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A Conversation with Mats Granryd, Director General of the GSMA

Empowering the World through Mobile Technology
March 2019

In 2003, there were one billion mobile subscribers. By the end of the current decade, that number will have skyrocketed to almost six billion.

For Mats Granryd, those numbers reflect far more than just an increase in the number of people using cellphones. The Swedish native — who is director general of the GSMA, the association that represents interests of mobile operators worldwide, and a member of its board — believes mobile can be a powerful force for equality, financial mobility and sustainability. And with the impending arrival of 5G, Granryd says mobile technology’s ability to affect lives is greater than ever.

Before taking the position with GSMA, Granryd was CEO of Tele2 AB and spent 15 years in a variety of roles at Ericsson, most recently as head of northern Europe and central Asia. He is also chair of the board of directors at Coor and a board member at Swedbank.

In his work with GSMA and the Broadband Commission for Sustainable Development, Granryd seeks to use mobile technology to increase financial inclusion, reduce poverty and fight gender discrimination. These are big issues, to be sure, but the optimistic Granryd is undaunted. He says the impending arrival of 5G technology will profoundly shift social and economic dynamics across the globe.

The theory sounds wonderful, but mobile companies already must react quickly to change and have strong direction in order to thrive in our complicated world. What other qualities must tomorrow’s leaders possess to lead their companies forward in this new environment?

That’s one of the questions Bernhard Kickenweiz asked when Granryd sat down with the Spencer Stuart team at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona to discuss issues facing the mobile industry. Other topics include how mobile technology could help alleviate global poverty, the role of innovative thinking in the industry and the importance of having a strong moral compass.

Spencer Stuart: The advent of cellphones was a huge paradigm shift and has dramatically changed how we live today. What will be the impact of 5G and other innovations, going forward?

Mats Granryd: All industries are currently being challenged, and in ways that go far beyond technology. For starters, generating cash isn’t simple for cellular companies, and they’re having issues creating the infrastructure for 5G without passing on the costs straight to consumers. But 5G will provide new revenue opportunities and business models, which will broaden the landscape. So that’s something we’ve seen and will continue to watch.

We believe that we are moving toward intelligent connectivity, which is one of the key themes at this year’s MWC in Barcelona. As consumers, we won’t see a big difference there; however, the possible ramifications of this change are massive. AI, big data applications, more connectivity through the internet of things and 5G — all of these changes will make this a brand new world. It’s exciting, but the pace of change is staggering.

How do modern companies have to change to keep up with the demands of innovation and the pace of change in order to support the societal changes you’d like to see?

One of the biggest issues is transparency. If you look at some of the agencies and institutions that started after World War II, such as the United Nations, the IMF and the World Bank, they were all built for a different time. The degree of transparency and inclusion will have to be different if they want to keep pace. It’s a simple equation, and it may sound harsh, but either you are part of the digital world and you have a future, or you are not and you don’t.

You’ve worked with several groups on initiatives that further the causes of inclusion, diversity and sustainability. How do you see mobile technology contributing to those causes?

We say that a connected society is a happy society, a society that thrives. Over the next several years, subscriber growth opportunities will be largely focused on connecting rural, low-income populations, and operators are working to create a range of sustainable solutions to deliver affordable connectivity to underserved communities. Mobile money helps lift people out of poverty — they become part of the financial community. It’s a way for them to produce goods, sell goods and get paid.

As for inclusion, we simply can’t leave anyone behind. Some estimates say that 200 million fewer women own mobile phones than men. That’s not right. And that’s a business opportunity, but it’s also a human right for women to be a part of the digital society, going forward. There is definitely a need to put equality on the agenda. There are fewer women in leadership roles. We need to do more to bridge the gap. Society will be more stable when it is more equal.

There is no other industry that’s better placed to help if we’re going to actually change the planet. That’s why we have a responsibility to try to bring about change and help people who need it. We are already the heart of the global economy. We should also strive to be its soul.

Given the industry’s rapid rate of transformation, as well as the importance of areas such as sustainability, what qualities do you think future leaders will need to have to lead their companies into the next decade?

We’re seeing more reliance on data, so new leaders must be fact based, able to interpret data and have a deep understanding of technology.

But those are largely table stakes. In a larger sense, it’s crucial that tomorrow’s leaders can see the bigger picture and understand how one’s work today affects what happens tomorrow.

Also, future leaders must understand that leadership is no longer as top-down as in previous years. They must be able to collaborate and build trust, as well as create an emotional connection with others.

And perhaps most importantly, they must have a solid moral compass, and it needs to be built-in and they need to profoundly believe it. It can’t just be lip service.

That makes perfect sense, but how do you evaluate for a moral compass when you’re hiring?

We’re now seeing that a company’s purpose is an important part of its mission — it’s no longer just a box you can check. It must be ingrained in the company’s DNA.

And so a leader must reflect strong moral character in everything they do. I should be able to recognize someone who should be at GSMA by how they walk in the streets, how they carry themselves and interact with others, as our values should be instilled in their every move.

Is it more important for telcom leaders to be innovators or operationally effective executors?

I think we need to be both, but the core skill set is running the shop. There is a new breed of CEOs coming up and many of them have been CFOs, which can be a mixed blessing. In my eyes, we need leaders who have soul and have the trust of others. We have to be transparent — it should be simple to get or drop our services. Regaining people’s trust will be key.

That said, we also need more visionaries — it’s about daring and trying. Sunil Mittal, the chair of Bharti Airtel, is a good operator, but he is also a visionary. Stéphane Richard, chair and CEO of Orange Group, is a visionary who is looking at providing access to mobile money not just on one network, but in a global, cross-industry context.

The ability to manage the day-to-day operations is crucial, but to truly take a company to the next level requires a leader who has a broad, unique and dynamic vision.