Shameel Joosub: “The best strategies are bottom-up not top-down”

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Shameel Joosub: “The best strategies are bottom-up not top-down”

Feb 25, 2024 | Strategy & Leadership

Among the highlights of Vodacom CEO Shameel Joosub’s career are the positions he got to occupy at such a young age. The first CEO he worked for was not even aware of how young he was when he was made managing director at age of 26. ‘He latched onto it and told everyone ‘You see how we promote youth in this company!’ Shameel says with a hearty reminiscent laugh.

‘My advice to young professionals is this; when you go into a job, they ask you to do X, don’t just do X, do X, Y and Z. You need to also bring out of the box thinking, challenge the status quo and ask questions. You need to strive for more than just doing your job, try and figure out how different pieces can fit together. This is how I progressed from to MD of Vodacom Equipment to CEO of Vodacom South Africa to CEO of Vodafone Spain to my current position of Group CEO of Vodacom.’


Shameel also celebrates what Vodacom as a company has achieved in growth in subscriber numbers as well as the launches of 3G, 4G and 5G. He is proud of the social path that the group has taken and says it touches his heart to play a role in digital inclusion, rolling out mobile money in Africa and programmes to support charity. In every country that Vodacom is, there is much to be proud of. In South Africa, the company took responsibility for the end-to-end management of the vaccine roll out.

‘The amount of people we have managed to grow who have become formidable leaders in their own right is a definite high for me. I am also pleased with the transformation I have seen in Vodacom; when I joined this company was 95% white and today, we have developed skills to the extent that it is 76% black. The executive committees comprise more than 50% black staff. I acknowledge that we have work to do on the gender scale to increase our female component from 36% to 50% but we are making progress on that front.’

It is difficult for Shameel to identify lows in his career. He reveals that in 2007, he was offered the CEO position by Vodafone India which he turned down. He often wonders if that was the right decision because it could have accelerated his career progression. ‘I ended up as Group CEO of the Vodacom Group, so I landed up in the right place but maybe I took the more scenic route to get here.  There are always things that you could have done quicker and there are always lessons to be learnt. One thing we do know now is that if something is not working, we pivot quickly and focus on something else.’

‘From a company perspective, there are things we could have done earlier like focusing on financial services in South Africa. There are changes that we should have effected such as getting the right people, structural adjustments and acquisitions. We have learnt to cut our losses as early as possible like switching off the MPESA mobile money service in South Africa which was built on the wrong platform. The reason for its success in Kenya was because it was working in a largely non-banked environment and expecting it to work in a banked society like South Africa was ambitious.’

In South Africa, the launch of the VodaPay super-app in October 2021 exceeded expectations by attracting 1.4 million downloads and 1.0 million registered users in its first three months. Shameel sees VodaPay as a precursor to MPESA’s evolution and further strengthening Vodacom’s Fintech position across the group’s footprint.

The right skills

‘The learning from the MPESA experience is this – always look to bring in the right skills when you are launching something new rather than thinking you can just deploy someone from your existing workforce to manage that product. We recently set up a company to manage our towers and the temptation was to use a good person from our team to run it. We decided that we needed to bring someone who understood tower companies who can then train up our own team members to manage them in future.’

‘To take up opportunities you need to pay the school fees, leverage that experience and build the team around that. Our style is that if we see something that is great, we create dedicated focus to embark on it. For example, with big data, we saw the trend and so we went out and source the people who understood it and let them build the team.  Three years later, the stuff that is coming out of that initiative is amazing simply because we ring fenced that investment and gave it the space and budget needed to yield results.’

‘I don’t think I am special; I walk with my feet firmly on the ground,’ says Shameel. ‘I live my life with a saying – ‘but for the grace of God, they go higher’. That kind of thinking keeps me anchored. I try and make sure things never get to my head and show respect to everyone from the person making tea to the different CEOs we have in the group. I believe in being passionate in both what you do and how you do it, galvanising teams and having a focus to achieve your goal.’

‘Being deliberate and taking painful decisions is an identifiable feature of my leadership style. This includes creation of a new product where something else needs to be sacrificed. There will be outcries from different quarters of the business with people asking why we are taking money away from say, building additional base stations. The existing business will always have demands so you need to be deliberate in innovation and thinking ahead.’

Many of Shameel’s team members are surprised by how pedantic he can be when it comes to looking at the detail. He knows when to go deep and when to step back and just guide. He is happy to give cover to teams for unimpressive results when short term pain will lead to long term gain. Making that distinction arises from his ability to strike a balance. This stems from his early career as an entrepreneur who takes risks and his training as an accountant who understands the numbers.

Battler mentality

‘The battler mentality is something I have. Failure is not an option but I also do not wallow in my own success. Yesterday’s results were yesterday’s results, you have to look at where tomorrow’s results are going to come from. My immediate focus is the integration of our Egyptian acquisition and making sure that our foray into Ethiopia is a success. We are also building up our fibre capabilities and ensuring we have rural coverage.’

One of the things Shameel has spearheaded in Vodacom is the concept of reimagining all the problems they have. For instance, they never have enough capital to do the things they want to do. They can either sit by, accept this as a limitation and watch someone else take up opportunities or find a way to have a slice of the pie. This situation is evident when it comes to rural coverage which is a problem that all telecommunications companies around the world have. Vodacom cannot live out its purpose of connecting for a better future by allowing those in the most remote parts of society live without network coverage. They have therefore sourced development funding with the promise to pay the development partners out of a shared revenue model.

‘Another example is fibre to homes and to businesses,’ continues Shameel. ‘We exist to connect people and we have to connect them whether it is above the ground, under the ground or from outer space. We have got into joint ventures which will be off balance sheet with external partners in this space. We would rather own 50% of something than own 100% of nothing.’

‘We ask ourselves how we can scale our platforms to do good including our mezzanine and financial services platforms. For instance, creating an investment culture by encouraging people to save more. The impact that we can have is illustrated by MPESA Africa where we are using the lessons and success in Kenya to roll out in multiple countries. The Kenyan government has launched a Hustler Fund to give small loans to businesses which is backed by MPESA. We have launched MPESA GO, a financial product for teens and preteens aged between 10 and 17 years old that will improve their digital money management and increase financial literacy.’

Shameel believes that strategy needs to come from the bottom up with conversations beginning from the teams. Conversations are held that will contribute to the operational strategy and inform how things should be done. There is higher level strategic part which involves the bigger picture to create a system of advantage in a market and to deliver on it. There are a multitude of different things that need to be documented to deliver success.

This article is a brief extract from the book THE CEO X FACTOR – Secrets for Success from South Africa’s Top Money Makers – available here

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