Meet the Boss: Hatem Hariri, MD for Africa, Avaya

‘Meet the Boss’ is a How we made it in Africa interview series where we pose 10 questions to business leaders across the continent.

Hatem Hariri

Hatem Hariri

Hatem Hariri, managing director for Africa, Avaya

1. What was your first job?

I was a cashier in a mini-market aged just 14. We were still living in Lebanon. I borrowed $5 from my father to run a mini-market my grandfather owned. The store had been closed for a while following his death. So I operated the store during summer holidays and made more than $15. I gave my dad back his $5, paid my cousin who worked with me, and kept the profits for myself.

2. What parts of your job keep you awake at night?

It’s the excitement of making a difference. One night in 1998 while living in Canada I was driving from Montreal to Ottawa during a small storm. I hit a moose and my car rolled over. My car was so badly damaged, nobody believed I came out alive. At that moment I felt God telling me I still had things to accomplish here on earth. I remember this quite often. That is why I want to make a difference. I love to see our customers such as Airtel working on our technology providing thousands of jobs. That hunger to make a difference keeps me awake at night.

3. Who has had the biggest impact on your career and why?

My father, because he believed in me when I was 14. That experience of reviving my grandfather’s store made me entrepreneurial. My wife and our three children are now making a big difference in my life. Today my four-year-old, who is sick, phoned, me [from Dubai] to wish me good luck because he knew I had a big event in Nairobi.

4. What is the best professional advice you’ve ever received?

Be human. Think about the person in front of you. Don’t lie. Don’t just sell things. What benefits will the product bring to the end-user? How does it affect society? What experience will the customer get?

5. The top reasons you have been successful in business?

I like the virtue of humility. I also like to lead from the front. I don’t like to push. Yesterday I was working with my team setting up banners in preparation for a company event. I believe you should build people, and the people will build the business. I thank God because all through my career I’ve been surrounded by a very good team.

6. The best place to prepare for leadership? Business school or on the job?

On the job. Seriously, you can’t learn leadership from books. You have to live it.

7. How do you relax?

My wife says I don’t relax, that I am always working. But I like watching movies with my kids.

8. By what time in the morning do you like to be at your desk?

I wake up at six before the kids go to school. I go for a swim and by seven I am working from my laptop wherever I am. I manage 52 countries and there are different time zones and holidays, so I have to be connected with my team at all times. It is not just an issue of what time you get to your desk.

9. Your favourite job interview question?

I have never been interviewed for a job. I have always been approached. But the question I like to ask people when I am interviewing, is focused on their personal life and attitude. I will tell you why: I want people in my team to feel we are all family. I believe in ‘hire on knowledge and fire on attitude’. I want you to be smart and aggressive when I am hiring you, but I also want to know you have a winning attitude.

10. Your message to Africa’s aspiring business leaders and entrepreneurs?

Be hungry for knowledge. Don’t have the ‘I know it all’ attitude. Every day presents a learning opportunity. You should also lead without a title, lead by example.

Avaya, with its headquarters in the US, develops solutions that enable businesses and governments to address challenges in healthcare, education, banking and telecommunication. Some of its solutions include video communications, customer experience management and networking. In 2012 Avaya signed a five year contract with Bharti Airtel to operate and manage the IT requirements for its contact centres across Africa.