General Manager Global Business Solutions Eastern Europe, Middle East & Africa at ByteDance/TikTok
Shant Oknayan’s mission is to lead ByteDance’s and its short-form video platform TikTok’s business strategy, partnerships, and operations across the region.
Oknayan has 20 years of experience successfully growing digital and tech platforms. Always a front-runner with an entrepreneurial and pioneering mindset, he previously worked on developing business strategies for Facebook (now META) and Google across MENA, and co-founded award-nominated GlamBox, the first subscription-based beauty e-commerce startup in the region. Previously, he led digital transformation programs as a management consultant at Booz&Co (now Strategy&) across the Middle East and Europe, helping shape national digital agendas for various countries.
Oknayan holds a double Masters from MIT and Imperial College London. He grew up in Italy and has been living in Dubai for the past 15 years with his wife and two children.
How would you define leadership today?
The past two years have taken a toll on people, organizations, and society at large; we’ve lived through uncertainty, constantly changing environments and dynamics, and emotional distress. This has caused a paradigm shift in leadership, with a rethink of priorities and the realization that change is the only constant. In fact, I’m reminded of a quote: “We must free ourselves of the hope that the sea will ever rest. We must learn to sail in high winds.”
To navigate these new realities, leadership should not be enamored with power, but rather empower the organization to be agile in addressing these constant changes.
What’s the most important decision you have taken as a leader?
There’s not only one specific decision, but I’ve made a conscious effort to always be “uncomfortably excited.” I’m always seeking to disrupt myself and the organization I lead from a position of strength, rather than falling into a pattern of being comfortable and complacent, and hence risking being disrupted by others. The overarching questions I constantly ask myself are “What’s the next step? What’s behind that corner?” and I’m constantly looking to reshape our business and operating model to respond to those questions.
What’s the one decision you wish you hadn’t made as a leader?
Compromising on the principle of hiring superstar talent because the business need to fulfill a role was urgent and critical. We should always hire the best talent, regardless of how long it’s going to take; having the right people in the organization will always be beneficial to the business in the long term.
In your opinion, who’s the most powerful leader globally today?
That’s a difficult question depending on how you look at it; some global leaders, such as CEOs and heads of states, have very explicit and clear power, while others may be less visible to the public eye but yield much more power. I think great leadership is more about influence and inspiration than power; one’s ability to influence and inspire others to get behind a common goal or cause, and empower them to collectively achieve it.
Who’s your role model?
My father, a man who has reinvented himself numerous times in his private and professional life. He demonstrated incredible resilience and a protagonist mindset in doing so, with his exemplary “pragmatic optimism” and calm and collected demeanor in addressing both successes and challenges. His “This too shall pass” attitude is something I hold dearly and try to live up to.
What’s the most important quality that every leader should possess?
If I had to pick one quality, it would be trust. It’s something leaders have to earn continuously, and my own formula for this is something I call the 5 Hs: Hunger, Hustle, Humility, Hardiness, and Heart.
It’s also important for a leader to display exponential thinking in their aspirations and have an “Always Day 1” attitude towards achieving that ambition, while also having the humility to put themselves at the service of the team and the greater good, and the resilience and readiness to pivot as situations evolve. Most importantly, leaders should do all of this from a position of empathy for their teams and the wider organization; trust is the foundation.
What’s the one mistake that leaders most commonly make?
Many leaders become “drunk on power,” displaying arrogance and detachment from the realities on the ground, believing that they have all the answers. In my humble opinion, leadership is a responsibility to others, not a claim to fame or a badge of honor. As the leader of an organization, I work for the team. It’s my job to ensure they have everything they need and that I help them realize our shared mission and vision for the future of the company, creatively and authentically. And in order for the organization to continue to evolve, it’s also important to encourage diversity of thought.
Leaders are not expected to have all the answers; they must seek them out, hire those best placed to collectively come up with solutions, and be humble enough to listen to them to then draw the most informed decision.
What’s the most critical threat that every leader in our industry should pay attention to today?
Believing that what got them here is going to get them there. It’s important to stay abreast of innovations and changing dynamics, and disrupt yourself before others do. We’re seeing this happen now with organizations attempting to operate in a pre-Covid manner. Call me an optimist, but having to adapt to a global pandemic has certainly been an eye-opener for organizations globally. The pandemic prompted employees to rethink everything they knew about how they work. Employees now demand and are entitled to a greater focus on wellbeing and mental health, and to more flexibility, allowing them to balance or blend work and life more effectively. We’ve seen some organizations do very well by responding to the needs of their employees, while others have not and, as a result, have lost talent.
What’s the most important risk you took?
I’d like to believe that all of the risks I’ve taken were always part of an informed decision. The most practical example would be leaving a fantastic corporate job to go run my fledgling startup while my wife was expecting our first child. Risky at first glance, but it was a fantastic learning opportunity that helped shape so much of who I am today.
What resources would you recommend to someone looking to become a better leader?
Feedback is a gift: keep asking for it from the different stakeholders you interact with – your own team, clients and partners, team members across the wider organization, peers, mentors – and listen intently and objectively. This is how you can continue to invest in being the best version of yourself.
What are you doing to ensure you continue to grow as a leader?
Again, feedback cannot be overstated as it helps unmask your strengths and growth areas, and gives you something to work towards. Active listening and empathy are also key; knowing what keeps your team up at night and making sure that, as a leader, you are enabling them to be the best version of themselves
What’s the best leadership advice you’ve ever received?
Keep evolving from individual success to collective significance.
What’s the best leadership advice you’ve ever given?
Leadership is a journey, not a destination; keep learning, keep evolving
You can see the full ranking and methodology here.