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Creating World-Class Culture in Telecoms: From Boundaries to Connections

Analysis from the Leaders’ panel on creating world-class culture in telecoms, discussing coherence, co-creation, purpose and cultural personality, and exploring “turning boundaries into connections” as a hidden strategic success factor.

This is a summary of a fascinating discussion I had on what it takes to build a world-class company culture with Naleena Gururani, Chief People Officer, Hyperoptic, Carrie Cushing, Chief People Officer, EXA Infrastructure, Selma Avdagic Tisljar, General Manager, FreeMove, and Irina Strajescu, People and Communication Director, Moldcell. It was part of the Leaders' track, on 21st November 2023 at Total Telecom World Congress, Amsterdam,

Irina Strajescu, Moldcell, Naleena Gururani, Hyperoptic, Selma Tisljar, FreeMove, Carrie Cushing, EXA Infrastructure. total Telecom World Congress, 2023.
Irina, Naleena, Selma and Carrie were on top form

Executive Summary

Main findings: success in culture in telecoms = coherence, co-creation, purpose and personality

Creating world-class culture is all about building small signals and behaviours within an organisation so that its members act in a consistent and desired way despite the many differences that any given group will exhibit between its members.

Keri Gilder, CEO Colt, said in her opening address to the Congress that the key to success is to create safety, show vulnerability and communicate good culture by telling simple stories.

The panellists identified further key success factors as:

  • Developing trust to deliver coherence

  • Aligning culture with business operating model

  • Involving everyone in the co-creation of culture (you will have ‘culture’ regardless but you need to work broadly for alignment and evolution)

  • Expressing a culture as a ‘personality’ can be a powerful tool as part of the reinforcing story of the culture

So what? Turning boundaries into connections

  • Boundaries need not be obstacles. Differences between group members (e.g. where they work, their experiences) can be obstacles to success, and it is unrealistic to expect boundaries to disappear. But within a successful culture they instead become useful points of reference – a way to understand and communicate better, rather than a barrier.

  • Sometimes, people need to change roles too. Some people’s behavioural preferences may not meet needs of an evolving culture in all roles, and sometimes change is therefore desirable. This is different from discriminating on extrinsic factors (such as where someone is from) and can be managed fairly.

  • Accommodating diversity by building connections creates strength. A measure of success in building culture is when an organisation accommodates high diversity within a cogent operational model to achieve its purpose. Such diversity builds resilience because of the flexibility in employment it grants, and innovation because of the range of perspectives it brings.


We broke down the topic of culture into three component questions:

  • What does success in building culture mean to you and what are the benefits?

  • What were the key challenges you needed to address to get where you are today?

  • What are the lessons?

This document summarises our discussion on each of these questions and provides some post-event thinking on their consequences. You can also download a PDF in full here:

TTWC Worldclass Culture Connective Insight 4 Dec 2023 FINAL
Download PDF • 419KB

What does success in building culture in telecoms mean and what are the benefits?

Culture can be very hard to describe or pin down, yet we all have an intuitive sense of what it means, and constantly pick up cues within our own companies and other companies’ cultures. At the opening session of the event, Keri Gilder, CEO Colt, had provided an excellent set-up to our discussion by outlining two key insights about culture:

  • Culture is all about small signals which we communicate frequently. Keri likened it to how a flock of Starlings behaves in a murmuration – one of those amazing moving patterns a large flock of birds makes in the sky. The Starlings aren’t talking about values – they are simply sensitive to the small movements of those around them and move with them. Keri was kind enough to tell me afterwards that mycelia and mushrooms exhibit similar behaviours.

  • She shared a simple approach outlined in Daniel Coyle’s Culture Code Model: 1) build safety, 2) share vulnerability, and 3) tell stories that communicate the essence of the culture desired.

Keri Gilder, CEO Colt, describes the Culture Code Model at Total Telecom World Congress, Amsterdam 2023.
Kerry Gilder, CEO Colt, described the Culture Code Model

A further insight that all the panellists shared was that you can’t just create a culture – you have to start and work with what you have got. In newer companies, this is often established by the founders. In an incumbent telco, this may have evolved over many years and been shaped by all manner of forces.

When we discussed what “success” means in culture, two common features emerged. First, a strong sense of shared purpose, and second that “boundaries disappear”. This didn’t mean that differences are eradicated, but that they became irrelevant to the success or failure of the company because they are no longer barriers to co-operation.

The benefits of a successful culture are that it will:

  • Enable and promote physical and mental wellbeing

  • Help to develop and support a growth mindset

  • Be a significant factor in attracting and keeping talent – a key concern for all the panellists and their businesses

What were the key challenges you needed to address to get where you are today?

Interestingly, each panellists’ organisation needed to overcome challenges created by different sub-groups or communities:

  • Irina described differences between generations in Moldcell, which is an MNO in Moldavia. She talked about Gen X being characterized by “I must”, Gen Y “I want” and Gen Z “I don’t want”. Each of these groups needed to be treated differently but nonetheless fairly within the same purposeful cultural framework.

  • Selma, who leads FreeMove, a European alliance of operators to develop new cross-border collaboration, talked about the need to understand the cultural differences between component operator cultures and their nationalities.

  • Carrie at EXA described how she found that people at the company initially had little sense of the collective identity of the company, and had a better sense of their original cultures that had been brought together through acquisition and partnership with other organisations. As things had changed so fast in the growth of the company, it took time and work to unite them with a common identity.

  • Naleena at HyperOptic, described how in parallel with a change from start-up to scale-up mode of business, the culture needed to change from its entrepreneurial founding culture to an enterprising culture that e.g. valued process and structure more highly.

What are the lessons?

The panellists picked out four themes that they felt were key to building a world-class culture:

  • Selma described coherence as a key theme of world-class culture. She initially voiced this as building trust but refined it as a component in the delivery of coherence in this context. Coherence is the outcome of being able to expect consistent behaviours and outcomes within the company regardless of who you deal with. It might be show itself in different ways between different people, but it should nonetheless feel consistent. Trust underpins this because it is a commitment between people in a group to meet each other’s commitments consistent with the company purpose.

  • Naleena highlighted aligning business operating models with company culture. In HyperOptic’s case, the current drive is to move from being an entrepreneurial start-up to an enterprising scale-up. The transition requires valuing different behaviours than initially made the company successful, such as a focus on processes and structure to grow something ‘10x’ rather than the innovation and fluidity required to develop the initial proposition successfully.

  • Irina expressed the importance and role of co-creation in culture. She said that working with teams across Moldcell to develop and deliver the culture had been integral to its success because, as noted, culture pre-exists in every group and you need the group to cooperate if you wish to evolve that culture. Irina also described the value of getting people involved in the Moldcell Foundation, as it helped them envisage and truly feel the value of the company’s role and purpose in its society.

  • Carrie said that there had been huge value in expressly articulating EXA’s identity and personality. By doing so, it became much easier to tell the stories required, and it the relatability of the personality was an effective tool in the attraction and development of talent.

Analysis & further thoughts: turning boundaries into connections

In all cases, the panellists discussed how they were initially confronted with boundaries between groups as barriers to building a cohesive and successful culture.

Boundaries need not be obstacles

Key steps to success were not necessarily about eradicating boundaries – for example, you can’t turn a Gen Z into a Baby Boomer, and nor is it appropriate to recruit people based on their age, gender or other extrinsic characteristics. However, you can understand the needs and wants of each group, then help them to connect with the company in their own cultural language and navigate the perfectly valid needs of other groups.

Sometimes people need to change roles, too

In other cases, some people with certain intrinsic differences may need to change roles. For example, when moving from an entrepreneurial culture to a scale-up phase, needing more enterprising skills (as coined by Naleena) some people’s behavioural preferences (i.e. natural entrepreneurs) may not meet needs of the culture in all roles.

Culture is a shared identity

Understanding the personality of an organisation – a narrative short-hand for its cultural characteristics – can be a very important part of managing a successful and coherent culture. Culture is to a large extent about identity and affiliation – “who am I and what am I / do I want to be part of?” So having a clear picture of and language for that is helpful to ensure that cultural issues aren’t dealt with in accidental or underhand ways and allows issues to be discussed and acted on openly, clearly and fairly.

Purpose and aligning the operating model

Purpose is the spine of culture and identity: “what are we for?” It sets the direction for both culture and strategy. It is the belief or intent setting the direction for all actions and is the one mandatory common characteristic of strong cultures: regardless of differences, all members must share that purpose.

Alignment between culture and operating model is a large-scale enabling condition for successful culture. For example, if your purpose is innovation, a culture strong in command-and-control is unlikely to lead to success.

Accommodating diversity by building connections creates strength

I took away from the panellists that a measure of success in building culture is when an organisation clearly accommodates a high diversity of background characteristics (where you are from, your age, your gender, etc.) within a cogent operational model to achieve its purpose. Such diversity builds resilience because of the flexibility in employment it grants, and innovation because of the range of perspectives it brings.

In this sense, what may initially appear as boundaries (like which company someone worked for before) become connections. They help people understand where others are coming from and how they now share a purpose and cultural identity within which this previous characteristic is now a point of common reference rather than a divisive difference.

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