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Just du it

Just du it

Tolga Aykut discusses climbing the corporate ladder with du chief commercial officer Fahad Al Hassawi

So, you want to make a lot of money, love what you do, be respected and run the show? Join the club. If you are like most people these days, you have realised that your education has not been the golden ticket to wealth, health and happiness. You have realised that climbing the ladder to success is a misnomer, that in reality you are climbing, crawling, rising and falling and in some cases clinging-on for dear life. So, can you plan your success? Or do intangibles such as luck control too much of your professional fate?

Naturally, if I had the answers to these questions you would be reading this in hardback. One truth is self-evident, however, there is simply no escaping hard work and nor should there be. But how do you ensure your hard graft is moving you in the right direction? My modus operandi is simple. If I am going to climb a mountain and I want to get to the top in one piece, I will speak to someone who has already climbed it. If I want to climb to the top of corporate, then, well you guessed it.

Meet Fahad Al Hassawi, at 41 years of age he is near the top rung of the du telecom ladder. His stellar eight-year rise seems to be a product of planning, hard work and talent. But is there more to his story? I want to discover how he achieved his goals with seemingly few setbacks and, perhaps more importantly, how he can help you to do the same.

You started work at du as the head of HR, how did you get this role and what separated you from the other candidates?

I think it was a combination of things. The timing was right, my age, my experience (having worked with Emirates Airlines) and I really feel that my personality played a key role.

Your climb to the top has been fast by any standard. How were you able to achieve this?

I’m a goal setter by nature, so I plan my objectives clearly and I always try to over deliver. I think that my superiors saw this early on. They could see my commitment. The fact that I was willing to put in the long hours and, most importantly, that I didn’t shy away from a challenge. I also think that my approach to problem solving has been integral to my success at du.

Interesting, can you describe your problem solving process?

It is essential to assess a problem on both a micro and a macro scale, not allowing yourself to be restricted by the usual orthodox methods of problem solving. You must be able to think through a problem and arrive at your own answer, even if that answer breaks from the norm. When I arrive at a decision, my team becomes the litmus test.

Litmus test, how so?

My team is a key component of my problem solving routine. Like a court of law, my analysis must stand up to the scrutiny of my team. I must be able to decisively defend my analysis and my conclusion. Of course, there is not always sufficient time to consider a problem in such depth. I make a point, however, that if the time horizon permits, I take as long as is necessary to draw my conclusions.

Your team is clearly critical, what is your management style?

It is essential to understand what drives and motivates each member of your team and to adapt your leadership style accordingly. This requires you to know each individual on a personal level. Connecting in this way allows me to better understand how to communicate with them. They in turn understand how best to communicate with me. When everyone understands what is expected of him or her objectives are met.

Having spoken with you in the past I am fully aware that this organisation means a great deal to you. How do you intend to capture market share against a company (Etisalat) with such deep pockets and such a strong market presence?

When you assess the situation and break it down to its fundamental components, there are only two variables that we can directly control: how we innovate and how we execute. We are the smaller company; we have fewer resources at our disposal and we were the second mover in the market. It is my belief, however, that market share should not be gained by undercutting your competitor at every turn. Rather, I believe that market share should be gained by outperforming the competition through better products and better customer service. Execution is central to achieving those aims. It’s all about improving the customer’s experience.

You mention the differences in resources, what are your thoughts on Etisalat’s deployment of marketing funds? They are after all one of the biggest spenders on advertising of any UAE company.

My personal opinions on their advertising expenditure are not really relevant. In my position I must consider how best to budget our resources. In view of that I personally would, and do, opt to spend those sort of sums [Etisalat’s advertising budget] on giving back to the customer. Our advertising strategy is different, we want to make you think, we want to make you smile and we want to inform you. What we don’t want to do is spend recklessly just to get a message out there. We’d rather utilise those funds by rewarding the customer.

I’d like to turn your attention now to the next crop of up-and-coming executives looking to join du, what advice would you offer them?

Being smart is not enough. You must compliment your intellect with your personality. We are most definitely a team operation and as such we don’t function as well with individuals who would rather operate as silos. I personally look for unorthodox thinkers, individuals who can simultaneously be pragmatic yet think outside of the box. They must have the capacity to follow their own beliefs, but still operate within the parameters of a team.

Some of the characteristics you mention are somewhat intangible and don’t necessarily translate well through a CV. How much weight do you place on a CV or reference?

A candidate’s CV and a solid reference gets them through the door. Once they are in the interview, their credentials are of little consequence. I want to measure the individual, assess their character and how they think.

Intriguing. But I’m sure our readers will be interested to know the type of CV that will get them through the door; can you shed any light on this?

I’m looking for a logical story that a candidate can defend. If you took a year out, why did you do it, how has it contributed to your professional development? If you chose to work in a different sector, why was this? I want candidates who have set goals and been able to see them through. If a candidate comes with a mixed background I want to understand why. If they can’t justify their own actions, how can I trust them to help take du forwards?

There seems to be two vital, yet different, modes of thinking that you’re looking for, logical thinking and innovative or creative thinking. Can you talk a little about that?

Logical thinking requires the ability to see all the variables at play, how they interact and what the potential outcomes will be. Being innovative, on the other hand, is far harder to describe. It requires lateral thinking skills. I can’t tell you how to achieve that, I can only tell you my approach, which is to look at a problem from as many vantage points as possible. Remembering that the central aim is to create a better user experience for the customer, I try to align myself with someone unfamiliar with our products and services and take it from there.

So a candidate who is both creative and logical will score well with you?

Certainly, but neither skill matters much if the candidate doesn’t possess the right character. I have to be able to trust my team to operate as a cohesive unit. I’m interested in ‘I to the we’, not ‘I to the me’.

Finally, I’d like to ask you about your negotiation techniques. The art of negotiation is a vital tool at any stage of one’s professional career and can make or break a deal. Is there a particular format or strategy you employ?

In my experience a lot of people talk themselves into a corner. My aim is to listen as much as possible. I understand from the beginning that neither side will walk away with everything. Both sides will have to make concessions. The important thing to know is what you’re willing to sacrifice and what you’re not. When you listen, you learn what matters most to your opponent and that becomes the key to leveraging the deal.

Tolga James Aykut is a neuroscience expert with an interest in behavioural economics. He works as a consultant and fundraiser for small and medium-sized enterprises in Dubai.

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