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Entrepreneurs Smile and Pyae Maung: Eastern Leadership Principles Lead to Success

Asian perspective on leadership is distinct in that it focuses on self-awareness, posits former actress and entrepreneur, Smile Maung. Smile and her husband, Pyae Maung, are a technology wiz couple, and through their experience and perspective we uncover what defines Eastern corporate leadership through self-awareness.

Pyae Maung observes that, “Eastern business leaders strive to be mindful, and “mindfulness is a term of art”, drawing on Buddhist principles.

Smile Maung and her husband Pyae Maung

The Maungs are one of Myanmar’s influential business couples who demonstrated unity of vision and commitment to innovation, transforming telecom and tech industries of Southeast Asia. Their leadership style is characterized not just by their astute cultural awareness, but also by their understanding of technological trends in Asia’s ever-changing regulatory environment. They see themselves both as managers and investors who are forced to regularly reinvent their business models to keep up with changes in technology and regional politics. Pyae quotes investor Warren Buffett, who said that “the most important quality for an investor is temperament, not intellect.” For guidance on temperament, the couple draws on Buddhist teachings.

Leaders with low emotional intelligence or EQ often lack self-awareness and self- compassion, says Pyae. This also makes it very difficult for executives to feel compassion and empathy for others. Thus, they struggle to establish sustainable, authentic relationships. In Asia, relationships are critical – even with subordinates – he goes on to explain. Buddhism addresses fundamental issues facing humankind, but secular Buddhist teachings are applicable to western best practices and good corporate citizenship. These are buzz words that are predicated on self-aware leadership, Smile explains.

Leaders who do not value introspection and reflection are vulnerable to being seduced by external rewards and reckless emotions, such as power, money, and recognition at the sake of the organization and shareholder value. Pyae explains that such leaders feel a need to appear perfect to others and cannot acknowledge mistakes.

While Smile was a famous actress and singer in Myanmar, Pyae started his telecom business in London in 2006 as VMG Telecom. Pyae and Smile launched a proprietary international calling card for the Myanmar Community. At the same time, the couple started selling wholesale airtime minutes for Myanmar to major international telecom carriers. The telecom business expanded over the years to include VOIP, digital content partnering with music labels, artists, and movie producers, and mobile payment apps. Most recently, the couple launched entertainment, gaming, and hospitality enterprises under the brand Smile Empire, and Smile Online Cinema.

When Smile and Pyae started their telecom business, they identified a shift in the telecom sector and in consumer behavior dictated by cloud-based telecom technologies which were putting pressure on the legacy telecom companies to change their business models. While multinational telecoms were no longer able to rely on customers paying for premium IDD (International Direct Dialing) calls, it was time to bring simple and low-cost solutions to empower millions in Southeast Asia.

Empowering people through telecom is the couple’s motto. “When we first went back to Myanmar to set up our telecom business, we had one goal – to enable everyone in Myanmar and South-East Asia to have access to cheap international calls, as regional operators struggled to provide efficient and affordable communication,” explains Pyae Maung. People of Myanmar rely on international calls to keep in touch with loved ones working overseas to provide for their families. “With the technology and the knowledge, we had, we expected things to be smooth and straightforward, but in hindsight we were naive,” he posits. First, Asian bureaucracy is less straightforward than western, and therefore convincing the ministry of communication to get licenses was a nightmare. Successfully navigating through these experiences was predicated to introspective management techniques the business couple embraced.

The Maungs are one of Myanmar’s most influential business couples

Other market barriers such as addressing national security and consumer privacy had to be addressed. In recent years it has Asian market acknowledged the threat of hacking of personal data, which has become a big black-market business. Therefore, government regulatory bodies issued multiple updated rules to safeguard client privacy. Complicated regulatory environment and Myanmar’s lack of proper infrastructure became additional challenges as we were building our business, explains Pyae. We tackled these with determination, but also with compassion and self-awareness.

Future trends in telecom in Asia according to the Maungs are investing in data centers, cloud computing and cyber security throughout Laos, Vietnam, Myanmar, and Cambodia to address the move to smart cities and smart homes, which will require reliable data and broader bandwidth. As landline business continues to plummet, 5G wireless has become the focus for future investment in Southeast Asia. The development of 5G is also being driven by the needs of content companies such as Netflix, YouTube, and others, enabling them to deliver services to mobile devices without reliance on Wi-Fi connections. Content giants are developing their own content delivery networks or CDNs. These enable a better quality of service and are putting additional pressure on telecom.

“Our experience with remote workplace due having offices in disparate geographic locations had prepared us for the pandemic. Our study of Eastern philosophy made us measured and disciplined, yet accommodating to industry trends,” explains Pyae. Asian leaders are not transactional; rather, they need to feel that they are entering into a long-term relationship based on trust and mutual respect.

For us, mindful leadership is predicated on self-awareness and mindfulness. Mindfulness is a state of being fully present, aware of oneself and other people, and sensitive to one’s reactions to stressful situations. Leaders who are mindful tend to be more effective in understanding and relating to others and motivating them toward shared goals; they become more effective in leadership roles. Eastern leadership principles have worked for us in difficult times, and we believe that Western executives can also benefit from Buddhist teachings.