Committed to connecting the world

BDT Director's Speeches

Mobile World Congress – #Betterfuture Seminar
Barcelona, Spain  26 February 2019






Distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen,

My theme this morning is leadership, and more specifically how the digital environment is impacting leadership style, leadership strategies, and leadership models.

I bet right now, many of you immediately began thinking of some of those legendary leadership giants – maybe Henry Ford, or Steve Jobs, Richard Branson or Jeff Bezos…

Exceptional men. But the reality is that these kinds of natural, inspirational leaders are extremely few and far between. Most of us will never be them. Most of us will never work for them.

That’s not really a problem. Partly because for every successful leader with a laser-focus and foolproof vision, there are dozens of others for whom the same highly individualistic approach fails catastrophically. It’s a risky model.

It’s also not a problem because you don’t need to be a corporate megastar to be a great leader, to grow your business, and to get the best out of your talented teams. There are all sorts of management styles out there. The one that will work best for you and your business is always the one that best reflects who you are.

Is the digital age changing management and leadership? Yes. New technologies are making a more collaborative approach much more achievable. In management circles today we often hear talk of ‘system leadership’. This new approach replaces the old, top-down linear leadership model with a multi-stakeholder model of diverse, interconnected players.

At an internal corporate level, that can be cross-disciplinary working groups that bring a variety of expertise to new challenges, rather than the more traditional silo-based approach.
In my own organization I’m currently implementing a new cluster-based structure that organizes staff around core challenges, rather than simple job functions.

Silos can stifle innovation and cut management off from talent they already have but simply aren't leveraging effectively. So I urge all ITU members to re-evaluate their business processes and to harness the power of ICT platforms to build new models for collaboration.

At the external organizational level, ‘system leadership’ means a recognition by leaders in business, government and civil society that finding solutions to today’s complex problems will increasingly depend on collaboration and the cooperative development of new technologies, new service delivery models, new policy and regulatory innovations, and new ways of interacting with stakeholders. It’s this kind of approach that’s needed when we look towards how technology can help us achieve global challenges like the 17 SDGs. 

Some of you might be surprised to learn that my own organization has been implementing just such an approach for almost 155 years.

The International Telecommunication Union is the oldest specialized agency of the United Nations system.
I believe our longevity is the result of our consensus-oriented culture, which brings together 193 governments and over 800 private sector technology companies to collaboratively develop and agree on global approaches to core issues for the telecoms and tech industry. Issues like global technical standards. Like global management of vital radiofrequency spectrum. And like global partnerships for socio-economic development through ICTs.

It looks like maybe at ITU, we’re so old, we’re new!

There’s one area, though, where we suffer the same traditional problems as just about every other organization. That’s diversity. As a UN agency, cultural diversity in our ranks has never been an issue, and I believe that’s been another secret of our success. I urge any organization with international ambitions to leverage this huge store of knowledge and energy. As the saying goes, you don’t know what you don’t know – so get some people into leadership roles who can contribute a fresh perspective to what you’re doing. You’ll be amazed at the insights they bring.

The other side of diversity is, of course, gender balance. Here, my own organization hasn’t fared any better than yours, or the tens of thousands of others in the tech sector. In fact, when I was elected by our member states last November to head ITU’s telecommunication development bureau, I became the very first woman in ITU’s 155-year history to hold elected office.

Maybe that’s an encouraging sign that things are changing – but they need to change faster in most of our organizations.
Women remain under-represented in leadership roles right across society, but as we all know, the tech sector remains one of the poorest-performing for this metric. Yet all the research points to strong gender balance in leadership being better for the balance sheet, better for corporate governance, better for employee performance, and better for innovation.

At ITU, I’ve driven quite a few initiatives aimed at tackling the gender problem. The most recent, and one of the most exciting, is EQUALS. As a global partnership of more than 90 members spanning the private sector, industry bodies like the GSMA, governments, academia, and civil society, EQUALS is a great example of the ‘system leadership’ model. And indeed, ‘Leadership’ is one of the three core EQUALS Coalitions, along with ‘Access’ and ‘Skills’.

Working collaboratively, we’re striving to change the picture for women and men working in tech.

Not just because everyone deserves the chance to fulfil their true potential.

But because, today, collaborative approaches based around diverse communities of talent and expertise is what leadership success looks like. 

Thank you.​