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Weighing the odds for the new Sol

Telstra changed so much internally under Sol Trujillo's watch that it seems likely the company's next CEO will be drawn from a small pool of executives who are already well practised in the Way of Sol.
Written by David Braue, Contributor

Ex-US president George W. Bush was widely lambasted for a variety of reasons during his eight years in the Oval Office, but some historians believe Dubya will be more kindly judged by history after the immediate shock of his transition has well and truly worn off.


Telstra CEO Sol Trujillo
(Credit: Telstra)

Will Australia be so kind to Sol Trujillo — or his successor?

For all the vitriol thrown at Trujillo heaped upon the past few years, he has been very successful at doing the thing he was brought onboard to do: make money for Telstra's shareholders. He confirmed this as his raison d'etre at last week's World Mobile Congress, when he countered attacks from Skype and Google over Telstra's lack of openness by pointing out that "I have a responsibility to make money".

And if that meant stifling the evolution of Australia's telecommunications along the way, so be it; every war has its weapons, and its casualties. Yet while analysts and observers dissect Trujillo's legacy — which, by the way, also included a major structural transformation project and the launch of Telstra's critical Next G mobile network — all eyes will be on his replacement to see whether we can expect more of the same, or a completely new direction.

While the latter might seem appealing as a way of reviving Telstra's flagging and all-important share price, I reckon two things are certain. First, that Telstra will choose to continue the path that Trujillo set it on: consolidating its infrastructure and refocusing its broadband efforts around Next G in the wake of Telstra's NBN embarrassment. Second, that the person to do this will come not from some massive global talent search, but from within its own internal ranks.

Trujillo was imported to bring global perspective to a newly privatised but highly parochial Telstra, presumably to put it in a position to consolidate its chokehold over Australian telecommunications and extend its business across the Asia-Pacific region like its competitors are doing.

It may be persisting with its acrimonious anti-government posturing and its dismissively anti-union stance, but Telstra still changed so much internally under Trujillo's watch — and still has so much of his vision to realise — that it seems unlikely that the company can afford an infusion of fresh blood and ideas right now.

That narrows down the list a fair bit: with most of the executives named in ZDnet's top-10 list currently based overseas, it seems reasonable to assume that the next CEO will be drawn from a small pool of Telstra executives who are already well practised in the Way of Sol.

That would include David Moffatt, currently group managing director for consumer marketing and channels; Kate McKenzie, group managing director of Telstra Wholesale; Michael Rocca, group managing director of Telstra Networks & Services; Deena Shiff, group managing director of Telstra Business; and David Thodey, group managing director for Telstra Enterprise and Government.

While Telstra has 15 key divisional executives, these five stand out because of their relative depth of experience in Telstra's core areas — areas such as mobile and wholesale. Both will be essential to Telstra's business going forward: mobile content and overseas expansion will strengthen Telstra's Next G story, while wholesale expertise will be critical to preserve the role of Telstra's nationwide network and shape its relationship with the NBN as it is eventually built.

Moffatt's involvement with Telstra's large-scale and innovative fixed and mobile content-based business would seem to make him a serious contender for the job, particularly given his previous experience as CFO. Deep financial expertise would give him extra marks in helping Telstra navigate the global financial downturn relatively unscathed.

My money, for what it's worth, is on Deena Shiff, who led Telstra Wholesale through the formative years between 2001 and 2006

McKenzie's legal and regulatory experience, as well as her current role in Telstra Wholesale, give her many of the core skills for the job, but extending this into new growth areas might put her a bit outside of her comfort zone; mobile and content strategy, among other things, will be critical.

Rocca's seniority, expertise, and familiarity with Telstra's most important business would put him in good stead, since he has the technical chops that many of the others lack. However, years spent so close to the coal face may well limit his forward vision.

Thodey has previous experience running Telstra's mobile division, and now has strong big-business credentials as a relationship manager. His previous role as CEO of IBM shows he has the wherewithal to run a large business, and his services expertise would mean he's intimately acquainted with Telstra's capabilities. His weak spot is lack of consumer expertise — and, I presume, familiarity with content and the other things that drive consumers wild — would be a weakness since Telstra's strategy seems heavily built on shock-and-awe tactics.

Thodey and Moffatt seem like standout candidates, but my money, for what it's worth, is on Shiff, who led Telstra Wholesale through the formative years between 2001 and 2006. A Trujillo appointee to her current post, she can be counted on to continue the Way of Sol.

Her 20 years of experience in legal and regulatory issues make her well-prepared to continue Telstra's battle against government regulation; her wholesale expertise will inform infrastructure strategy and flavour Telstra's role with regards to the NBN; and her business experience puts her in touch with the real-world needs of real, paying customers across both fixed and mobile spheres.

US voters re-elected George W. in 2004 despite his flagging popularity, because there was a sense he — like Trujilo — had started something only he could finish. Yet while his successor was clear months before the actual US election, the result of Telstra's executive search is far less certain.

While the NBN decision will be the year's most newsworthy story, expect a level of interest in Trujillo's successor not unlike that afforded to the Oscar race this past weekend, when months of hype about Heath Ledger and 'Slumdog Millionaire' proved right on the money. While they were sure things, however, the race to be Trujillo's successor is still wide open.

Who are you betting on as Sol's successor, and why? Can Telstra afford a change in direction? Does it need even one?

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