Najib Khan talks exclusively to The Edition about his journey up the telecommunications ladder.
When Najib Khan disembarked in the Maldives in April 2017 to take up his post as the new Chief Executive Officer of Ooredoo Maldives, it marked his sixteenth shift of location over the past 25 years of his career in telecommunications. That might raise some eyebrows, but for Khan, his nomadic rise up the telecom ladder characterized his unrelenting pursuit of achievements, and the Maldives was another rung to climb.
“I’m never comfortable with myself after a while,” he told The Edition, reclining in the leather sofa in his office. “I always challenge myself to do more … I moved [locations] for different roles and to see if I could survive in circumstances that were not conducive and or favourable to myself.”
He never felt out of place in the Maldives, though, so close to his homeland of India, Khan admitted light heartedly. Rather, the challenges he faced came with taking up the heavy mantle of his predecessor, Vikram Sinha, to digitalise the Maldives via the telecom sector.
With a Bachelor of Engineering, Master of Business Administration, and a Post Graduate in both Business Management and in Industrial Electronics Engineering, Najib Khan is clearly an apt man for the job. He is a veteran that has lived through the transformation of telecoms and evolution of technology, climbing the ranks from engineer to the CEO he is today – however, his latest tenure as the chief of Ooredoo Maldives is not without its own tests and trials.
The most glaring challenge is the geographical makeup of the Maldives; reaching some 400,000 people scattered across a chain of atolls poses a logistical conundrum for any business company. Luckily for Khan, Ooredoo has already gained a stable foothold with its impressive nationwide submarine cable network, connecting the islands with 4G internet broadband.
“That’s an expressway created; and now on that expressway, we have to land different applications,” said Khan, who has taken on the feat to elevate Ooredoo’s success to another level.
“The complexity of telecoms, whether it’s a large city or small city, remains same. For the Maldives, the challenge was how to grow [the industry] in a small market.”
Unlike large competitive populations such as India and Qatar where he had previously worked, Khan highlighted that telecom services have 235 percent penetration in the Maldives with its tiny populace. “Everybody has two and a half SIM cards,” he chuckled.
In such a country, Ooredoo’s aim is to transform the mobile service by digitally simplifying various aspects of Maldivians’ everyday lives. Ooredoo Maldives, Khan declared, is relentlessly working to transcend its services beyond mere telecoms – and thus, the company’s “Digital Maldives” initiative is at the heart of all its endeavours.
Khan also touched upon how Ooredoo had challenged the existing monopoly in the Maldivian telecommunications sector when the company – initially as Wataniya – came to the island nation in 2005.
“Competition always helps the consumer at the end of the day,” Khan stated stoutly.
He noted that the company had started out by dropping certain prices to affordable rates. That, along with its added technological advantage, had instigated lasting changes to the archipelago’s telecom landscape.
“The real challenge was how to get the latest to a small country like Maldives, which may always be last on the list.”
Ooredoo Maldives had fought to make it happen, convincing its home group to provide all that was available globally in the Maldives as well. The fruits borne of its efforts are sweet, with Ooredoo Maldives boasting the best profitability and growth from amongst all ten of the group’s operating companies.
“[Our branch has] double digit growth, profits in the high fifties … it’s not done anywhere else,” said Khan proudly.
As for his role as CEO, Khan declared, “My challenge is to move this company to the digital era of what is happening today … Transforming this company from the traditional to the digital is my core focus.”
It has been a long journey for Najib Khan since he ventured into telecommunications in 1991, his one and only career path in life. While he had started out as an engineer, it was always his aspiration to reach the very top. Not everyone thought Khan was up to it, though.
“One of my old bosses told me that I couldn’t be a CEO,” he revealed, looking back at his years in India’s Airtel in the early 2000’s. “But I consider it a challenge when people say ‘you can’t do it’.”
It was a challenge that he rose to meet with determination. From engineer to project manager, business head to chief operating officer and chief marketing officer, Khan had persevered until he finally achieved his dream, becoming a CEO in 2010 in the very company that had once told him no – a crowning moment of glory for him.
“I went on a track and I followed that track well,” he said of what he considered one of his greatest personal victories.
It was not merely the naysayers that had motivated him to reach for the sky, however. Khan spoke fondly of his mother, a homemaker who had risen to become a career woman after Khan lost his father, the family’s breadwinner, at a young age.
“She really fought the world to go ahead and pick up a job and ensure that [my siblings and I] were all taken care of,” he narrated, his voice full of nostalgia and admiration as he described his mother.
Moreover, it was she who had told Khan to leave the town of his birth and make a life for himself.
“She always gave us independence to do things, to fail. But she also taught us the principle of doing the right thing for the right reason,” said Khan, recounting how he had taken her words to heart and left home, alone, to reach where he is now. With a laugh, he added, “There’s always a woman behind success.”
The end of his journey is not yet on the horizon, however. While he does not have a concrete idea of where he would be in the next decade or so, Khan has set higher goals for himself.
“I would eventually like to be a mentor or coach,” he declared, going on to reveal that he also plans to complete a PhD in telecommunications somewhere down the line.
Having a plan in mind is also the advice Khan has for young, dynamic people looking to achieve similar success in life.
“If you fail to plan, you plan to fail,” he said. “Failure is possible, but always attempt. Never shy away from it. Some of the youth fear to fail – and in the digital world, the principle is fail fast. Do it now, fail now, then shut that down and attempt something else.”
His advice further reflects his personal mantra in life: Attempt great things to expect great results.
“Attempting is important. Sometimes people dream great things, but they never see results because they don’t attempt them.”