Sol Trujillo on Running Global Companies

To run global companies, boards often want chief executives with global experience—and few have more of it than Sol Trujillo. In the last decade Trujillo has run telecom companies on three continents: U.S. West in the United States, Orange in the United Kingdom and, since 2005, Australia's Telstra, which he's leading through a transition from being a government-controlled utility to a free-market communications company. In the latest in his series of interviews as part of the NEWSWEEK-Kaplan M.B.A. program, NEWSWEEK Chairman and Editor-in-Chief Richard M. Smith spoke with Trujillo about the lessons of his around-the-world career. Excerpts:

Smith: Is fair to say that Telstra was a troubled operation when you arrived?
Trujillo: It had its challenges. Ever since competition was introduced it lost market share every year. Margins were starting to contract, earnings were being challenged. And that's why the board asked me to come in and essentially set a new course for the company.

What's the new course?
Most of us as consumers are intrigued, excited and engulfed in a whole changing lifestyle. When you think about walking around with MP3 players, having high-definition TV, being able to get on the Internet, walking around with wireless phones—all these things are enhancing our lives, but they're also making things much more confusing and complex than they need to be. Our vision for Telstra is about simplifying all that, and integrating all the capabilities—your wireless and wired line telephone calling, Internet use, cable-TV viewing, all of that—into one company. We intend to become an integrated company delivering integrated services for customers so that they can have whatever services they want, but making it one-button, one-click, one-touch simple.

You've run three big telecoms. What have you learned at each step of the way?
Decisiveness is extremely important—when you decide on people, on strategy and on prioritizing the steps in whatever transformation that you're taking. You can't dilly-dally, you can't wait around, you can't wait for the hundredth percentile of information. You have to make choices, you have to make bets, and you have to act.

How do you manage people in a multinational context?
One thing that you learn when you move off of this big island called the U.S. is that there are many cultures, and there are many drivers behind each culture in terms of what drives people. What you try to do is to create a corporate strategy that gets executed within the context of the culture. But there are some basics—the basics of cash flow, earnings, market share, respecting people and performance-based management. Those are all constants. But you have to operate within the context of local cultures, and you have to be adaptive.

What advice would you give to a young manager who for the first time in his or her life has to manage in that multinational arena?
Listening is a great leadership strength. When you speak, be measured, be knowledgeable, and have conviction in what you say. Be passionate. And always remember, you lead by example.

What do you think managers who have only worked in the United States are missing?
Every CEO that I know, whenever we have a chance to chat, I always say to them that for succession-planning purposes, you've got to make sure that your next CEO has lived outside the U.S. I grew up in the U.S., and I'm as patriotic as anyone. But because we live in a global marketplace it's important to understand how other cultures think, act, live, breathe and how people make choices. So it's important that people go live elsewhere and find out how markets work. After you've lived in a few places, you start understanding in a global context how you can manage and compete even better, how you can find talent wherever it might lie within your global set of operations. All of us around the world are guilty of one thing: we're more comfortable with people that are like us. But this diversity of thinking, diversity of talent, diversity of skill sets is something that a great leader should always be able to find, pull, attract and bring in and integrate.

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