Dialling up change

How Miriam Altman plans to take Telkom into the future.

Read time 6min 00sec
Telkom's Miriam Altman says one of her key strengths is to work through very ambiguous situations and chart a course.
Telkom's Miriam Altman says one of her key strengths is to work through very ambiguous situations and chart a course.

As I sit down across the table from Dr Miriam Altman, I'm not quite sure who is interviewing who. Take a seat, she says, looking up from her laptop like I'm a candidate arriving for a job interview. She has the 'take control' air of a headmistress, and answers my first couple of questions with questions of her own. If she didn't look so formidable, I'd have the nerve to tell her it doesn't usually work that way.

Altman has been the head of strategy for Telkom since June 2013 as part of a new team aiming for the old goal of transforming the company. Several previous CEOs and strategic planners have had the same vision, so why should this team, or this time, be any more successful?

It's true that past efforts have failed, she says. "There's been a lot of energy and a lot of great ideas, but it's been inconsistent." With the current CEO Sipho Maseko and chairman Jabu Mabuza building up a strong team beneath them, many people feel that maybe it will happen this time, she says. "I've learned over the years that leadership is everything."

Woman with a plan

Telkom's Miriam Altman says one of her key strengths is to work through very ambiguous situations and chart a course.

I suspect that people don't instantly warm to Altman. You feel she's judging you, and fear you may be found wanting.

Perhaps one of her strengths is making people - especially her employees - want to impress her, so they don't provoke a raised eyebrow that seems only a twitch away.

Yet she's greeted warmly by several people as we sit in a hotel lounge, and at times her crisp exterior seems to flex and show something warmer and less guarded underneath.

Anyway, Telkom doesn't need a huggy, kissy personality; it needs decisiveness, confidence, experience and pragmatism, and Altman has lashings of those.

Impressive CV

Such qualities also make her a valuable member of the National Planning Commission (NPC), responsible for developing a strategic plan for the country and its longterm development.

She's a remarkable woman, born in Canada and now a South African citizen, with qualifications from McGill, Cambridge and Manchester universities, an early involvement with Amnesty International and a developmental job in Lesotho on her CV. The r'esum'e matures to be almost as daunting as she is. She has led projects for numerous organisations, including the World Bank and the Swiss Development Corporation, run projects literally all over the world, including China, Argentina, Finland and Russia, and authored more than 100 publications.

Our attitude was sometimes defensive so a first step was to change that attitude.

Miriam Altman, Telkom

Fittingly, Telkom's share price jumped when her appointment was announced. "I have a reputation," she says. "I'm reasonably well known, with lots of public policy background and I could help to build a relationship with government, which, frankly, was pretty weak when I came in."

Effecting change

Altman became involved in South Africa's fight for democracy in the late 1980s and by the 1990s, she was drafting economic and industrial policies to shape the country's future, initially for trade unions and then for government.

She also spent a decade at the Human Sciences Research Council, helping to restore its relevance and guiding policies on electricity pricing and meaningful job creation in the country.

Joining Telkom was precipitated by the thrill of tackling a major challenge that other people balk at, and by her need to feel she is effecting change. "Many times I've come into a situation that looks irreversible and I find what the gems are and where the opportunities lie to give life to that. I'm not a maintenance manager," she says. "I love it when people ask, 'Why are you doing that?' and a year or two later, they're thinking, 'Wow, that was great'. Right now, I think lots can be improved and I believe Telkom can have a huge impact."

Altman talks passionately about broadband being crucial in a modernising country and how Telkom is the only player that can provide the fibre broadband the economy depends upon. She talks of the need for government to get more connected and for individuals to get equitable connectivity. It's heartening to see her getting animated, as it makes me feel like I've managed to ask a sensible question.

Yet one hurdle is the sheer volume of issues within Telkom that demand attention, ranging from skills to running costs to updating its services, moving into digital, rolling out broadband and healing its tattered reputation. Where do you even begin?

Rebuilding confidence

"One of my key strengths is to work through very ambiguous situations and chart a course. That's a flagship of what I do," says Altman. "So the first step in terms of our strategy was to rebuild key relationships and build confidence through some early wins. Our attitude was sometimes defensive, so we had to change that attitude."

The results have seen a Competition Commission case resolved, three-year agreements reached with the unions and R350 million saved in less than a year.

Altman enjoys switching between the deep thinking needed to formulate policies, as she does with the NPC, and the handson task of actually implementing them, as with Telkom. That allows her to design the fix, then make sure it happens, rather than see good ideas languishing unattended on somebody else's desk. "I tend to move between research and running think-tanks to doing the kind of thing I'm doing now, which is actually leading a change," she says.

But fitting it all in takes deft juggling. "The work/life balance has never been my fort'e," she concedes, but it's a regret she is trying to rectify.

"I'm a very driven personality, there's no doubt about that. For success in bringing about this kind of change, you have to be pretty ruthlessly focused. I deal with intense stuff at Telkom and it's an enormous challenge and there's pain and pleasure. It's very exciting, but what if you fail? You can't fail."

She has cured her insomnia through meditation and yoga, and by working out with weights and running. Sometimes she struggles to switch off her brain, but finds meditating really helps. "I come out of it transformed, even when I felt that my mind wasn't totally at rest," she says. "Nothing will make me compromise my health, not even this intensive workaholic tendency."

This article was first published in Brainstorm magazine. Click here to read the complete article at the Brainstorm website.

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