What It Takes to Be a Leader in the Telecommunications Industry

by Beverly Harvey

As vast numbers of employees became remote workers when the COVID-19 pandemic emerged, telecommunications-industry leaders were called upon to provide “ultra-reliable connectivity for at-home, work, school, and social interaction,” as a KPMG report noted. The pandemic disruption has challenged the strategic vision of top telecom leaders and turned their attention to what the report describes as “organizational resilience to capture emerging opportunities and new revenue streams.


Though they could not have anticipated the specific disruption wrought by the pandemic, Patrick Viguerie, Keith Cowan, and Brian Hindo knew when they wrote The Future of the Telecommunications Industry: A Dual Transformation in 2017 that, while disruption is inevitable, “opportunities are greater today than ever before for industry players that embrace disruption, reimagine their network services capabilities, and drive growth.” The authors recommended a customer-centric approach to these tasks.


Most diversity initiatives in the telecom industry appear to focus on the underrepresentation of women in the field. The Global Leaders Forum, for example, has launched an initiative to “drive improvements in gender diversity, both within the organizations of members, and more broadly across the industry.” Eric Cevis, who spearheads the initiative, notes that “in 95% of surveyed GLF organizations, women represent fewer than 50% of direct reports to the CEO.


Preferred Background: Education and Experience

A report from Spencer Stuart on telecom CEOs indicates that backgrounds in technology, media, or telecommunications dominate among top leaders, more than a third of them having spent their entire careers in telecom. Functional areas from which CEOs have emerged include operations and general management, finance, and to a lesser extent, strategy and business development, IT and engineering, and sales and marketing. A healthy portion of the studied CEOs had also been CEOs in their last job, while others had been senior vice presidents, executive vice presidents or regional presidents, COOs, or CFOs.


Educational backgrounds solely dedicated to telecommunications are uncommon, according to the study. Most followed an academic program focused on business administration, finance, accounting, economics, IT, or engineering. Bachelor’s degrees were universal among the studied CEOs, with about a quarter also earning an MBA or PhD, and another quarter gaining other advanced degrees.


Desirable Characteristics

 An array of hard skills, soft skills, and personal traits are keys to success in telecommunications leadership. Customer-centrism is currently seen as highly valuable for telecom leaders, especially given that customers are using telecom services in greater numbers for working and learning at home, as well as consuming online entertainment. The ability to stay on top of trends and the competitive scenario are also seen as critical. Some experts suggest that hiring leaders from outside the telecom industry will result in fresh perspectives. Blogger Syed Ali cites creativity as one of the most crucial soft skills today. The telecom section of KPMG’s web site notes that amid the disruption, those who are “agile, strategic, cost conscious, and driven by data and analytics will be best positioned to benefit.”


Additional desirable leadership characteristics include the following:

Predominant Leadership Styles in the Telecommunications Industry

A number of researchers, primarily outside the U.S. and focused on specific telecom companies, have explored leadership styles in the telecommunications industry. Transformational, transactional and laissez faire leadership styles have been mentioned as common in the telecom industry, along with lesser known styles – contingent, inspirational, and intellectual, with the intellectual style shown by research to promote employee engagement.



  • Global Leaders’ Forum: Offers GLF Community, an “ecosystem for leaders across telecoms infrastructure, platform and applications providers, as well as the technology providers that serve them.”


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