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Odetta Rockhead-Kerr: Sutherland's visionary leader

Business Leader: Executive Steward Nominee #8

BY MOSES JACKSON

Monday, November 20, 2017



Today the Jamaica Observer publishes the eighth of 12 stories on the nominees for this year's Business Leader Award being held under the theme “Business Leader: Executive Steward”. The nominees are among the top CEOs in Jamaica.

Odetta Rockhead-Kerr's reputation as a visionary leader in business process outsourcing pre-dated our chance meeting in December 2014.

At a Christmas party hosted by the 2007 Business Leader and Cari-Med's owner Glen Christian, Rockhead-Kerr was attracted to a small breakaway group engaged in a spirited but light-hearted discussion about the recently-held Business Leader Award.

“Why is everybody congratulating you?” she enquired of me by way of introduction, and in part to satisfy her curiosity about what must have come across as a monumental achievement on my part.

“Oh, that's because we just had a successful Business Leader Award,” I replied, struggling to strike the right balance between modesty and my sense of elation.

Two years earlier Rockhead-Kerr was vice-president of Xerox Corporation, a well-established outsourcing firm. She had left that organisation and was now in the second year of her pioneering pursuit of an untested model within the BPO industry.

Our conversation cemented my predilection about Rockhead-Kerr: this executive, I predicted, would one day be nominated for the Jamaica Observer Business Leader Award.

Her nomination couldn't have come soon enough. Five years after Sutherland Global Services broke ground on Jamaican soil, the company has grown to be the industry's second-largest employer of labour, and appears headed to be the number one within the next 12 months.

In year one, there were 67 individuals on its payroll; now there are nearly 5,000 and the operation is spread across four locations that utilise a combined square footage of 234,100.

Sutherland has become a standout not only within the BPO industry, but across all of corporate Jamaica.

Rockhead-Kerr had been with Xerox for 15 years when she was first approached by executives of Sutherland Global who wanted to establish a branch in Jamaica. They were in the country attending a seminar on the BPO industry organised by Jampro and heard the presentation delivered by the then vice-president of Xerox.

They were impressed with her insights and made it known to her that they wanted her to lead their planned foray in the local market.

Although deeply loyal to her then employer, Rockhead-Kerr was excited by the prospect of having a heavy hand in shaping the business model for a new venture that she would then lead.

But she is quick to point out that she wasn't the author of the novel concept that Sutherland ultimately unveiled in Jamaica's BPO space. The credit belongs to Professor Gordon Shirley, the then pro vice chancellor of The University of the West Indies (UWI), Mona campus.

The university was struggling to stem the astonishing dropout rate among its student population and Shirley had been flogging, without much success, a business plan that would generate on campus, part-time employment for the neediest among them.

The quick study she is, Rockhead-Kerr immediately saw the full potential of the partnership. She took the broad, skeletal frame that Shirley and his team presented her, fleshed it out and burnished it. She now had in hand an operational plan of action for the BPO that she could share with her bosses.

“A key deciding factor for me,” she confesses, “was the concept of a university model ,which was new and something I wanted to pursue. My first assignment was to register Sutherland locally and determine where was best to launch our first site.”

The mandate led her to the office of the pro vice chancellor of UWI, Mona, from where she got a tour of the infrastructure that the university had in place.

“All (the BPOs) rejected the offer due to anticipated complexities,” says Rockhead-Kerr.

The benefit that the university would enjoy in the proposed industrial relations symbiosis was clear. By providing students with employment opportunity right on campus it would stanch their high drop out rates which were directly traced to issues of affordability.

“The university model would allow Sutherland to benefit from a tertiary-educated captive talent pool and would minimise attrition,” says Rockhead-Kerr in explaining the advantages in the arrangement of her organisation. “The average tenure on campus was three years versus the average one-year, tenure typical of the industry.”

Rockhead-Kerr immediately got to work drafting the MOU that would govern the partnership, for presentation to her bosses and the UWI — the model earning the rhythmic, if apt, tagline “Earn where you learn”.

“It was also a unique opportunity to not just see BPO for its obvious benefits, which was to find cheaper, better, faster ways to deliver service, but to see it also as socially impactful,” she notes. “Students would have an opportunity to partially fund their tertiary education by working in a BPO part-time. I could see our clients being attracted to this model because of the social impact.”

For the arrangement to work seamlessly, Rockhead-Kerr and the small team she had brought with her from Xerox had to develop operational schedules that would accommodate the students and the clients they would be serving — in a manner that gave priority to the educational pursuit of the students.

“This was something we deliberately incorporated in the MOU,” she stresses. “We agreed with the university that students would train full-time, but work an average of 16-20 hours weekly in the initial stages of the model. Developing a scheduling model around students' academic commitment was challenging as this had never been done in Sutherland. Nevertheless, we got creative and solved it. It was not perfect initially, but it worked.”

In fact, so central is the student education to the arrangement that their academic performance is subject to periodic review “to determine if there was any negative impact that warranted immediate intervention to ensure that their education goals were not compromised”.

The professional dress code for students that was embedded in the agreement was intended, according to Rockhead-Kerr, to create an image of professionalism within the industry — one of her key, long-term goals as a leader within the BPO sector.

“I believe that within the Jamaican cultural context, attire drives output,” she argues. “If you dress casually, you may be influenced to apply yourself as such. I spent many hours over the summer holiday hosting sessions on campus talking about BPO and dressing for success... it was not an option as it was my ambition for Sutherland to become an employer of choice, and presentation of our professionals would be critical for that to happen.”

After five years of operation, the scorecard on the partnership reflects that it is living up to its early promise.

For one, at its peak, up to 700 UWI students at any one time have found employment at the facility on campus, many of them among the list of those who were likely to have had their education truncated to lack of adequate funding.

While UWI itself has yet to quantify the actual impact on student truancy, Sutherland's own survey is suggestive of a very positive outcome.

“A survey revealed that 62 per cent of our employees who are students of UWI confirmed that if it had not been for Sutherland they would have challenges remaining in school,” says Rockhead-Kerr. “From a social responsibility perspective, we offered opportunities for many who could not afford an education on their own.”

Some of the luckier ones were able to use the entry-level introduction to the organisation as a stepping stone to permanent careers at Sutherland. There are even those who have been elevated to middle and senior management positions.

For its part, Sutherland is now benefiting not only from the pool of highly qualified university-level talent that is available to it, but the opportunity to maintain a flexible work schedule and, by extension, “the ability to better handle client peaks”.

Of course, from inception Sutherland has been on an inexorable growth path, so within two years of establishing the first location on campus a second site was brought online — 53,600 square feet of space at a Knutsford Boulevard high rise, in the very heart of New Kingston.

Jamaica's high-end business district was once the exclusive preserve of glitzy financial companies. With this bold move, Sutherland has, if nothing else, restored the burst of human energy that was a common sight on the strip during the halcyon days of the banking sector — the early to mid-1990s.

In any case, the choice of venue is in line with Rockhead-Kerr's desire to change public perception of the BPO industry in Jamaica.

“Being situated in New Kingston with all the industry leaders has helped significantly with our reputation,” she asserts. “No other BPO prior to Sutherland has that kind of presence on the island.”

Mandeville became the first centre for Sutherland's geographic diversification in Jamaica. The 74,000-square-foot facility on Ward Avenue is the largest of the four spaces from which this company operates. That move to the central Jamaican town in 2015 was followed this year by the opening of another location in Kingston, this time on South Camp Road.

There is no doubt that Rockhead-Kerr has been in the driver's seat for the decisions that have fundamentally shaped the organisation, including the pace of expansion and critically, the rate at which it has been able to provide jobs to Jamaicans.

Her influence has played out within the context of a decision-making process at Sutherland Global that places heavy reliance on the leadership at the country level.

“Big decisions are made with the involvement of the stakeholder responsible for the area in which the decision being made will impact,” she explains. “Decisions are not usually made in isolation unless unique circumstances prevail. In the cases of decisions related to the Jamaica geography, our CEO and chairman has designed a structure that ensures that each geo head has a strong voice in the business decisions related to their region.”

It was her initial vision that Sutherland would build an enterprise with a 10,000-strong workforce. That ambitious goal has compelled the fast growth rate that has not only led to 5,000 jobs in five years, but the rapid absorption of real estate — putting once-idle space into productive use.

Decisions about the mix of clientele that Sutherland acquires, as well as “the organisational structure that I will need to implement in support of this growth, how and what we charge our clients, who we partner with on the ground” are all within the purview of this powerful executive.

“l am, in most cases, driving these decisions with leadership support,” she remarks unabashedly.

This corporate culture of inclusiveness and deference to those closest to the action filters all the way down the chain of command at Sutherland.

For example, while headquarters looks to the local leaders to “drive the vision and the growth in the territory, based on familiarity” within the local structure, managers at various levels are empowered to make decisions to meet the given goals.

Rockhead-Kerr asserts that it is the quality of her management team that gives this corporate philosophy efficacy.

“My goal from inception was to hire high-calibre talents that had experience, not just in BPO but other industries. And as such, I personally interviewed all support heads and a vast majority of the account managers and above,” she lets on. “This was to ensure that a culture of professionalism, commitment and excellence was present in all the leaders, so that we would not deviate from our philosophy of service excellence.

“To date, I still interview, personally, all senior leaders with an objective of ensuring that the culture is in alignment — with the image we want to maintain and the level of service we want to deliver to our clients and our investors and, most importantly, our commitment to our people. I had in my head exactly how I wanted Sutherland to be perceived locally, and this was also aligned to the vision of the company.”

An important measure of how well this approach has worked for this organisation is its impact on the company's ability to retain staff.

The fact is that Sutherland operates in an industry that is notorious for high staff turnover —‚ on average 100 per cent within a year. But Rockhead-Kerr says her company loses about 30 per cent of its entry-level workers each year, and that favourable performance reflects the constant staff training and its practice of aggressive promotion.

“We have promoted 327 persons at level two in the last year, to one or two levels above the position they were in,” she says. “At the basic entry level of the phone consultant, Sutherland is on par with the rest of the industry. When you get to leadership levels, we pay above market… A team leader at Sutherland is an ops manager at another BPO… they function at a higher level, which is why Sutherland pays them more.”

Sutherland is a supporter of good causes, with its corporate philanthropy focused mainly on training disadvantaged youth, primarily in computer skills.

It has already established three community technology centres (CTCs) to serve these youngsters in underserved communities, in partnership with Microsoft.

“We have graduated close to 2,000 people,” Rockhead-Kerr beams.

The CTCs are located in South Side, downtown Kingston, Mandeville, and Papine.

— Moses Jackson is the founder of the Business Leader Award programme and chairman of the Award Selection Committee. He may be reached at moseshbsjackson@yahoo.com

— Freelance journalist Nazma Muller contributed to this story.

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