Big Interview

Strategy for a transforming industry

Jaya Deshmukh Colt 2.jpg
Jaya Deshmukh

After working in Google and Microsoft, Jaya Deshmukh joined Colt last year as its head of strategy and transformation. Alan Burkitt-Gray asks her what her new role involves

Jaya Deshmukh’s appointment as Colt Technology Services’ executive vice-president (EVP) of strategy and transformation marked a turning point for the telecoms industry. As we pointed out in ‘Where are the women?’ (Capacity, May-June 2021), Colt was the only company in the industry in which women made up the majority of its senior management.

In a sector where men usually fill most or all of companies’ senior roles, when Colt recruited Deshmukh from Google Cloud in May 2021, five of its top nine management positions were held by women.

Since then, the gender balance in Colt’s leadership has swung back to men, as Paula Cogan, EVP of sales, marketing and customer relationship management, left to become the president of euNetworks in June 2021 and Tessa Raum left her role as EVP of HR in December. But Colt still has more women at the top than most companies in this industry. Deshmukh’s boss, Keri Gilder, remains one of the few women chief executives in telecoms, alongside Marisa Trisolino at CMC Networks, Frehiwot Tamiru at Ethio Telecom, Elisabetta Romano at Sparkle, and Allison Kirkby at Telia Company.

Microsoft to Colt

Before taking her role with Colt, Deshmukh held senior strategy roles at Google Cloud and Microsoft Digital.

“If I step back and see what’s happening in this industry,” she tells me from her home in west London, “this is an industry in transformation. And our partners are transforming.”

For Colt, this evolution is an important strategic consideration. “In 2022, the priority is getting on top of these trends,” says Deshmukh. “What is right for the shareholders, the customers, the employees and the community?”

Although Deshmukh discusses Colt’s “growth in an industry that’s challenged”, she does not reveal financial data, as Colt is a privately held company. “But we grow. And we can grow. We’re still delivering really good connectivity,” she assures. “It is a privilege to have this job. I wake up every day so happy.”

Deshmukh notes that the term “strategy” in her job title covers ground that “is pretty widespread”.

“All our capex is determined by our strategy,” she says. “We develop and we deliver. We do this on behalf of our CEO [Gilder], and our executive leadership team and the board.”

Deshmukh does not plan out Colt’s strategy in yearly terms: she examines the company’s long-term goals, upcoming acquisitions and business model to build a rolling three-to-five year business plan. But this blueprint is not fixed. “A strategy is a set of hypotheses,” she says. “You’ve got to see whether they pan out.”

Her plan also depends on the products Colt will be offering in the future. “If you don’t have a roadmap, having a strategy is useless,” she says.

A strategy becomes real through partnerships, including an ecosystem consisting of a global content network, service providers, software-as-a-service (SaaS) players, independent software vendors and others contributing to an end-to-end digital infrastructure. Innovation is key to this, and Deshmukh’s team has to look at what will be important in 24 months’ time, or as she puts it, smiling: “What’s on the truck?”

Transformation in the industry adds to this complexity, especially if there is an acquisition or a merger. “That would require a different setup,” she says.

Deshmukh says that she is looking out for a vice-president of transformation to help in this area. She says this job will be “a very difficult role”, so she expects the right person will be “someone with scars – we all need them”.

Deshmukh says everything happens much faster today than in the late 1990s, when was working for what is now AC Nielsen, providing marketing insights for the Indian operations of companies such as AT&T, Unilever, Philips and HSBC.

Longer cycles 

“When I started in 1996, the cycles were longer. Governments had five-year-plans,” which she says were reflected in the commercial world. But they eventually tightened into two-year cycles.

“Now, 20 years later, we’re down to 12-month cycles,” she says. “Today some of my colleagues are saying they have quarterly cycles!” However, a three-month cycle still takes 18 months to scale.

But despite the shortening of cycle lengths, Deshmukh says developing a strategic plan for Colt remains a long process. “We started the 2023 [planning] cycle in November 2021. Then we’ve got to hand it to the board and get sign off for a 2023 roll out.”

Before joining Colt, Deshmukh worked for leading tech companies including Microsoft and Google. “I’ve been lucky in my career,” she acknowledges.

Her time at both companies influenced her, but Microsoft may have had the bigger effect, as she says this is where she learned “the growth mindset” – the understanding that you are not fixed, and can learn, change and develop throughout your life.

While at Microsoft, “at the start of the year and then at the end of the year, I’d ask myself ‘What did I learn?’”

The reason for this was “Because of the technological intensity,” she says. “I can’t be head of strategy if I don’t know my products. I can’t say I’m there yet.”

When she started her role at Colt in May 2021, she made use of Microsoft’s culture of learning. “I didn’t know enough about telecoms then: just cloud,” she admits. “Now I can hold my own against chief strategy officers at the other telcos and with my colleagues. I’ve taken the time to learn.”

Now at Colt, she is following the simple rule Microsoft’s “technological intensity” taught her: “Know the products.”

At Google, Deshmukh says she learned something practical: “How to ship. Things that would take three months elsewhere, they can do in three weeks.”

She says this came from Google being a company where people across the company share information as “they trust everyone, they share knowledge and build on it. And they truly want to help. I love that.”

So when she began working at Colt, Deshmukh asked herself, “How do I bring that here?”

She says the solution was asking questions and encouraging others to ask questions too, such as “Have we checked with sales, operations, technology, security?” and “Will our [chief information security officer] buy our security product?”

Importance of diversity

Colt has accepted, quicker than many other companies have, the huge importance of having diverse voices.

“All organisations have caught on to the fact that you need to reflect society,” Deshmukh says. “At Colt, I genuinely think people have got it. We take diversity extremely seriously.”

She says the question any company must ask is, “How do we look like our customers?”

Deshmukh feels the high number of women in senior leadership roles at Colt “has been amazing” and is “a great acknowledgement of the 360-degree view of a person”.

Cultural exchange

“[At Colt] there is a greater acknowledgement that there is a person there: a person who likes to run, or is a great cook, or likes to embroider, or has a lot of cats,” she says. “I really find that amazing. It’s a cultural exchange – you have to go beyond the role.”

Despite her stellar career, Deshmukh says she “wasn’t brought up to be ambitious”.

“I didn’t know how to handle being ambitious. People kept asking: ‘Why are you going so fast, Jaya?’ But I’m the mother of two girls, so that’s my bias.”

Deshmukh says she had “to become a true change agent” for her daughters, now 18 and 20, and now recognises that “ambition is a tool”, which is “the benefit of having a CEO who’s a woman”.