Stakeholder model: Turn growth killers into growth makers

Introduction: The stakeholder model

Telecoms operators’ attempts to build new sources of revenue have been a core focus of STL Partners’ research activities over the years. We’ve looked at many telecoms case studies, adjacent market examples, new business models and technologies and other routes to explore how operators might succeed. We believe the STL stakeholder model usefully and holistically describes telcos’ main stakeholder groups and the ideal relationships that telcos need to establish with each group to achieve valuable growth. It should be used in conjunction with other elements of STL’s portfolio which examine strategies needed within specific markets and industries (e.g., healthcare) and telcos’ operational areas (e.g., telco cloud, edge, leadership and culture).

This report outlines the stakeholder model at a high level, identifying seven groups and three factors within each group that summarise the ideal relationship. These stakeholder and influencer groups include:

  1. Management
  2. People
  3. Customer propositions
  4. Partner and technology ecosystems
  5. Investors
  6. Government and regulators
  7. Society

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1. Management

Growth may not always start at the top of an organisation, but to be successful, top management will be championing growth, have the capabilities to lead it, and aligning and protecting the resources needed to foster it. This is true in any organisation but especially so in those where there is a strong established business already in place, such as telecoms. The critical balance to be maintained is that the existing business must continue to succeed, and the new growth businesses be given the space, time, skills and support they need to grow. It sounds straightforward, but there are many challenges and pitfalls to making it work in practice.

For example, a minor wobble in the performance of a multi-billion-dollar business can easily eclipse the total value of a new business, so it is often tempting to switch resources back to the existing business and starve the fledgling growth. Equally, perceptions of how current businesses need to be run can wrongly influence what should happen in the new ones. Unsuitable choices of existing channels to market, familiar but ill-fitting technologies, or other business model prejudices are classic bias-led errors (see Telco innovation: Why it’s broken and how to fix it).

To be successful, we believe that management needs to exhibit three broad behaviours and capabilities.

  1. Stable and committed long term vision for growth aligned with the Coordination Age.
  2. Suitable knowledge, experience and openness.
  3. Effective two-way engagement with stakeholders. (N.B. We cover the board and most senior management in this group. Other management is covered in the People stakeholder group.)

Management: Key management enablers of growth

management-leadership-vision-growth-indicators

Source: STL Partners

Stable and committed long-term vision for growth

The companies that STL has seen making more successful growth plays typically exhibit a long-term commitment to growth and importantly, learning too.

Two examples we have studied closely are TELUS and Elisa. In both cases, the CEO has held tenure in the long-term, and the company has demonstrated a clear and well managed commitment to growth.

In TELUS’s case, the primary area of growth targeted has been healthcare, and the company now generates somewhere close to 10% of its revenue from the new areas (it does not publish a number). It has been working in healthcare for over 10 years, and Darren Entwistle, its CEO, has championed this cause with all stakeholders throughout.

In Elisa’s case, the innovation has been developed in a number of areas. For example, how it couples all you can use data plans and a flat sales/capex ratio; a new network automation business selling to other telcos; and an industrial IoT automation business.

Again, CEO Veli-Matti Mattila has a long tenure, and has championed the principle of Elisa’s competitive advantage being in its ability to learn and leverage its existing IP.

…aligned with the Coordination Age

STL argues that the future growth for telcos will come by addressing the needs of the Coordination Age, and this in turn is being accelerated by both the COVID-19 pandemic and growing realisation of climate change.

Why COVID-19 and Climate change are accelerating the Coordination Age

COVID-19-and-Climate-change-Coordination-Age-STL

 

Source: STL Partners

The Coordination Age is based on the insight that most stakeholder needs are driven by a global need to make better use of resources, whether in distribution (delivery of resources when and where needed), efficiency (return on resources, e.g. productivity), and sustainability (conservation and protection of resources, e.g. climate change).

This need will be served through multi-party business models, which use new technologies (e.g. better connectivity, AI, and automation) to deliver outcomes to their customers and business ecosystems.

We argue that both TELUS and Elisa are early innovators and pathfinders within these trends.

Suitable knowledge, experience and openness

Having the right experience, character and composition in the leadership team is an area of constant development by companies and experts of many types.

The dynamics of the leadership team matter too. There needs to be leadership and direction setting, but the team must be able to properly challenge itself and particularly its leader’s strongest opinions in a healthy way. There will of course be times when a CEO of any business unit needs to take the helm, but if the CEO or one of the C-team is overly attached to an idea or course of action and will not hear or truly consider alternatives this can be extremely risky.

AT&T / Time Warner – a salutary tale?

AT&T’s much discussed venture into entertainment with its acquisitions of DirecTV and Time Warner is an interesting case in point here. One of the conclusions of our recent analysis of this multi-billion-dollar acquisition plan was that AT&T’s management appeared to take a very telco-centric view throughout. It saw the media businesses primarily as a way to add value to its telecoms business, rather than as valuable business assets that needed to be nurtured in their own right.

Regardless of media executives leaving and other expert commentary suggesting it should not neglect the development of its wider distribution strategy for the content powerhouse for example, AT&T ploughed on with an approach that limited the value of its new assets. Given the high stakes, and the personalised descriptions of how the deal arose through the CEOs of the companies at the time, it is hard to escape the conclusion that there was a significant bias in the management team. We were struck by the observation that it seemed like “AT&T knew best”.

To be clear, there can be little doubt that AT&T is a formidable telecoms operator. Many of its strategies and approaches are world leading, for example in change management and Telco Cloud, as we also highlight in this report.

However, at the time those deals were done AT&T’s board did not hold significant entertainment expertise, and whoever else they spoke with from that industry did not manage to carry them to a more balanced position. So it appears to us that a key contributing factor to the significant loss of momentum and market value that the media deals ultimately inflicted on AT&T was that they did not engineer the dynamics or character in their board to properly challenge and validate their strategy.

It is to the board’s credit that they have now recognised this and made plans for a change. Yet it is also notable that AT&T has not given any visible signal that it made a systemic error of judgement. Perhaps the huge amounts involved and highly litigious nature of the US market are behind this, and behind closed doors there is major change afoot. Yet the conveyed image is still that “AT&T knows best”. Hopefully, this external confidence is now balanced with more internal questioning and openness to external thoughts.

What capabilities should a management team possess?

In terms of telcos wishing to drive and nurture growth, STL believes there are criteria that are likely to signal that a company has a better chance of success. For example:

  • Insight into the realistic and differentiating capabilities of new and relevant markets, fields, applications and technologies is a valuable asset. The useful insight may exist in the form of experience (e.g. tenure in a relevant adjacent industry such as healthcare, or delivery of automation initiatives, working in relevant geographies, etc.), qualification (e.g. education in a relevant specialism such as AI), or longer term insight (which may be indicated by engagement with Research and Development or academic activities)

[The full range of management capabilities can be viewed in the report…..] 

 

2. People…

 

Table of Contents

  • Executive Summary
  • Introduction
  • Management
    • Stable and committed long-term vision for growth
    • …aligned with the Coordination Age
    • Suitable knowledge, experience and openness
    • Two-way engagement with stakeholders
  • People
    • Does the company have a suitable culture to enable growth?
    • Does the company have enough of the new skills and abilities needed?
    • Is the company’s general management collaborative, close to customers, and diverse?
  • Customer propositions
    • Nature of the current customer relationship
    • How far beyond telecoms the company has ventured
    • Investment in new sectors and needs
  • Partner and technology ecosystems
    • Successful adoption of disruptive technologies and business models
    • More resilient economics of scale in the core business
    • Technology and partners as an enabler of change
  • Investors
    • The stability of the investor base
    • Has the investor base been happy?
    • Current and forecast returns
  • Government and regulators
    • The tone of the government and regulatory environment
    • Current status of the regulatory situation
    • The company’s approach to government and regulatory relationships
  • Society
    • Brand presence, engagement and image
    • Company alignment with societal priorities
    • Media portrayal

Related research

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Sustainability: Why it’s good for business

Introduction

In the last year, businesses all around the world underwent unprecedented changes and had to adapt to the most challenging of circumstances. Priorities shifted for all stakeholders with telcos operating in an increasingly complex world and having to rethink how they do business.

The world is connected digitally now more than ever. With office closures and working from home, Zoom calls with loved ones having been the only way to socialise and to carry out online schooling, telecoms and technology have become even more relied upon industries in the last 18 months.

The idea that a strong corporate social responsibility and sustainability strategy is good for business has been around for decades. This report outlines how telcos can evolve their purpose beyond just being profit driven by aligning core strategy with sustainability initiatives and a sustainability policy, and in doing so benefit their business and add ‘society’ or ‘the world’ to their stakeholders.

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Scope of Research

The modern concept of ‘sustainability’ is composed of three components: economic, environmental and social. This is also sometimes called the ‘triple bottom line’ of business – stating that businesses should commit to measuring social and environmental impact, as well as financial performance, rather than focusing solely on profit. The ‘triple bottom line’ theory states that businesses should focus on the “three Ps”: people, profit and planet.

The three components of sustainability

three-components-to-sustainability-stl-partners

Source: STL Partners

Modern discussions of ‘sustainability’ refer to the economic, environmental and social effect an organisation has on the societies or markets in which it operates. It is an umbrella term that covers issues such as diversity and inclusion, energy usage, human rights and supply chain management.

Through this research we sought to understand if there is a business value to incorporating sustainability into a telecoms operator’s purpose and strategy. Speaking to seven operators across the world, some of whom are named in this report (Telstra, Globe and Orange), we wanted to know how telcos are thinking about sustainability, and to learn more about the following:

  • Telcos’ perception of the impact of sustainability initiatives in wider stakeholder groups e.g. employees, customers, shareholders, society
  • Which sustainability issues telcos are focusing on
  • The business benefits of sustainability initiatives
  • Case studies of companies that have incorporated sustainability into their company strategy
  • The effect the markets in which a telco operates in has on its sustainability initiatives (e.g. developed vs developing)

To gain an idea of how sustainability affects all aspects of the business, we interviewed employees in telcos’ sustainability and CSR teams, as well as in corporate strategy and product management.

All interviewees were asked largely the same questions, covering topics including: the initial motivations for engaging with sustainability; the effect of sustainability on multiple stakeholders (including customers and employees); if being sustainable puts telcos at a competitive advantage; important sustainability issues and solutions; successes and challenges of different sustainability initiatives; adapting sustainability strategies in different regions and the selection of their term for what we are calling ‘sustainability’.

Notably, some of the telcos we reached out to were not willing to participate in interviews because they were in the process of revising, changing, or updating their position on sustainability. In itself, this tells us that sustainability is an important and topical issue that many are still figuring out how to “get right” and how to incorporate it into their company strategy.

Sustainability is a cornerstone of the Coordination Age

As we outlined in The Coordination Age: A third age of telecoms, we believe that the telecoms and the wider digital economy is in its third age, ‘The Coordination Age’, which builds on ‘The Communications Age’ and ‘The Information Age’.

The three ages of telecoms

coordination-age-basic-stl-partners

 

Source: STL Partners

The Coordination Age is a result of the changing needs and demands of the world’s people, businesses, and governments, evolving technological solutions and possibilities, and the need to preserve the most habitable possible future environment for the world’s population.

To create major growth and advance as a telco, operators need to help solve some of the world’s biggest problems. We believe some of those major problems are:

  • A desire for greater business efficiency and productivity
  • The distribution and availability of human resources and services such as healthcare, education, employment, and entertainment
  • Mitigating climate change and minimising its effects
  • Reducing the amount of waste and harmful by-products polluting the environment
  • Concerns over employment due to automation and global economic changes

These major problems can and are starting to be addressed through sustainability initiatives set out by companies in their agendas and policies.

In addition, telcos have important and unique assets, as well as specific resources and capabilities, such as access to data, technology and their prevalence in the everyday lives of their customers, that can enable them to contribute to tackling some of the world’s problems and ‘help make our world run better’. A specific common problem is to help companies and people coordinate their resources in or near to real-time.

For example, a major problem in delivering sustainable energy is ensuring that the variable demand of populations is coordinated with supply. Wind turbines and solar panels cannot be relied on to produce at peak capacity at exactly half-time in sporting events, when the audience goes to make a cup of tea by boiling their electric kettles. As such, supply needs to be very flexibly managed in relation to demand.

This means sharing information about those resources and demands effectively, which in turn takes modern communications in some shape or form (although connections may not always need to run through a telco network, for example Bluetooth, WiFi, etc.) Given his common need, telcos are well-equipped to help enable sustainability.

The motivating value of a compelling purpose

Protecting the future of the planet and society is a compelling purpose, and one which is progressively becoming part of our daily lives.

Our research on sustainability found that that there are a number of benefits for different stakeholders when telcos incorporate sustainability into company strategy, including increasing employee engagement. Sharing a mutual goal or purpose unites a team and creates value, which is important for business performance, and thus a business benefit of sustainability.

How a unifying purpose helps create value

unifying-purpose-CSR-stl-partners

Source: STL Partners

A clear unifying purpose applied successfully creates a virtuous cycle:

1. Clarity of direction: A clear purpose can provide direction for people at all levels. E.g. incorporating the UN Sustainable Development Goals, such as Goal 7 – Affordable and Clean Energy, into company strategy and developing processes around it that involve employeesat all levels.

2. Energising work: Most people work for money, to a greater or lesser extent, and a range of other drivers: status, socialcontact, etc. However, work with a clear purpose is much more energising, especially if (like sustainability) it has some broader merit or meaning. It can make work ‘worth getting up for’. All the telcos we spoke to said that their employees are motivated by the sustainability work their company does.

3. Switched on people: If a telco is full of people that care about what they are doing, and know what they are trying to do, it will be a much more enjoyable and attractive place to work for everyone. Telcos we spoke to also said that sustainabilityis beneficial for talent attraction and retention, as employees want to work for a company that they feel is making a positive impact on the world

4. and 5 – Compelling offer and support, and attracts and satisfies customers: The combination of engaged people in the company and a compelling offer will be attractive to customers. Telcos we spoke to also referenced the need to be attractive to and satisfy different types of customers through their sustainabilitywork, such as the socially conscious Generation Z, and the older generation who can be engaged through digital inclusion

6. Feeds the business: The combination of internal clarity and alignment, motivation, and external attractiveness creates a virtuous circle that benefits telcos and drive business growth.

We think that engaging with sustainability and incorporating it into company strategy is a crucial part of operating in the context of the Coordination Age, and fundamental to operating in this way successfully. To support our hypothesis that having a clear and motivating purpose (in this case sustainability) can help to enhance currant performance, engage its employees, and find and nurture new areas of growth, we interviewed telcos to better understand how they define and measure the benefits of sustainability for their business. The research conducted for this report further validates our belief that commitment to sustainability is crucial to telcos’ success and growth in the Coordination Age.

Table of Contents

  • Executive Summary
    • Context
    • Key findings from research
    • Recommendations
    • Next steps for research
  • Introduction
    • Scope of research
    • Sustainability is a cornerstone of the Coordination Age
    • The motivating value of a compelling purpose
  • Defining and contextualising sustainability
    • ‘Corporate social responsibility’ vs. ‘sustainability’
    • The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals
    • Where are telcos focusing their efforts?
  • What are the business benefits of sustainability?
    • Employee benefits
    • Customers and government
    • Shareholder benefits
    • Challenges of sustainability
  • Conclusion
    • To what degree are telcos taking a holistic approach to CSR and sustainability?

STL Partners’ telecom sustainability hub:

Related Research:

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