Kyle Whitehill: A Compelling, Heart-Led Leader Building Vastly Successful Telecom Companies

The 10 Most Innovative CEOs to Watch in 2023

Kyle Whitehill, Chief Executive Officer of Avanti Communications, is at his best when his squad is performing well. An outstanding leader and global telecoms executive, he is motivated by a variety of viewpoints, open discussion and a shared love of rivalry.

These are the qualities which helped him develop successful teams and businesses over nearly three decades of expertise, in both established and developing countries in the Middle East, Europe, Asia and Africa.

The decision to join the telecom industry.

So why would someone who was very much into consumer and FMCG, had worked in PepsiCo’s soft drinks sector as general manager, and spent his early career working for fast-moving consumer goods companies like L’Oreal, Diagio and Guinness, end up joining the telecom industry?

Two things, in particular, attracted Kyle to telecom. The first was that he’d had a boss for his entire career, and this was the first time he was the CEO reporting to the board. So, not having a day-to-day boss to align and collaborate with, was a very attractive proposition.

The second was that Kyle had lived and worked in India, Ghana and South Africa, where he’d seen a whole different world than the small bubble he came from. He knew that if he wanted to indulge his passion for connecting the unconnected, he had to go in a slightly different direction, and it had to be a different part of telecom. His view was that satellite technology was going to be the telecom product which actually made a difference.

Kyle recalls that, when he was in Budapest as Vice President of PepsiCo Central Europe and looked after Hungary, Poland, Czech and Slovak, he loved everything about it, the industry, Pepsi the brand and the marketing.

Then, he got a call from a headhunter in London and was torn, because he really enjoyed Pepsi. So, he sat down with Jim Rogers, a senior colleague in Pepsi, whose judgment he trusted and told him about his dilemma.

Jim advised him, “Kyle, if you were my son, this is the advice I would give you. Pepsi is a soft drink, which is made up of water and some secret ingredients, and a lot of marketing and a lot of pizzazz. Vodafone is going to be part of an industry that will completely change the world, how the world behaves, how the world communicates. If I were you, I would go and join the industry that’s going to completely change the world.”

Kyle notes that Jim was absolutely right, because he joined Vodafone, changed his focus to delivering connectivity to customers and 22 years later on, communications has changed the world for the better.

Kyle held a number of senior leadership positions at the Vodafone Group for 16 years, including CEO of Vodafone Ghana from 2010 to 2013, CEO of Vodafone Qatar from 2013 to 2016, Chairman of Vodafone India PTY from 2008 to 2010, Director of the Enterprise Business Unit and board member for Vodafone UK from 2004 to 2008 and Sales Director and Strategic Relationships Director for Vodafone UK between 2001 and 2004.

His accomplishments as CEO of Vodafone Qatar included the successful rollout of the nation’s fastest 4G+ network, expansion of the company’s subscriber base and recognition as a top employer in one of the world’s most hyperconnected regions.

Adapting to cultural differences in leadership

Kyle notes that the most visible challenge he faced after joining Avanti was that for his whole career he had worked for large international companies. When he walked into a room, he worked for the biggest company in the room. Now suddenly, he represented the smallest company walking into the room.

So, his first personal challenge was the need to park his ego for this job and try and figure out what he needed to do differently, how to lead differently, how to interact with people differently and how to get the most out of scarce resources.

The second challenge was that he’d inherited a great network, but a completely flawed strategy, that had been built around the idea that they were going to connect direct into African countries. Kyle points out that anybody who had spent any time in Africa knows that’s not how it’s going to work. So, they had to do a massive pivot on the new strategy to try and monetize the capability that they had quickly.

Hailing from Scotland, one of the most parochial countries in the world, with a very strong history, culture and behaviors, Kyle also had to learn how to deal with cultural differences, especially when, in 2007, his boss asked him to go to India for six months.

Vodafone had just bought a company in India and needed someone to be Chief Operating Officer for six months, to stabilize it, and make it more like Vodafone. So, Kyle went in good faith, never having been to India before, and with no idea what he would encounter.

“I’ve said, many times, that your life truly changes when you land at Mumbai International airport. Your life is never quite the same again, because you’ve never seen anything like landing in Mumbai,” he proclaims.

To illuminate his point, Kyle narrates a story from when he had been in India for three weeks. His boss had organized a three-day management development activity in Hyderabad, at an Indian business school, for 35 of them.

“I went down for the Vodafone dinner at 8 p.m. and I was the only person there. I sat there on my own till 9 pm, and nobody else had turned up. The first of my colleagues came down at 9:15 and told me that nothing is going to happen till 10:00. So, I forced them to serve dinner early, and I was in bed by 11:00,” he recounts.

But then, Kyle was told that they were really looking forward to spending time socially with him. So, he reorganized the karaoke and singing and dancing.

“I realize you don’t want to be a slave to the culture, but you want to respect the culture, and for three years in India, I danced with men, and sang karaoke, and just had a completely different experience. So, you turn up in the country, look at the culture, and then just do the thing that makes you effective with people,” he observes.

Kyle’s experience, from the mid-eighties to 2007, was in Europe, but the rest of time he was a UK executive, where everything is very head-focused and logical, and people want to be inspired, but also want realism, and to know how the company is doing.

However, in India, what people want to hear is, “we’ll be number one.” So, when they launched the new telecom service in Bihar, they were the 14th mobile operator, but if Kyle didn’t shout out, “we’re going to be number one,” the people wouldn’t have been cheering and clapping.

“So, when it comes to team, you’re treating each country very differently, based on the prevailing media culture. In India, it’s a directive culture, and I was really shocked by that. In India, a small number of senior people decide everything, and then everybody else executes,” Kyle remarks. “You had to get people collaborative with each other. You had to get people liking each other in a team environment. You had to get people to feel good about what they were doing every day. You’re changing your leadership style every single time.”

Kyle observes that his definition of success and leadership has also changed over the years, from talking about results to encompassing a much broader canvas that includes customers, results, people, and the wider world.

“The definition of success for me now, is to be leading a company and a set of people who are customer focused. I want to do the right thing for the company. You want to be a leader who’s inspiring and maximizing the potential in people. We as leaders, have a responsibility to make sure our company is leaving a good footprint on the rest of the world. And there are many different ways to do that,” he declares.

Kyle shares a story about Unilever posting a job advert for a marketing manager, but instead of the salary or benefits, it spoke about what Unilever stood for and what they were doing in the world, and they ended up with four times as many applicants.

“We were fascinated by that, and that’s our younger generation, very responsible for its footprint in the world, because it’s hard as one person to make a change, but all know that companies can make significant changes,” he notes.

Working and living in India is like whitewater rafting.

Kyle points out that when you come from a highly structured European environment, it’s impossible for you to be successful in an international country if you cling to the idea of being a European executive in India.

He likens working and living in India to being in a whitewater raft, and that there’s three ways you can be in that boat: up the front guiding it, in the middle watching, or in the back clinging on for dear life. In India, you start clinging on for dear life the second you arrive in the country. Everything’s faster, more hectic, and longer.

“When I first arrived, I had one finger clinging onto the rope at the back of the raft, and spent my entire time creeping, two fingers, three, four, five fingers to try and at least get into the raft, and start climbing my way towards the front, believing that I was guiding the raft at some point,” he recalls.

After a few months, his boss said, “You think that you got everything buttoned up, don’t you? Well, Kyle, this world will never allow you to be in control. The best you can ever hope for is to be in control of a bit of it, and then hope that the rest of it will be consistent with doing that.”

So, Kyle did what he was good at, working in the Indian context, and that meant just trusting people a lot, because they knew the country, knew the continent better than he did, and knew how to get things done better than he did.

“I went to every single state in India, more than once, in some cases. When we launched the circle of Jammu and Kashmir, and understood the complexity of that, we were able to survive there, because we did our research and bought into it, and were respectful of it,” he observes.

Kyle points out that you constantly have to change your style and understanding, because every single state in India is completely different. “It changed my life altogether, because it forced me, very quickly, to adopt the mindset of being open minded about everything, and treating everything as I saw it, rather than bringing all my prejudices and experience and baggage with me,” he admits.

Kyle remembers travelling constantly and peering outside his car in open-mouthed astonishment at the crazy situations he encountered every day. He was physically there during a terrorist attack and was amazed at how quickly India recovered from it. He was also there for the launch of the IPL cricket tournament.

“So, I always say, if you want to see the most amazing continent in the world, it’s India, because you can see everything in one continent. Everything is there: beaches, animals, cities, world heritage sites. But don’t be thinking you’re hopping on a train for a three-hour journey to anywhere. The best one was Mumbai to Goa and I was tired of flying, so I said to my assistant, Nita, let’s do the train, and she was like, what 19 hours? Because it stops at every single village. It was just an amazing experience,” he proclaims.

Dealing with competition & innovation in the telecom sector

Noting how fast technology evolves, Kyle insists that technology proliferation, particularly in the telecom sector, means that the way of providing a network becomes cheaper, faster, and better.

He recalls that when they first did the business case for moving from a voice handset to a Blackberry or an iPhone, they thought people were going to consume between 400 and 800 hundred MB per month. Today, most people probably have a 32 GB phone package, and in their homes, are probably consuming hundreds of GB.

Kyle observes that there was no way the old 20-years-ago thinking was going to allow them to keep evolving. Often in the early years, the technology couldn’t do what they wanted, but he found that asking “how are we going to do that” is a much healthier situation to be in.

“I have witnessed firsthand the tremendous explosion in end user growth. When I went to India, we had 50 million customers. When I left three years later, we had 150 million customers. So, this explosive growth of usage is in simply being able to provide basic telecom services to more people in more communities,” he explains.

However, what none of them saw coming was a fundamental change in the behavior of people, when it came to using the internet and consuming data. While there are more people making voice calls, there’s tremendous growth in apps, and that’s been the dramatic change in the industry in the last 20 years. Access to information will continue to grow.

In the last few years, Kyle has learned that the satellite industry is perfectly capable of doing a lot more than it has traditionally done, but it was important to ask the right question to get the right answer.

“That’s fundamentally what we’ve got within our organization. We’ve obtained a level of competency and managing customers that’s better than the competition. As satellite technologies are quite homogeneous, we’ve chosen to differentiate on the basis of great customer capability within the whole organization,” he elaborates.

However, Kyle insists that they can’t rest easy, because the moment that Elon Musk announced he was investing 30 billion dollars in SpaceX and Starlink, the industry changed forever.

“We realized that we’re going to have to fundamentally change and rethink that,” he states. “The satellite industry has historically been very much about ‘these are my satellites’, but we will acquire capacity from other people in order to deliver services for our customers, because we have to be much more global than we were.”

Avanti has done that three times this year, with three different satellite operators, with their existing customers procuring capacity from them in order to deliver the service. “I think the competition has forced the satellite industry to catch up with the mobile and fixed industry, in terms of customer pricing, capability, flexibility, and I think that’s a healthy change,” Kyle observes.

Avanti has its own satellite network of four satellites, and they want to continue to exploit their capacity and capability and get more coverage from other operators. They’re also focused on providing their customers with more managed services and applications, not just basic connectivity.

“It’s unlikely we would launch a brand, new satellite, because there’s so much new capacity coming from other people. So, we want to focus on being great, and building customers’ trust. Customers will buy stuff from us as they don’t really mind where the network comes from. I very much believe in customer service, and don’t worry about the network that delivers it,” states Kyle.

A track record of leading telecom companies to success

When Kyle talks about his professional achievements, he resonates back to his most enjoyable and successful three years in Vodafone Ghana, where he inherited a company that was very broken and very low on morale, a very underfunded fixed and mobile operator with an African country government mindset, that was considered a disaster, because all they had done was paint it red.

“So, when I arrived, it was very much about giving people hope. And my three years was about really good financial performance. But for me, even more satisfying was that we gave people hope,” he recalls. “People used to say, Kyle came here and saved us, and at my leaving activity which dragged on for nine days, there was this overwhelming sense of achievement and love for what we’d done.”

Kyle found that experience hugely satisfying, so when he took the job at Avanti, people were shocked because he was a big company guy, and they didn’t believe he could turn it around and make a commercial success of it.

But Kyle went on to design the company like a mini-Vodafone, with an HR director, technology director, legal director, regulatory director, chief operating officer, and CFO.

“If you look at my management team now, I’ve hired most of them from people I’ve known from the past, and we’ve turned around and quadrupled the size of the company. We’re here four and a half years later, an important part of the satellite industry, delivering amazing service across multiple industries,” he declares.

The challenges of growing a company through the pandemic

Traveling now takes up 60 to 70 percent of Kyle’s life, but he actually finds it quite refreshing, because it gives him some brain space, allows him some thinking time, and lets him spend more time with his people than he would normally have in the office.

Kyle points out the stark reality that companies like theirs rely entirely on face-to-face. If you want to do business in Africa, you have to go face-to-face, because people want to know you and trust you and trust the company.

“Because of my background and experience, people get very reassured when I turn up as a CEO and understand who I am, and that lends credibility to who you are, and therefore people will trust the company very quickly,” he observes.

Kyle recalls that growing the company without traveling was tough when they had two years off during COVID. This year, they’ve almost doubled the size of the company, because they have been able to go back and see customers.

“We have a lot more home-based people than before, but from a commercial point of view, it is impossible for us to win hearts and minds without being able to physically leave the country and meet customers. People have to be mobile for our service to be valuable. We just didn’t have customer growth, and that’s a bond that’s fundamentally changed again in the last six months,” he insists.

However, Kyle admits that they were able to work from home very successfully and practically around the technology area, and that has prevailed. He recalls how his generation had no choice; they came to the office, did their jobs and went home, spending three hours on the tube, train, or car.

“So, deeply embedded in our psyche, that’s the working model,” says Kyle. “My HR Director and I said we’re the wrong people to be setting the tone for what the new world looks like. So, let us be really careful that we don’t implement our own values and history on our workers.”

Although he and his team feel less distracted and way more effective in the office than at home, he has not forced people to come back right on scale. “Most of my leadership team and I can solve stuff much more quickly face to face. So, I like that, but we’ve asked for two days a week, and we very much believe that people should have a choice about how they work,” he says.

Though his children’s lifestyle changed since COVID, they’ve had a much more embedded lifestyle with balance. “It’s helped the family unit more in two years than the last hundred years. I’ve managed to become part of the family unit again, and have a lot more balance, and I really like that. So, I respect that part of it,” he states.

Preferring the term, work-life integration, Kyle admits that having a traveling job impacts his life massively, but it’s a commitment he chose to make.

“It was my choice to make that commitment to do my job like that, and sadly, I don’t think it’s the right answer. In my career, I’ve made massive sacrifices personally, in order to do my job to the best of my ability. The only advice I can give people is, if you’re going to do it, you have to explain to everyone what you’re doing, and why you’re doing it, even if that impacts your family and they don’t like it,” he advises.

A compelling, heart-led leader who motivates & engages people.

Kyle observes that the moment you become a leader is when you realize that you can’t do this anymore by yourself. You really need to have the best capability around you to maximize your own performance and get the rest of the team to perform at a high level.

Describing himself as a compelling person, what keeps Kyle motivated and engaged is his belief that when you look at the CEO of a company, they should be the right person to lead the organization.

“You’ve really got to have a heart as a leader you can rely on. I’ve seen hundreds of people get up and do a compelling financial presentation. But you’ve got to be heart-led around motivating and engaging people, and understanding the challenges that people have on a day-to-day basis. That’s really important now, and I believe in that,” Kyle maintains.

He also finds it inspiring and motivating that his people resonate with genuinely making a difference to other’s lives, and that they want to feel like they work for a company that means something and does something interesting. For example, in Africa, they’re liberating people to be the best they can be in education and rural villages.

Kyle also believes in treating people with total respect and fairness. So, it always shocks him when he reads about the gender pay gap. “There is no rationale, whatsoever, for any form of gender pay gap. It’s not even a debate. I also passionately believe in diversity, because I’ve been lucky to work in very diverse cultures,” he remarks.

Kyle wants to make sure that people resonate innately with the company and are motivated by being treated like an individual. “I treat you with respect, I treat you with fairness, and I’m very clear about what we want you to do to be successful. I think if you can deliver those aspects as a leader, then you should be able to motivate your organization,” he declares.

Admitting that he feels extremely fortunate to have done all the jobs he’s done, and enjoy the world, and the life that’s come from that, Kyle notes that he uses his heart to make decisions about jobs.

“Am I’m going to enjoy it? Is it going to fulfill me? The path I went on at Vodafone was an unusual path of Europe, India, Africa, Middle East, and I probably compromised my career potential by doing that. But it also means I’ve got great stories,” he observes.

There’s no substitute for experience and competency.

Kyle’s first and most important message to aspiring leaders is that it’s a 20-year apprenticeship to become a leader, so it’s not magical, and there’s no substitute for experience and competency.

Don’t aspire to leadership for the sake of it, because people will have higher expectations of you from the day you become a leader, and they’re not forgiving. Ask for that when you’re ready, and you’ll get the right development and pace.

Don’t underestimate the complexity of leading people, because everyone is different, and one leadership style doesn’t work for absolutely everybody. Leadership is based around treating people as individuals, and understanding what makes them tick.

And finally, Kyle insists that it’s lazy not to be good at speaking and presenting, because people need to believe in a leader who can communicate effectively. Unless you can do that, you’re never going to be an effective leader.

“20 years ago, I spent a ton of time learning how to communicate effectively, whether it was on stage, or in a room or on the phone. The ability to communicate effectively really differentiates successful people,” he maintains.