Written by
Karam Filfilan

Published
05 Jun 2017

CEO Khaled Biyari: Putting employees first at Saudi Telecom

05 Jun 2017 • by Karam Filfilan

Saudi Telecom has increased engagement by 22 points in three years by putting people first, says CEO Dr Khaled Biyari.

With annual revenue of $12.2bn, Saudi Telecom Group (STC) is the largest telecommunications group in the Middle East and Africa, by market capitalisation. Formerly senior vice president for technology and operations, Dr Khaled Biyari was made CEO in April 2015, with a mandate to position STC at the forefront of Saudi Arabia’s ambitious national digitisation programme.

Supporting plans to launch 5G services “in a couple of years” and the desire to expand internationally, STC has embarked on a transformation programme that puts its 20,000 employees at the heart of the business. Its Employee First programme has seen STC’s organisational health ranking increase by an unprecedented 22 points in three years, and STC has become the only Saudi company to feature in Brand Finance’s global 500 most valuable brands.

For Biyari, the aim of Employee First is simple. STC’s employees are the main point of contact for customers interacting with the business. By giving priority to, and working with, employees, management is able to implement values that allow its workforce to put customers first, improving customer satisfaction and employee engagement.

Biyari is keen to emphasise that Employee First isn’t about increasing benefits, but empowering employees to create an environment where accountability, transparency and values create a unique culture, positioning STC as one of the Middle East’s most forward-thinking organisations.

Why are your people so important?

People are everything to us, whether employees, partners or customers. It is people who demand our services, and who drive, develop and consume our technology. Without people, we do not have a market.

We collaborate with national and regional government and engage in special assignments, such as supporting our armed forces and making a commitment to Hajj pilgrims in Mecca and Medina each year.

This cycle of need, fulfilment and recognition provides a platform for developing harmony between our communities and our services. We need people to help us serve others’ needs.

What is Saudi Telecom's people strategy?

It depends on a number of key initiatives. The first is a strong push to demonstrate our value of 'care for employees'. We realise customer experience depends on how well we care for employees, so our values position our employees at the top, alongside our customers.

We are working on major programmes to enhance the skills and career opportunities of employees. We recently launched an internal career portal listing all vacancies, in real time, and a high-potentials programme to aid succession planning.

What challenges does Saudi Telecom currently face?

Moving from a traditional government ministry to becoming a leading telecommunications company requires a series of transformations.

We are competing in a sector disrupted by constant innovation, so our ability to manage and integrate relationships with technology partners is vital. We must focus on developing our products, services and ourselves by investing in our employees first. Employees and managers are constantly challenged to upgrade their skills and operations.

What prompted Employee First?

We chose to focus on customer experience as our key differentiator, using the best technology and talents to upgrade customer experience. This led to a focus on developing employees to take ownership and deliver our promise to clients and customers.

Employees drive customer experience. It was clear that prioritising employees was an essential step towards our goals of serving our customers and our business. We quickly moved to providing recognition and rewards for excellence in customer experience.

How does it influence Saudi Telecom's culture?

Another major people project is aligning our organisational culture with our company values. Our HR and culture-change teams have transformed the commitment to, and understanding of, our company values, as evidenced by the latest McKinsey Organisational Health Index results which show we have made a 22-point jump in three years, a first for any company since the index was introduced 10 years ago.

For 2016, we are developing recognition and rewards initiatives including an annual bonus scheme on a par with international benchmarks, and career development opportunities using recently implemented technology, to ensure access for everyone.

Making these internal changes enables us to deliver on our growing brand promise. We believe unlocking the potential of our people gives them an opportunity to express pride in themselves and their work with STC.

What's your advice for other leaders and where will Saudi Telecom be in five years?

I believe brand and culture are closely connected. For a brand to be trusted, the internal culture of the organisation must be true.

Our industry is seeing tremendous innovation, so we have had to value and nurture this as part of our own culture. The brand needs to reflect the organisation, not just the products. Companies need to expose themselves to the outside world and to criticism, to test and drive their culture and reflect the brand they aspire to. Be brave and open.

I see STC being a major partner in the digital economy of Saudi Arabia. People will be attracted by our open, extrovert culture. We will not just be at the centre of the digital transformation of our society, we will be leading it.

What is the most important lesson you've learned?

It is a truism to say people are your greatest asset, but after years of experience, and my share of mistakes, I assure you that good people are the difference between business being exciting, energising and fun, and a nightmare. 

You cannot cut corners when it comes to gaining, developing and retaining great people.

What business trends do you see for the Middle East?

Our 'youngest population on Earth' demographic drives incredible growth in demand for digital services. The macroeconomic trend of lower oil revenues drives the need to diversify our economies into a broader set of knowledge-based industries.

However, I think one of the biggest trends will be the rise of small and medium businesses in the region. These are very agile and will drive growth in our dynamic world.