Sifiso Dabengwa may be the new chief executive officer and president of the MTN Group – Africa’s leading telecommunications company – but few people know much about the man behind the title. And that is exactly how Dabengwa wants it. He dislikes interviews and is unwilling to discuss anything personal. “I prefer it that way – it is easier to manage,” he explains.
He is fiercely private and finds talking about himself uncomfortable, and being photographed disconcerting. He mostly refers to himself as ‘one’ rather than ‘me’, and speaks very softly. From the short time we spent together, my sense was he would rather have stood naked in the freezing cold than answer my questions while being photographed. He must have thought a profile in WBS Journal was worthwhile...
Dabengwa, 52, was appointed to his position in December 2010 after 11 years with MTN. He hails from Zimbabwe and has a degree in electrical engineering from the University of Zimbabwe and an MBA from Wits Business School. As a youngster, he had no career aspirations, other than “to be an engineer”. And when he completed his engineering degree, he did a couple of years as a trainee on British Rail. After that, he went to work on Zimbabwe Railways, before joining a consulting engineering firm based in Pretoria, where he worked on projects in Botswana, Swaziland and the former Bophuthatswana.
“In 1990, I decided I needed to do an MBA, so I gave up working to do it full time,” he says. He chose to do it at WBS because “it made sense for family reasons”. He insists that doing his MBA was “very demanding but not that difficult, because if you are willing to meet the demands, nothing is impossible”. Was it life-changing, though? “In the sense that it was unique, because it created new opportunities for changing my career.” It was while on this course he met a man who became – and remains – his best friend.
Professor Joel Stern lecturing on corporate finance stood out for Dabengwa because, he says, “what we talked about then, I deal with now in terms of business performance, mergers and acquisitions, among other things”. But the person who influenced him the most was Nick Binedell, then director of WBS. “We have a great
relationship and I still work with him.”
Dabengwa believes education is fundamental to anyone’s career and life. “It is a crucial building block in one’s life,” he says. He joined Eskom on completing his MBA and left the parastatal as executive director of distribution to join MTN in 1999 as managing director of South African operations. He finds the telecommunication industry fascinating.
“This is a capital-intensive, technology-based business mixed with retail, and one has to manage across the two, which is quite unusual,” he says. “This industry is
young and has a lot of opportunities and challenges, from a penetration of mobile telephony perspective to being highly technological and continuously changing. It is an integral part of facilitating the Internet today... It certainly keeps one on one’s toes.”
As this is his first year leading this massive telecoms company, he is clear: “The role of leadership is fundamentally to deliver results, and it is how you get to that, that counts.” He also acknowledges that he needs to surround himself with quality leaders, dispersed through the business. When asked if he plans to make changes, he smiles for the first time during the interview and says: “Yes, of course, otherwise why get the job?”
Dabengwa explains this by using an analogy. “If we both look at a teapot, we see different things. So it is when running a company. It is important for a company to be refreshed with new leadership and management to see things differently and make necessary changes.”
While he was not willing to divulge what changes he intends making, he says: “There are always things that need changing, and the important thing is to focus on priorities. One needs to set priorities and strategic objectives and execute them. If one make mistakes, it is essential to recognise it and take corrective action.”
He explains that he inherited his leadership team but as he implements new strategies, he will make both structural and staff changes. “For example, developing
infrastructure was important until now, so people with those skills were essential, but it is not so important any more. Instead, people with skills around the Internet
While Dabengwa’s workday might start at 7.30am and end at 6.30pm when he leaves the office, he never stops working. “It can’t be switched off. When one goes home, that is when one does one’s work-related reading and preparation for the next day.” When he has time out, he says, he mostly reads... business books and articles. At least 50% of his time, Dabengwa is travelling and working at MTN offices in other countries.
He has clearly reached a pinnacle in his career – I mean, where does one go after running this international giant? “Retirement,” he says almost in a whisper, before smiling broadly and admitting that, at 52, with his propensity for work, he was unlikely to do that anytime soon. “There is always a lot one can do, whether it is within or outside the company,” he says. “One sees a situation and you do what you can, carrying on for as long as you are capable.”
As for a 10-year plan, he says: “I have a number of ideas but nothing fixed. Right now, I am concentrating 100% on what I am doing.” As a role model, his advice to youngsters wanting to go into business is to make their starting point a quality education. “Strive to get into a good institution. The key issue is the quality of the people teaching you. They must be able to provide you with much more than just the tools to pass your exams. They need to be able to provide you with the tools that give you a better chance for a successful career.”
Dabengwa believes it is essential to get any good degree with a numeric component. This, he says, gives you the basics and discipline of working to deadlines and being graded. “A person at 18 or 19 does not know what they want to do, so they need to get that degree and some work experience and then they will find out what they want. “They also need to be committed to what they are doing, and prepared to work really hard. Like in sport, in the past, it might have been possible to get away with practising three days a week but, today, you can’t take time off because the standards keep getting higher. So, to do well, you need to put in the hours. There is no room for being average – it won’t get you anywhere.”
Dabengwa uses sport analogies to illustrate his business beliefs, and admits to being a sports lover. “I always play sport – squash, tennis and soccer – but not
seriously. I am a believer in keeping fit and maintaining a lifestyle that includes fitness.” In his criteria for hiring, he comes back to sport. “If a football player has not scored goals in years, would you hire him to score goals for you? Then you need to decide whether, culturally, they will fit into the environment and the team. Will they work the way the team works and find the opportunities in this environment? At the end of the day, it is a judgement call. If one makes a mistake, it is
soon evident and one needs to correct it quickly.”
And much like the person hired to score the goals, the continent is watching to see Dabengwa’s skills and abilities on this telecommunications sports field.
Sifiso Dabengwa is group CEO of MTN and serves as the company's vice-president of the South and East Africa region. He previously served as CEO of the Nigerian business, where he is now director, after a stint as MD of MTN SA.
Before joining the telecom company in 1999, Dabengwa headed Eskom's distribution division, where he controlled a multibillion-rand budget in a division employing 17 000 people and generating revenues of more than R20bn/year.
Dabengwa is the former chairman of the Dawn Suite Hotel Group. He previously served on the boards of Peermont Global and Impala Platinum Holdings.
Dabengwa is an electrical engineer by training. He obtained his junior degree in engineering from the University of Zimbabwe, and has a Wits MBA.
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