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By Samantha Marshall
May 17, 2017
In 2008, when Lucy Quist returned to Ghana, in West Africa, to serve as Head of Business Development for Africa for Millicom Cellular International (Tigo), her driver gave her some friendly advice:
“You know madam, if you want to change how things work in the country you are going to have to get in the gutter with the people,” he told her.
He was referring to the uphill battle she would face as a change agent in both the country and the telecommunications industry in a developing region facing many socio-economic challenges. But she was up to the task. Her unique combination of leadership skills, regional knowledge, technical expertise and global perspective soon caught the attention of Airtel, which hired her to become the first Ghanaian woman CEO of its Ghana operations – a first for any multinational telecoms company in the country.
Back then, in 2014, the industry faced a perception problem. Many simply did not trust cellphone companies, believing they were intent upon overcharging for their services. Quist’s goal was to change that widely-held belief and build a sense of trust among Ghanaian consumers. But to do that, “I had to understand and live enough of their reality,” the global executive recalls. “I had to step outside and be present in as many locations as possible.”
“I had to understand and live enough of their reality...I had to step outside and be present in as many locations as possible.”
Quist shared this story while delivering the keynote address at the Bernstein Center’s November 2016 conference, Restoring Trust: New Realities and New Possibilities for Business Leadership. She was selected as the featured speaker in part because of her vast accomplishments in Ghana in such a short time, where she has grown customer market share for both voice and data. Her relentless hard work has transformed Airtel’s reputation, allowing it to become one of the most beloved brands in the country, even in the face of intense competition.
From her research and experience in the industry prior to joining Airtel, she knew that the presence and development of cellular services in the African region was to the benefit of its people.
“The correlation between mobile penetration and economic development is clear for everyone to see,” she told the Bernstein conference attendees.
But, as can happen in developing economies where information and transparency is often lacking, misinformation led many to think and portray international telecommunications companies as greedy and exploitive of average consumers.
“[This] communication and perception asymmetry put us in a perilous position,” recalls Quist. “There was a constant need to reaffirm, engage and earn that trust. But how?” By putting someone just like Quist at the helm.
Of Ghanaian heritage, with a global background, she possessed that perfect combination of relatability as a local, and integrity as a highly competent and educated outsider -- exactly what Airtel needed. Raised and educated mostly in Ghana and in the UK, Quist studied and qualified as a Chartered Engineer in England, and later earned her MBA from INSEAD in France. And yet her educational and professional career didn’t just cross borders, it spanned industries. Quist began in automotive engineering with the Ford Motor Company (now Visteon) working her way through design engineering, manufacturing and project management functions in the UK, Germany and Portugal. She later became a Change Manager at the Royal Bank of Scotland in London before joining Tigo, where she held various executive positions in Ghana, the Democratic Republic of Congo and other African countries. She later worked for Vodafone Ghana before joining Airtel.
Everything about her experience, cultural background and education made her an ideal candidate to meet the challenges she faced at Airtel Ghana, although pedigree alone is never enough.
“You can’t just look the part and hope you say the right things, you can’t just be credible on top of a hill,” said Quist, “You have to connect with the people and be the voice they expect to hear when they feel their company is with them.”
“You have to connect with the people and be the voice they expect to hear when they feel their company is with them.”
To that end, she has traveled the country, visiting region after region to meet with as many customers as she could in person, and she has taught her team to do the same. They listened to the consumers’ needs and concerns, taking steps to build better systems that could improve services and penetrate Ghana’s most remote regions. She also orchestrated and led an ambitious drive to make Airtel Ghana the leader in data and digital innovation. She oversaw strategic partnerships to drive digital inclusion such as being the first to introduce free Facebook and dozens of zero-rated sites across education, health and commerce.
The Ghanaian public responded well to these efforts, and Airtel leapfrogged to a number three position in a highly competitive market. As a result, the company was recognized as the best data and internet service provider a year ago at the Ghana ICT and Telecoms Awards.
Her effectiveness and credibility are why Quist has received dozens of personal accolades, including CIMG Marketing Woman of the Year (2015), Telecom CEO of the Year (2016), Ghana Women of the Year Honors in 2016 for “Excellence in Corporate Responsibility” and, most recently, the Ghana Legacy Honors “Corporate Leadership Award 2017.” She has spoken at numerous influential forums, including TEDxEUSTON, and sits on several international and local boards. She was recently profiled in the BBC’s “Power Women” series as one of the top business women driving economic and social transformation in Africa.
Additionally, in line with her conviction that prosperity and development for Africans depends upon the study of science, technology, engineering and mathematics, Quist has become a champion of the Evolve with STEM initiative, one of many corporate social responsibility initiatives supported by Airtel Ghana, which won the Global Carriers Award for Best Corporate Social Responsibility Initiative 2016.
She doesn’t take these honors for granted though. The global recognition only serves to further fuel her efforts to keep improving the situation not just for Airtel Ghana, but its millions of customers.
“The enormity of sustaining their trust isn’t lost on me. It’s a huge responsibility.”
She’s equally humbled, and amused, by all the attention her success with Airtel has been garnering her home country. A relative in the audience described a recent trip to Ghana from the US to visit Quist, and being astonished to see her picture plastered on the cover of many leading publications.
“Her face -- it’s everywhere!”
And she will continue to be a positive force, not only in Ghana, but on the global stage for many years to come.