Why The Heck Did Kris Senanu Join Telkom Enterprise? — Part Two
In part one of this interview, Kris Senanu shared with me intimate details about the various positions he held in Kenya’s burgeoning Internet sector going back almost two decades in some of the fastest growing businesses of the day. He spoke to me about his time at Swift Global, at the time the second largest Internet Service Provider (ISP) in Kenya and his decision to leave and join the startup that would end up becoming AccessKenya.
The brand AccessKenya and Kris become synonymous as he worked there for over a decade with the founding brothers Jonathan and David Somen. Kris was at AccessKenya when they decided to make the bold decision to go public on the Nairobi Securities Exchange (NSE) in what is to-date the only Kenyan technology startup that has listed on the NSE.
AccessKenya was eventually delisted from the NSE and went private, eventually being sold to South Africa’s Internet services behemoth, Internet Solutions. In the second part of my interview, Kris shares with me the details of the various motivations that led him to join Telkom Enterprise last year as the Division’s Managing Director. Here is what we discussed:
Moses Kemibaro: So, what happened next Kris? Why did you decide to join Telkom Kenya?
Kris Senanu: After Jonathan informed the board of his intention to leave after two years of “acquisition and integration” it dawned on me that three things were inevitable. One, a change of brand, two a centralization of decision making, and three, an inevitable change of culture from being entrepreneurial and agile to being multinational and bureaucratic. However, it’s still be better than other multinationals since we built in great decision making information systems at AccessKenya.
Out of the three things the one that crushed me most was the bureaucracy as I was simply not used to that? The culture we had built was simple — if you had a great idea, bring it in, argue it out, defend it, and we would find the resources to create a proof the concept for validation. I decided I needed to leave AccessKenya at a time when I had three other lucrative offers on the table apart from Telkom Kenya so my headache was what to do with myself next.
When I finally made the choice the key guiding principles were what would the Impact to the industry and country? Would it fulfill my need to be challenged for a long period of time in order to stay engaged and lastly will I have fun? I have always chosen to work for companies that impact an industry — companies where we did something unique and different, therefore disrupting the market whilst having fun.
Moses Kemibaro: So, if that’s what is important to you why Telkom Kenya ?
Kris Senanu: Not important Moses, its fundamental, I needed those three boxes ticked. It was critical for me to work in a place where the best idea wins, where you are respected for your intellectual ability irrespective of rank.
So, why Telkom Kenya? Telkom Kenya was sold to me on three pillars, One, that they had a new investor who was ready, willing and able to wake up the sleeping giant. Two, that the new structure would give me a clean division to run and thee I was being hired as a transformational ambassador to create a paradigm shift and change in culture at Telkom Kenya
They told me “We know you, you understand the enterprise space. You will come in and you create cultures of fun where people can thrive and that’s what we need.” That was hard to resist. I had already spent twenty plus years of my career sort of fighting Telkom Kenya. Think about it. The first big opportunity I got in this industry was from a service we had at Swift Global for international faxing which diverted fax transmissions from what was then Kenya Posts and Telecommunications (KPTC) to a private network at a lower cost.
Moses Kemibaro: I remember that! You briefed me about it many years ago. It was called least cost routing or something like that?
Kris Senanu: Yes. That was it. Telkom Kenya was not doing a good job with international faxes. So, you put in this auto dialer or faxmodem and it faxed internationally saving the consumer or business costs. The second opportunity came from installing our own down link V-Sat dishes in order to improve the user experience of dial-up internet clients and again this was to by-pass JamboNet which at the time was the only gateway in and out of Kenya. The last one was when we started to deploy our own wireless and fiber networks o as to give other last mile choices to Internet users in Kenya.
So, every step of the way as you can see I was part of a company or system that helped to give more and better choices to the market as this is a fundamental principle and a value I hold dearly to heart.
Moses Kemibaro: So what choices do you want to give the market now?
Kris Senanu: So, now I have an opportunity to reform, restructure, and re-strategize the sleeping giant. It’s a beautiful opportunity to be part of the team that will wake up the giant, mark you at this point it’s not an IF but when! Remember, it’s not a personal gripe with Airtel or Safaricom? I just want to give people choices since even on a plane you get to have real choices like beef, chicken or vegetable meals. I believe now is the time to get proper competition in the Tier 1 segment of telecommunications in Kenya.
So, for me, the bottom-line is I take on a massive challenge, I make my impact, and get the job done. That’s it.
Moses Kemibaro: Culture eats strategy for lunch?
Kris Senanu: Yes! Breakfast, lunch and dinner! What we want is a high performance and yet fun culture at Telkom Kenya.
Moses Kemibaro: I think this is already evident as the other day when I attended another event here at Radisson Blu I met your guys from Telkom Kenya? I can see your some of your ‘tribe’ has moved with you from the past companies. For me that was very telling since I know most of them would never have dreamed of working at Telkom Kenya in the past and it means to me that by injecting that DNA into Telkom Kenya that its already starting to make an impact?
Kris Senanu: Yes, The real impact will be seen around the end of this year. I can tell you that in my heart I am calm this is going to be one long and hard journey. I have no illusions on what is ahead and I am ready. The first six months at Telkom Kenya were mad but I am beginning to see the results. The short-term challenge is not about bringing in people from outside as it is about getting internal talent to rise. Most of them have great skills but have not had a conducive atmosphere to thrive in.
Moses Kemibaro: As it was?
Kris Senanu: It just didn’t have the right atmosphere such that they could step up, step out and be themselves. All they needed is a leadership across the divide to release their energy, vitality and enthusiasm. That’s it! Someone to clear up all the bureaucracy. I am the worst person to throw into a bureaucracy as I hate it but then on the flip side probably I am the best person to throw out the bureaucracy.
Moses Kemibaro: So you keep adding to your track record?
Kris Senanu: Well, that’s one way to look at it for me. But this is a hard one. I won’t lie to you. I haven’t gone in with preconceived notions. In fact I believe the shocks have so far been pleasant shocks in terms of a greatly under-utilized network infrastructure, technical skills and the zeal to make it work.
Moses Kemibaro: Was Internet Solutions Kenya worried about you moving with their clients and staff ?
Kris Senanu: I think they were in the beginning? However, I told them I am not looking at your clients and I am not looking at your people. I didn’t need to as I believed the people at Telkom Kenya are good enough and over the years I have mentored and grown enough talent across the industry which I could attract from both the public and private sectors — once you give people the space they rise! So that’s the way I looked at it and so far, I have been proven right.
The first thing I am doing is creating is a meritocracy. Telkom Kenya never had a meritocracy. You had people who had survived in Telkom Kenya thanks to their connections and they then realized that the system has changed. So, we are not going to hire people and give favors because we must look at our revenues and costs as a viable business.
We are becoming a high performance, customer focussed and human capital driven organization. The new Telkom Kenya has very little in common with what it used to be since the sleeping giant is now very wide awake!