out with qt

out with qt

“Being two different people

“When I say this is what I did for the last 10 years and this is what I should do for the next 10, I should retire! Anyone who is trying to protect an old (business) model will lose out.”

at work and home is schizophrenic”


t is refreshing to walk into a ‘corporate’ setup first thing on a Sunday morning and see an environment that screams ‘business’ without the predictable stuffiness. An open office, hot-desking (no fixed work stations), brilliant splashes of reds all over, and staff who are dressed weather-appropriate (light jackets and hardly any neckties in sight), gives an instant reprieve from the sweltering heat outside. At the in-house cafe, Vodafone-Qatar CEO Grahame Maher sits down for a chat with Managing Editor Vani Saraswathi. Over a cuppa, he speaks about business disasters and successes, the journey from baking to mobile telephony, dream rides and his family. As refreshing as the business environment, is the man who runs the show. His personal and professional mantras seem to work in sync, and answers about one could just as well hold true for the other.

fice products. I applied for it, because I had an expense account and a company car with which I could drive all around Australia. I lied about my age by the way, but I got the job... Then I went back to university and studied Marketing, Sales and Finance. I was kind of working out what I really wanted to do. And what I really wanted to do was run my own business. I set up my own business, and I ended up running six or seven businesses over 10-15 years.

People pick something to study, but underneath that there is a natural style of the person that comes out. To my daughters my advice is, “Get a degree, and then see what happens.” You don’t have to get stuck on the fact that because you did a HR or an IT degree you have to work in HR or IT. In business, particularly in a lot of the smaller countries, you need an understanding of everything, actually.

What kind of businesses?

A couple in office products, faxes, PABX... that’s where I had my first experience with mobiles. British Telecom had introduced them in Australia. Around Aus$7,000 – about QR20,000 per phone! Couple of those businesses were disasters, couple were successes. I started the first Mobile Virtual Network Operators in Australia.

How easy has it been for you to come from Australia – where irreverence rules, to here, where the environment is rather formal?

Your career path has meandered a long way from baking... you didn’t see a career in that? No temptation when you see an oven now?

No, no! When I look at the bakery now, I am only looking at buying something. I was at school, trying to work out what to do next, and I couldn’t afford university. I was working at the weekends in a bakery to fund my motorbike racing habits. My school’s advice was, firstly you cannot afford to go to university; and secondly, you are not smart enough to go to university; take a baking job, get a trade. When we were at school, living in the countryside, getting a trade was important. So I did that, it was fun for a while, but I didn’t like it much. Then I got into a sales job, selling of118 Qatar Today

You took your time choosing your career path. You think there’s more pressure on the youth now to make a choice quickly?

It’s tough. I have two daughters 25 and 22 years of age. Watching them is difficult. They say, “but dad, you did this,” and I go, “God no, don’t do what I did”. What I’ve observed in business is that lots of people doing engineering end up working in something completely different. We sometimes think what we study is what we should do; whereas I think, just studying is important to get a grounding. I think general-ism is better than specialism. You need specialists, but it’s good you have a generalist, who has also got a specialty.

I came here via Japan – hierarchical and formal; Sweden – egalitarian, but in a personal sense very formal, you had to hold the cup the right way and all that; and Czech Republic – very formal, very old European, their language has formal, informal, real formal, minor formal, semi-formal. I think I am in a better shape to be in different cultures than I might have been 10 years ago when I hadn’t had those other experiences. And I think some of the fascinating things about the Arab world is the informality. When you sit in the majlis there is physical informality – I kiss men now! The discussion in the majlis is where decisions are made – and that’s very informal. It’s about opinions, views and discussions, rather than the American style where it’s legal, legal, legal and tough negotiations. Here there’s formality in religion. Then there is some of the cultural formality, and the family structure too is really nice. Some of these things is what I think the West has lost. Europe is better than America. In each country I spend time in,
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balance. I am a big fan of the guy who wrote The Seven Day Weekend, Ricardo Semler, who says in his book, ‘why is it ok to send emails on a Sunday, but not ok to go to the park with your kids on a Tuesday.’ He says work-life balance is doing what you like, when you like. If that means working all weekend and going to the park on a weekday, it’s ok, what’s the difference? I would advocate for a balance the person feels comfortable with, and allows them to be themselves. Instead of being someone at work, and someone else at home, which I think is difficult. If I act differently in the two places, I am schizophrenic. And the Western World drives schizophrenia, frankly. That’s why so many people have heart attacks and break down. If they are a tough, demanding b****** at work, and go home and are nice to their kids – it’s weird. If you can just be human, it’s good... that’s my opinion.

Maher turned his entrepreneurial skills to developing and launching one of the first Mobile Virtual Network Operators (MVNO) in Australia. He and his business partner sold the company to Vodafone in 1996. It wasn’t long before he was leading the team in Vodafone New Zealand. He has travelled on a Vodafone passport, to Australia, Sweden, Czech Republic, and now Qatar. These days when he is not working, he prefers to hit the road with his feet rather than on his motorbike; he loves long distance running. He also loves exploring the world with his wife Jenny and daughters Jessica and Kate. I leave better. we have with us our stuff, is home. We’ve moved a lot. We sit outside by the pool in the West Bay Lagoon, it’s like a holiday every weekend – it’s a good life. We are very comfortable here. However, the difference for all countries that are going through a growth period of lots of expats is that it doesn’t have that feeling of home, as everything is transient. It feels like a bit of Hong Kong and Singapore 20 years ago. It’s easy as an expat to come in. The big challenge going forward is how to make the transition from a country that is growing rapidly with a lot of international expats, to people becoming ‘Qataris’. People have been here for 20-30 years, and are still not ‘Qatari’. It’s the same in Australia, where there was nobody there 200 years ago, but all kinds of nationalities went there, and they are now locals. It’s a difficult challenge for Qatar as to how to do that without losing its local identity, without losing control of the core assets of their country; because Qataris are a minority. It’s a long answer to ‘does it feel like home?’; for the country, when they get that right, when people actually make it home, then it will be stronger. But I’m having a ball and enjoying it.

What do you hope to leave behind?

I guess the main thing I would like to think is that, we are helping Qatar in its evolution and journey to where the country wants to go. And to have some positive impact with what I’ve done. What I will leave behind, and it’s tough every time I leave a country, is a bunch of new friends. Facebook is really good for that, to be able to stay in touch. Important to keep that alive.

And there are those who say technology erodes relationships...

I disagree. Things like Facebook are probably recreating relationships that disappeared... I think technology enables relationships. People in India, China and Africa are using mobiles, and if that didn’t exist, they would be limited in who they kept in touch with. The interesting thing about emails is how senior citizens are using it to keeping in touch with their family that has moved away. If people think it replaces face-to-face interaction, sitting down in the majlis and talking, that’s where I think they are wrong. It doesn’t have to. When I sit in the majlis here, everyone is on their mobile phone anyway! I am like ‘talk to me’... Jokes aside, I think it enhances relationships. And you have the choice of pressing the red button and switching off. People are addicted to the Blackberry, but it’s not Blackberry’s fault, YOU have the addiction.

What is the toughest decision you have had to make, in your career?

Probably when I said ‘yes’ to go to Sweden to run the business. My daughter was in her last year of high school, and my wife was going to stay in Australia for that year. I was living alone, for eight months, on the other end of the world. I wouldn’t do it again. For anybody.

Any other regrets you would like to share?

Career women are often asked about work-life balance. You think we need to address this to men more frequently?

Does Qatar feel like home now?

I’ve been here for 18 months. My wife, Jenny, and I say where we both are, where
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Work-life balance is a personal thing. When I judge if someone is having a work-life balance, it should not be ME that’s asking that. It should be US as an organisation saying we believe in that balance. But if someone wants to work all the time, that may be their work-life

Heaps. How long have you got?! I make lots of mistakes and i’m happy to continue to try and make lots more. I regret some of them, but not to an extent that I worry about them. It’s more like how do I fix that. When my wife and I were living in New Zealand, my older daughter was in her last year at school and was about to start university. We were moving to Australia, and she wanted to stay and finish school. We agreed. There are times, when we wonder if it would have been better for her to come with us. Do I regret it? No. But we do talk about it.

out with qt

out with qt

of Men...

Maher recommends Firms of Endearment: How World-Class Companies Profit from Passion and Purpose by Rajendra S. Sisodia (A book that hasn’t received the publicity it deserves) Jonathan Livingstone Seagull by Richard Bach (A classic first gifted by my father. I have both the original and several other copies) The Innovator’s Dilemma: The Revolutionary Book that Will Change the Way You Do Business by Clayton M. Christensen Good to Great by Jim Collins The Seven-day Weekend: A Better Way to Work in the 21st Century by Ricardo Semler Maverick!: The Success Story Behind the World’s Most Unusual Workplace by Ricardo Semler (A very interestingly written book)

How has the regulation process been in Qatar?

Jack Welch or Warren Buffett? Jack Welch. I admire them both. Buffett is a fantastic investor. Welch is an operator, therefore runs businesses. I understand operators, rather than investors. I deal with both, but I am an operator. Who inspires you? Nelson Mandela. Business-wise? Ingvar Kamprad, the owner of Ikea. I was lucky enough to spend time with him when I was in Sweden. An amazing man.

...& wheels
Owned A Honda 600 (I used to race motocross with sidecars. A crazy Australian sport). As a brand The Harley Davidson (One of my role models as a brand is the HD. What they do in terms of branding is fantastic. Last year I was at the HD museum, and it was a fascinating experience. But I don’t like their bikes.) As a ride Ducati. My favourite ride bike. My wife

Dr Hessa Al Jaber, Secretary General, ictQatar and the regulatory process here have done a really good job, in a very short time. The license process started just three years ago, and we are already in operation. I think that’s impressive. This was more planned and thought out, than it was in Eastern Europe after communism. That was crazy. From being controlled in a communist environment to being regulated, and all sorts of corruption issues. That I haven’t experienced here and it’s a significant difference. There are days with the government here, when it’s ‘Inshallah, Inshallah, Inshallah’, and it’s slow. But it is honest, trying to do the right thing, and actually making pretty quick progress. Some people expect it to be more mature than it is, it’s only a couple of years old. There’s a lot to learn now. There are two competitors actually in the market, there will be test cases... we will see how it works. People ask if it’s really a regulators’ rule. My view is: It’s absolutely a regulators’ rule. And the government is absolutely adamant on real competition and evolution of the market.

“I think some of the fascinating things about the Arab world is the informality. When you sit in the majlis there is physical informality – I kiss men now.”

How quickly should mobile telephony innovate to keep pace with online developments? Is it keeping pace or merely jumping onto the bandwagon?
says, if I get one of that I would kill myself. I would like to believe I can still race, but I am too old!

I should retire! First, in this industry, the window is two and three, not 10 years; and secondly, what we will be doing in the next three years is not what we are doing now. Anyone who is trying to protect an old (business) model will lose out. How long can you survive on an old business model? I don’t know... There is a great book called The Innovator’s Dilemma and it talks about how industries change, how complete industries disappeared. They used to have the 8” disk, and everyone said the 51/2” floppy would never replace that. Soon as it got cheap enough, the people who made the first went broke; then the 3” disk got the price-quality mix right, and they won. Now these guys don’t exist anymore because we have USB sticks. Within 20 years, four companies went broke, because they held on to their old technologies. Same will happen in telecommunications.

scious of that. Therefore I think there is a role for government censoring processes, also.

What about censoring technology?

You can’t censor technology. It’s impossible. Remember when sharing songs on the internet was illegal? Now Apple is making a lot of money out of it. They put a business model around it, put the rules right... they are now using the regulation of the music industry. All they did was take something that was illegal and make it legal. It’s very clever. Looking for the next business model? Look at something that’s illegal, make it legal, and you make a lot of money.

Is there a pattern to communication that overrides other cultural differences?

So is censorship, in all its facets, ‘holding on’ to the old model?

iPhone or Blackberry? Blackberry. But it’s because of corporate email use. If not for that, I like some of the other smart phones, like the iPhone, that have nice features like picture storage etc.

Communication is a key human requirement. Whether it’s fixed, mobile or internet, from a customer’s perspective it’s just communications. We will continue to see things change as fast, or faster than before. But I think our industry struggles when the business model changes. It used to be just fixed telephony; then mobiles took over fixed line almost completely, then the internet, and things like Facebook... all devices of communication. What’s critical for us is how we navigate all this. At times, I worry about is when we think we know the answer. When I say, this is what I did for the last 10 years and this is what I should do for the next 10,

Wow, that’s a big question. No, I think censorship has its place. But censorship has a place when people take responsibility for their own censorship. So controls, which is the debate around China, is where I see censorship getting between politics, religion and stuff, and trying to force things. If I am a practising Muslim and I want to be able to see content related to that, I should be able to do that. Or something else of that nature. And then responsibilities as a parent – I feel parental guidance is important. I think understanding the political and cultural environment, and understanding the country is really important; we are working in the Middle East in a Muslim country, and have to be aware and con-

If you look at it as a Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, we all need to eat, breathe, love, and we all need to communicate. So I think communication is at the basic level of Maslow’s Hierarchy. Then what we see is things like mobiles are growing faster in the emerging world than in the mature world. Many of the people in China make their first phone call on a mobile, same in India and Africa... they don’t even know what a fixed line is. Because it was never built in the rural parts. Then you have SMS. People were saying it would never work. How wrong was that? Messaging requirements that allow you to communicate without speaking, but is personal That’s email, SMS, IMs, Twitter. These are just basic needs. It doesn’t matter what language it is, it doesn’t matter what culture it is.

Branding is not advertising. When I think about branding, I am thinking about EVERYTHING we do. Be it having a chat with you, through to our ads, our customers, what we do in the shops. Companies get it wrong when they think advertising is branding, and they can do what they like. It’s like saying ‘trust us, trust us, trust us’ and then putting your customers off. A company is just like an individual. If I say ‘you can trust me’, then take your recorder away, you are not going to. Behaviours that companies have will reinforce their brands or their image. Some companies get it exactly right, like a Harley Davidson, like an Ikea – they deliver what they promise. But when they get it wrong, they admit it. Most companies would say “how can we spin this to make it sound better.” Just tell the truth, “We screwed up, we got it wrong, I am sorry.” So many companies don’t do that. Ones that do that, generally build stronger relationships.

innovative branding. What’s your take on brands that don’t deliver, and great products that fail to brand itself?

Closing thoughts?

Your company is known for its

When I was first asked by my Chairman to come to Qatar, I said, “Where is that?” And then I said, “No way”. Now I am glad I listened to one of my mentors who said, “This would be a good thing for you to do, you will learn a lot of different stuff, and it will be a great experience.” He was right. I’ve learned a lot, and continue to do so. It is a fascinating experience of a different culture, a different religion, with a fascinating history and an amazing future it is trying to build. Opportunities like this don’t happen very often. So it’s quite special
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