Muhammad Siddiqui attended the The Executive Program (TEP) in 2007 while he was the newly appointed CEO of MTN Afghanistan. An experienced professional with a long, successful career spread over 3 decades to his credit, Siddiqui spent 20 years of his career at the MTN Group, a pure-play emerging markets mobile telecommunications operator at the forefront of technological and digital changes. Over the course of his career, he focused on leading business transformation efforts, serving as the CEO in the markets of Ghana, Afghanistan, Sudan and Nigeria. When he transitioned out of MTN, he left as the most recognized CEO of the MTN Group for his transformation work and accomplishments. Since leaving MTN Group in 2018, he now advises leaders on business transformation using the lessons he’s learned along the way. Last year, he has established a digital learning platform which has recently won a global award.

However, when Siddiqui first stepped into a CEO role, it was quite challenging. He decided to participate in Darden Executive Education & Lifelong Learning’s global, advanced management experience, The Executive Program (TEP). He recently reminisced about his experience and how it changed his career and his life.

What led you to Darden and TEP?

I started out my career as a Chartered Accountant, which is the equivalent of a CPA in the States. Then I worked in Pakistan for a housing finance organization as the Head of Treasury for a few years. From 1998 onwards, I worked with the MTN Group. I started out in Ghana as a Chief Financial Officer. There was a discussion with senior management and the CEO about the training that people needed to complete. I started researching programs and looked at things like rankings and faculty and discovered TEP. What attracted me particularly to Darden was the diversity of the program. There were people from all over the world and across multiple functions and occupations. I knew I could learn a lot from the participants.

At the time, I was wanting to transition into a role focused more on business management and transformation. Then, just before finalizing paperwork to attend TEP, I was briefly named acting CEO in Ghana and then MTN moved me to Afghanistan to serve as CEO. There was a curveball in my plans to attend TEP because the cost of the program would have been 50% of my team’s entire training budget in Afghanistan, so I decided I would need to fund myself in order to attend. After applying and working with the team at Darden, it worked out that I was able to attend in 2007.

What were some of your biggest takeaways from TEP?

There were two big learnings that I took away from my TEP experience. The first is from Professor Alexander Horniman, who taught us that leaders are storytellers. A successful leader should be able to communicate a dream to the people and motivate them towards achieving that dream. I learned that a leader should be transparent and build relationships with their people. This piece of advice to be a truthful storyteller, sharing a common dream, and gathering and leading the team to that dream has stuck with me throughout my entire career and it’s advice I share with every leader.

The second big learning that I took away from TEP was from the case study about Pepsi and Coke and their battle to gain market share. When I was at TEP, I was only a few months into my CEO role in Afghanistan and it was very challenging. This case helped me with strategy and planning, and I took things back that I could implement to help transform the business in Afghanistan and subsequently in Sudan and Nigeria.

These lessons were life changing for me, and without them I would not have been able to move forward like I did in my career. Prior to completing TEP, we were number three in the market in Afghanistan. Within 15 months after completing TEP, we emerged as the market leader in Afghanistan. It was that experience that helped me to become a champion of transformation and business improvement going forward.

After my success in Afghanistan, they moved me into the CEO role in Sudan. Sudan was struggling and operating at a loss. Within a year and a half of leading in Sudan, we emerged as number two, a clear challenger in that market. Then I was recruited to serve as the COO for the Nigeria market. Nigeria was the largest corporation in the MTN Group, accounting for about 40% of revenue and profit, which was about $2.5 billion annually. The Nigerian operation fell into trouble due to a huge regulatory fine, which led to a demotivated team and an operating loss for the first time ever. I used what I had learned in TEP and had applied in Afghanistan and Sudan, and within two years Nigeria was back on track and doing better than ever before.

Was there anything about your experience at Darden that surprised you or was particularly memorable?

The care and diversity of the program are particularly memorable to me. When I was in Afghanistan, a couple of the books were not available for me to purchase that were needed for the program, and the faculty purchased and gifted the books to me. I remember being so surprised and moved by this gesture. Also, to this day, I’m still in contact with faculty members and share the work I’m doing. In times when I need advice, they are always helpful and kind in lending it. They are extremely busy people and they’ve had thousands of students, but they have an incredible ability to remember people and help in any way they can.

I also remember being the only person who requested a special meal as I had requested halal meals. On the first day the chef came to speak with me to better understand what I needed. I insisted that vegetarian meals would be fine, but he wanted to make sure I had what I requested and asked to sit down with me later that evening. The next day, and every day after, the chef made a halal meal based on what we discussed. It showed a next level of care, and it showed me that this is how we practice diversity and not just talk about it. I had no words to describe how thankful I was that he made that effort.

What would you tell someone who is considering TEP?

My colleagues know me to be a straightforward person. I would say that if you come to TEP with an open mind and willingness to learn, it will change your life and your career. As an organization, if you are serious about capacity building and developing leaders who can take your company to the next level, this program will open your leaders’ minds and help them look at things differently. You will walk away from TEP with a new and innovative perspective to improve your professional life and the state of your organization.

Learn more about The Executive Program: Strategic Leadership at the Top and how it may help you reach your career or organizational goals.