Crossing the Chasm: Why is it so hard to move from BPO to GBS leader?

By September 7, 2021January 3rd, 2022Archive, Careers, Latest, Talent
Moving talent between enterprise and BPO shouldn’t be as hard as crossing a chasm, but often is.

By Deborah Kops

For years, I have been flummoxed by lack of interoperability between experience professionals who deliver global business services in a business process outsourcer and those who work in an enterprise GBS. After all, the skills are a mirror image, pursuit of delivery excellence is universal, the work is the same, the technology doesn’t differ, the location model doesn’t vary much. I’ve asked myself how enterprises can ignore such a large vein of talent, especially at the mid- and senior level?  So, I looked for markers—and they don’t have anything to do with expertise.

Although there are no absolute numbers, Everest Research suggests that there are over 1.6 million professionals in what we fondly term global business and shared services worldwide, with as an additional 7 million getting a paycheck from Business Process Outsourcers (BPOs). Even if these numbers are off by an order of magnitude, one would think that we’d look at the talent collectively as one big, deep pool. However, those of us in the enterprise tribe still prefer to employ those who are already members.

It’s not to say that there isn’t fungibility between the enterprise and outsourced talent markets. At the delivery center level, it’s common practice for GBS organizations to recruit delivery staff or mid-level management from a provider in the same region. But when hiring managers are out to hire professionals at a more senior, “make it happen” level, experience in an enterprise GBS or shared services organization becomes highly preferable, if not a must-have for a majority of hiring managers.

In a world where global business services talent is in increasingly short supply, discounting provider staff limits options, not only in terms of market size but also in terms of expertise. Need a transition manager? Provider staff arguably have stronger track records. Six sigma expertise in the brief? Some of the providers have talent benches that practitioner pools can never hope to match in a million years. Knowledge transfer the imperative? Provider talent is known to be much more than methodologically sound.

So, I’d argue that expertise is not the issue. Rather, the lack of interest is likely due to other factors.

Let’s take a deep dive into what’s getting in the way of talent mobility.

Firstly, why isn’t BPO experience translating well to GBS hiring managers? Before you read on, I ask only one thing: don’t shoot the messenger!

  • Concerns about the command-and-control structure of outsourcing providers In the minds of many enterprise leaders, provider talent is best placed to deliver work that is predictable, work-flowed and delivered by a command-and-control management structure that does not allow deviation, even at managerial levels. Conversely, they see a priority for their top roles as requiring capability to adapt and flex, dealing with ambiguity and making independent decisions as opposed to following a set of rules well. 
  • Customer experience as a buyer of BPO services If the GBS organization has a BPO relationship that they believe is in the red or yellow zone–for whatever reason–unfortunately that can color opinions. Think a non-responsive account manager, or a solutions leader who doesn’t listen very well; the hiring manager may discount the entire industry as a source of talent.
  • Perceived lack of stakeholder management skills The stakeholder map in a provider is arguably much simpler than that of GBS; the customer is pretty well defined. In a provider structure, there are fewer folk to relate to as stakeholders—the boss in a hierarchical structure, the client manager. Navigating the grey of those with sometimes conflicting agendas may not be in the cards. However, in an enterprise, stakeholder maps are much more complicated, encompassing a network users, customers and sponsors with often conflicting agendas.
  • Capability trumps skills Smart enterprise hiring managers don’t just hire for the job at hand, they look for broad capabilities in a candidate to deploy them in a number of roles as evidenced by a career path characterized by a broad variety of experiences. While in some BPO organizations provider talent may have the same opportunities to pick up a broad range of capabilities, the training focus slants to skills.  
  • Cultural agility In a truly global business services operation, cultural agility—the ability to work across a crazy quilt of cultures is highly prized, especially in high impact roles. Given the way provider teams are aligned—especially when time zones are factored in, talent may not have the opportunity to develop the same cross-cultural navigation chops.
  • Location mismatch We’d like to think that we can work virtually and globally, and that’s certainly not in dispute when it comes to the delivery of business process services. But there remains a preference for residency at headquarters, especially in senior roles where proximity to leaders is seen as a have-to-have. With so many personnel located in places like India, The Philippines and eastern Europe, and a reluctance to hire outside of country, in part driven by the complications of immigration, provider candidates can be disregarded as a viable talent pool.
  • Same song, second verse Rightly or wrongly, GBS hiring managers tend to want “one of those”—someone who has held a very similar role in a carbon-copy organization with the same scope, preferably in the same industry of a similar size. They may not understand that that provider experience can translate just as well.
  • Fear of moles This is particularly true when a provider job candidate comes from a partner BPO. Enterprises worry about the potential for inappropriate information sharing.

At the same time, BPO professionals sometimes sabotage themselves in the hiring process, closing the door on opportunity sometimes even before the hiring officer has a chance to fully engage and assess. Here are some of the most common mistakes made in the hiring process:

  • Fixation with title In BPO organizations, which are hierarchical in operation, titles take on heightened importance. Moving from a senior executive to an AVP makes a clear statement about career progression in a provider. But enterprise titles are rarely equivalent; a general manager can be higher up on the totem pole than a vice president. Too often, very qualified professionals eliminate themselves from great step-up roles because they focus on title, cutting off dialog on role and responsibility.
  • Smartest man in the room syndrome Knowing the right questions to ask in enterprise shared services trumps having all the answers at the ready. But sometimes in a provider environment, having the answers is weighted over listening skills. Success in shared services comes from understanding an ever-evolving enterprise context. In an interview process, a know-it-all approach is usually a non-starter.
  • Making demands Negotiating level, career path and reward is often different in a provider organization where career paths and time in grade may be well-defined. Increasingly, that is not true in an enterprise context where business need and internal capability combine to create career opportunities. “Demanding” a promotion in a two years or so during the process puts hiring managers off, messaging that promotion (and title) potential is more important to the candidate than paying dues and doing a good job in the role at hand.
  • Naiveté about compensation The reward calculus in the BPO world can be different to that of enterprises. Offshore, the compensation structure is usually base plus (modest) bonus, with transparency as to comp levels organization to organization, while in an enterprise there are usually a series of long-term incentives such as stock and options.  Complicate that with a strongly held belief that a new role should command a certain percentage bump, and BPO professionals eliminate themselves from further discussion.

What can both parties do to increase the GBS talent pool?

GBS and shared services organizations, increasingly strapped for talent, have to do a bit of an about-face when it comes to having an open mind about provider professionals. Here are just a few suggestions for GBS and shared services enterprises who want to harness the power of provider talent:

  1. Establish “exchange programs” Some of the most successful provider-to-enterprise leaps that I’ve seen resulted from loan staff arrangements, borrowing high provider performers to fill interim roles, with an open mind to making them permanent.
  2. Do a better job of aligning skills and capabilities Not all GBS and shared services roles are automatically a fit for the talents of provider staff. But a good many of them are, especially jobs that require deep process expertise, analysis, organization and discipline, shying away from roles where the work is non-uniform and highly contextual (read: high stakeholder involvement). GBS and shared services leaders should do a side-by-side comparison of provider and in-house skills and capabilities, potentially opening up new thinking about talent sources
  3. Get serious about mentoring Perhaps the organization has a senior leader who has already crossed the chasm. S/he can help provider talent navigate an enterprise context, showing them how to pick up critical skills such as forming networks, listening, communicating effectively or quickly understanding the organization’s norms.

At the same time, provider professionals must get serious about the realities of looking for a mid- to senior level job in a GBS or shared services organization.

Providers, consider these tips to change the trajectory of your career:

  1. Listen. Don’t tell Take the time to understand the role and its responsibilities, its potential career path, and expectations before tossing the opportunity out of hand.
  2. Move sideways Getting that first enterprise job usually results from chasing a similar role in a new context. If your calling card is continuous improvement, pursue a service excellence job rather than a role that requires change management. If your expertise is managing in one country, don’t try to snag a global role first off; start by stepping sideways into a similar role.
  3. Develop a compelling story Successful job seekers are differentiated by one skill—the ability to tell a story about how they create value rather than progressive time in grade. In an interview process, successful provider professionals focus on how they connect business process delivery results to enterprise success.

I’ve seen provider professionals successfully cross the chasm, some in top GBS roles. The common denominator for success? Both the enterprise hiring officer and the professional have an open mind, understand the challenges, and are willing to work together.

Are you?