from the government side. There are private institutions that work on leadership. The real leaders can share their work experience. The new generation CEOs are committed to contributing if there is any opportunity.
DS: Any suggestions for the next CEOs?
Azman: There is no alternative to hard work. You need to have a purpose. If you know your purpose and passion, and if you have your ethical standards and values right, the leaders will find out how to grow up to that level.