The True Story of an Off-Shored Business: A Lesson in Spotting and Correcting Reality
By Roy Figueroa
A Lesson in Spotting and Correcting Reality
Through this piece, I’ll tell a story about a reality that so many businesses have been through and yet many continue to tolerate. Unless you’ve been able to define success in measurable terms and have achieved targets, you need to ask if you can get more.
The True Story of an Off-Shored Business
Years ago, I joined a company that provided outsourcing services for an Aussie business and inherited leadership of a team of back-office and QA personnel that supported sales teams in Australia.
I walked into this team that was proud of its culture and protective of its members. Work-life balance was important for them and supervisors advocated flexibility, employee empowerment, and working at one’s pace. They had zero resignations nor any termination since day 1 and their manager was well liked! The young workforce obviously enjoyed going to work and loved what they were doing.
That role pushed me to my limits, and turning the situation around would become my biggest accomplishment as a manager!
If It’s Too Good to be True…
I sat beside a supervisor on my first day so I could start learning about our processes and the teams’ day-to-day. The supervisor wasted no time showing off her Microsoft Excel skills while sharing with me why I was lucky to now be part of the team. In between extracting data from a system and generating a pivot report, she told me about how much time she has in her day to connect with her team whom she calls her second family. She spends at least 5 hours daily making her presence felt and was very proud that her “children” loves her. I looked on as she sent the email containing her “last report and task for the day” which also meant she can now take her break.
It was 10:30 am and the day started at 8 am.
I was obviously surprised, so I asked if “last report and task for the day” meant that she just completed her last report and task for the day. Her response, said within the third hour of my first day, was “Oh come on, boss! You know how it is. It gets easier as you go up the ladder. I’m only a team leader. You’re a manager!”
Still, I told myself not to rush to any judgment and observe further if the situation in the organization was an exception to what I learned early in my career as a team leader – if it seems too good to be true, it probably is.
On my 2nd week on the job, I was asked to join an emergency call where the news was delivered that a “simple” error, where the team needed to simply tick a box on the order form, was repeated over months and caused a significant amount of loss and diminished the benefits realized from offshoring.
It was clear now what I was facing.
- The culture of flexibility supervisors espoused encouraged too much of it and encouraged work-around in the absence of clear procedures and processes
- The work-life balance everyone is so protective about actually meant “work when you want”, as staff maximized the flexible work schedule and reported to the office late but went home at 5 o' clock in the afternoon regardless
- Zero attrition meant low performance was tolerated. Apart from some encouragement from team leaders to perform better, no serious action was being taken and no one was being held accountable
The culture that everyone loves will need to change and I knew it wouldn’t be easy. The team culture benefited the team, but not the business.
I was lucky to be working for my boss who was sent to the Philippines by the business to fix the then seemingly brewing mess. When they made the decision to send him to the Philippines, the processing error and its impact have not yet been discovered and all the business knew for sure was that the young guy they sent to manage the offshore team was having too much fun.
One of my boss’ first objectives was to look for a local manager to replace the current expat manager. Maybe because I looked more Filipino than the other Filipino applicant, I got the job.
It was instrumental that the mandate was clear and we were in agreement on what needed to be put in place to achieve the business’ objectives.
Just like my boss, I knew I had to start by hiring the right people to succeed. I will need influencers to bridge the gap between me and the front-line staff when we communicate our objectives.
Luckily, the business needed to hire more team members, including two new leaders, to support the increasing volume of work. For the two leaders, I had the option to hire externally-sourced but experienced leaders, or hire from within the organization. Because a complete overhaul was going to be necessary, I went with two ladies from the existing team.
Vina and Lyn (not their real names) were very green and had no supervisory experience. But, I knew that having three new faces, including mine, all “bosses”, and all talking about change, will only make the expected push back worse. Their promotion to leadership positions would make influencing easier apart from underscoring a key message – “Opportunities to grow within the organization are available.”
Another key message, although I didn’t use the same sexy words then, was “Trust the process.” The two new ladies understood this and were prepared to help deliver the same to their teams and their fellow leaders.
We were pumped! We were going to change the culture and achieve excellence! It will be a process. But within the process, we have accepted, that we will be hated by some.
Putting things in place
While conducting interviews and attending calls to discuss more problems, we slowly put in place the foundations to the new structure. We started by writing comprehensive PD’s that clearly outlined responsibilities and replaced the then two-sentence long PD's. Then we created schedules, drafted policies, wrote processes, created performance measurements and scorecards, and improved reporting.
It was a lot of work!
We eventually had the tools to provide us fair and objective ways to measure performance, and we had processes that would improve the quality of our work and replace the current way of doing things so aptly described by one of our tenured staff – “If the system allows me to submit it, then the order is probably good.” The team back then just kept plugging whatever into wherever until Submit was no longer grayed out. Then hit Submit.
Submitting to Change
Getting our people’s buy-in wasn’t going to be easy. An important lesson I picked up during my brief experience in sales was to always talk to the customer about WIIFM – “What’s in it for me?” To sell anything - a product, a service, an idea, or change – it’s important to highlight to your audience how it would benefit them. How do I sell change when the only WIIFM I could think of was “You get to keep your jobs.” How do I sell fixed schedules, performance measurements, defined responsibilities, accountability, when everything we had in place was “pro-people”?
It took months but slowly, and sometimes painfully, people eventually bought into the new culture we were trying to put in place. Vina and Lyn were instrumental as their genuine belief in what we were doing was evident and added to their credibility.
Together, we changed the definitions of key words that described our culture.
- Flexibility and employee empowerment now meant encouraging innovation and looking for better ways to improve processes but without making the changes until they’ve been reviewed, agreed upon, documented, and communicated properly. We recognized and announced to everyone whose bright idea it was that made their work easier to keep encouraging more bright ideas
- Work-life balance now meant a lot of other things without shortchanging the business
- No overtime unless absolutely necessary as a result of measurements put in place that allowed for accurate determination of workforce requirements and hiring the right headcount
- Open-to-family company events and prioritizing employee referrals for job openings so friends and family can also work for us, were our way to get their “work” closer to their “life”
- A fair and relaxed leaves management process ensured everyone is able to spend time with their families during important occasions e.g. sister’s graduation from the university, attending to a sick child, birthdays, etc. The leaves calendar was available to everyone so available slots per day is visible. Leave swapping among people was encouraged
- Non-work related activities, e.g. free guitar lessons by talented employees were encouraged
- Love for work came from the feeling of accomplishment as a result of rewards and recognition. The scorecards allowed for some healthy competition and provided a fair and transparent way to gauge performance versus personal and team goals
Truth be told, I think we could have done it better. We were hated at one point by more than some and lost more people during the transition than we had hoped, but we also increased productivity by 40% while increasing quality and reducing leakage. We were successful!
The experience taught me lessons that I wouldn’t be able to get from reading most leadership and management books and articles. In fact, what we had then on surface would have been celebrated by some “experts” as it crossed-off a number of BIG words – work-life balance, flexibility, employee empowerment, retention – albeit defined differently. By investing time in writing policies, processes, and other controls, and accepting that losing people does not mean we’re bad managers, we eventually changed the definitions of these words and put in place a culture that truly promoted excellence and employee engagement.
Anyway, a few years after, I said goodbye to the team to try and do it all over again with another organization. I left a team that is proud of its culture and protective of its members. Work-life balance is important for them and supervisors advocate flexibility and innovation. They have better than industry-standard attrition and their manager, Vina, is well liked! The young workforce obviously enjoy going to work and love what they are doing.
Roy Figueroa has been working in the outsourcing industry for the last 12 years and has been part of two huge offshoring projects within the last decade for organizations doing it for the first time. He joined hammerjack recently and continue to play a key role in many offshoring projects to the Philippines for companies, large and small, applying lessons learned from realizing and correcting "realities".