Outsourcing Executives: What’s your career narrative?


If ever I am lost for words to introduce an article, then I am now lost for words.  So without further ado, here is Deadly Deborah… and definitely with the handbrake off…

Outsourcing Executives: What’s your career narrative?

Deborah Kops is, always was, and always will be, Deborah Kops (click for bio)

I’m obsessed by careers. I spend time trying to make sense of the various and sundry twists and turns that the life’s work of those in our industry seem to take. And I look closely for patterns. Will leaving a secure position in a global firm for a start-up end in happily ever after? Does a stint in a Tier 3 provider indelibly affect a career path?  After all, if Ecclesiastes 1:9 is right, there’s nothing new under the sun, or as the saying goes, history always repeats itself. So colleagues, do any of these career narratives resonate? Or is this article just the fanciful creation of someone who is absolutely at the end of her career rope?

Having recently decided that there are four major career narratives for our shared services executive cousins, I’ve turned my attention to outsourcing (read: sell side) executive career trajectories. In a segment of the global services industry with much more nuance (and opportunity), It seems to me that in every outsourcing executive’s career, there is an event, or a decision, or some other such driver that will profoundly impact his or her career narrative.

So read the 12 narratives I’ve observed in outsourcing executives. And have a good laugh if they don’t cut too close to home:

1. The mid-life crisis career narrative: Around the age of 40, some well-established outsourcing executives become frustrated with a), corporate bureaucracy; b), a stalled salary band; or c), the fact that they have years of experience on the man or woman they report to. And if their peers (especially their batch mates) are making money hand over foot starting their own companies, the itch to throw security to the winds and join a start up is compelling. So the itch takes over, and the leader leaves a good job to join the ranks of the challengers, crossing fingers that he’ll make enough money to pay off the mortgage and put the kiddies through school.

2. The yo-yo career narrative: Yo-yo career narratives characterize those executives who start out in ITO, hone their sales or management skills, are tapped to run a BPO gig because their skills are thought to be transferable, then high tail it back to ITO when a), the realization dawns on said leader that not all outsourcing pursuits are created equal; or b); their management realize that BPO is a foreign language to their hire. So after a period of time, and a very cordial leaving, the leader goes back to an often bigger post in ITO, sadder, wiser and richer for the experience.

3. The find the greater fool career narrative: The entire market knows that Mr or Ms X is a great interview, taking credit for every deal since Eve persuaded Adam to take a bite of the apple. And providers, desperate for leadership in a market with very little talent, bite hard on the marvelous resume. But eventually—about 9 months in– when the honeymoon is over and nary the hope of a deal has materialized, the dial hasn’t moved on operations, or the solutions team develops a severe allergy to a different way of working, said executive starts looking again…and again…and again.

4. The grass is always greener career narrative: A second cousin to the find the greater fool career, executives with greener grass career narratives are our industry’s true seekers. They are always looking for the perfect home: money, flexibility, respect, influence…and move around frequently, often as much as once a year, to find job nirvana. Sometimes they are allowed to come back to home base, a bit sheepish but glad to be back in the bosom of a family; otherwise they keep moving on, often into the sunset and out of the outsourcing industry.

5. The Book of Ruth career narrative: No, I am not trying to get all biblical on you, readers, but if you apply what the Old Testament’s Ruth said to Naomi “”whither thou goest, I will go, ” you’ll see some couples of the professional kind that always seem to move jobs together. These joined-at-the-hip folks show up together in outsourcing companies big and small, with the senior of the two either moving first, then yanking out his faithful follower, or as a package deal. Employers sunder their ties at their own peril: the two of them just can’t function effectively without the other.

6. The fox in the henhouse career narrative: We all know the type: he or she is itching to move from the dark to the light side, and perpetrate every crime against nature on the provider community. The former provider executive is dying to show the client side how a deal should actually done—or governed– and if a little pain is inflicted on either his former employer, or his employer’s biggest competition, so be it. After all, what better position to be in than have the CEO who never knew your name suddenly have you on speed dial when you move to the buy side.

7. The I’ve been captured career narrative: Although this career narrative is rare given the number of commercialized captive operations, there are a few of these blokes in the industry. Executive is a corporate creature, having started a captive for a multi-national. The captive is then sold to an eager provider, and the executive suddenly has to become a commercial operator. After getting over the initial shock of having to be accountable, the former captive leader wholeheartedly drinks the Kool-Aid, and becomes a pillar of his outsourcing practice…or quickly walks out the door into any career that does not involve SLAs.

8. The gentle decline career narrative: There’s a growing trend I kindly refer to as the “gentle decline.” Look around and you’ll see players who started their careers at the powerhouses of our industry—Accenture, IBM, even the late great EDS—then, over time, softly switch to companies with less and less prestige in the outsourcing provider pecking order. Said gentle decliners are absolutely convinced that their skill and acumen will be the silver bullet that elevates their new employers into the top tier. The paradox? The jobs get bigger but the employers get smaller.

9. The “any advisory firm would die to have me” career narrative: The executive is tired of 2 am conference calls to India, or wherever, and being grilled when the numbers run shy of quarterly expectations. Jumping the fence to an advisory practice, particularly if it’s at the partner level with the trappings of business class airfare and a liberal expense account, seems very attractive, despite having to don a tie to visit a client. But if these former deal or operating titans are able to make the shift, they find that selling, operating and consulting are indeed different, and yearn for the days when filling in a timesheet did not take up an hour each day.

10. The time to be an entrepreneur career narrative: The executive is a deal maven extraordinaire. He or she can sell snow to indigenous peoples living above the Arctic Circle, and is always brimming with innovative ideas. Often a lone ranger, the wannabe entrepreneur carefully calculates when his commission payouts hit, and starts looking for backing from friends and family. When the time is right, he jumps ship, spending a good year burning cash either to develop a slightly better mousetrap—a riff on some kind of KPO or accounting offering, or applies what he knows to another area entirely—perhaps selling timeshares in Florida or Cyprus.

11. The phoenix rising from the ashes career narrative: There are a few executives that flame out spectacularly by their own hands, supposedly committing some crime that’s considered to be so egregious (flaunting policy, losing a foundation client, or worse) that it results in an instant exit from a lofty position. But like the careers of many politicians and corporate moguls, memories are short and all is forgiven after an enforced period of wandering in the wilderness complete with penance and daily golf. And eventually the phoenix rises from the ashes, accepting megabucks and a CEO title from some global or private equity player.

12. The end of the line career narrative: Readers, that’s me…and several others I will refrain from naming. Having tried absolutely every outsourcing role with either a modicum of success, or a spectacular failure, we’re completely unemployable and now relegated to the sidelines of punditry. It’s a lonely job, but someone’s got to do it.

Deborah Kops (pictured above) leads many lives, including her own boutique firm, SourcingChange, a Research Fellow for HfS and  The Conference Board.  You can email her here.

Posted in : Absolutely Meaningless Comedy, Business Process Outsourcing (BPO), HfSResearch.com Homepage, IT Outsourcing / IT Services, Outsourcing Advisors



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  1. […] the rest here: Outsourcing Executives: What's your career narrative? Comments […]

  2. Dear Deadly Deborah. I love this article. As one who probably qualifies for 10 out of the 12 narratives I think you sum up most of the likely career paths of just about every BPO executive I know. And I think I recognise your inspiration for many of them 🙂 The question I think that needs answering is why do we do it and why do we continue down this apparently self destructive path. I think the answer is that its addictive. In what other industry do you see such high value poker being played on a truly global scale. It’s still a relatively small world, its still the most fun you can get paid to enjoy and there are still so many opportunities for the industry to evolve – OMG what does that make me ?

  3. Dearest darling david: i decline to disclose my inspiration. (I’ll never tell)

    Seriously, you make a good point. Why be a lawyer, accountant or consultant when this industry presents a veritable embarrassment of riches.

    Glad you enjoyed the article. it wrote itself.

  4. Very clever article, Deborah. What’s interesting is how few people manage to work on both the “sell” and “buy” sides of outsourcing. I believe that’s really what needs to occur next to see real progress in our industry,


  5. You’re right, bob, re buy side gigs. Having done 2, I suspect it’s not considered attractive by the sell side for severalreasons: the compensation structure is often more rigid;and second, it’s just more complex to navigate!

  6. Deborah – can I get a t-shirt since I also see my career in all of the 12 story arcs above?? Great article as always.

  7. How about an “addicted to outsourcing industry but really should do something else” narrative? People who are effectively unemployed, but persist in masquerading as “consultants” (even though noone really knows what they can consult on). They fill their time contributing thought pieces to third tier magazines noone will ever read (with lots of dated terminology), appearing at any conference that’ll let them in, spending half their day on LinkedIn and managing a multitude of twitter handles. Retirement is an unconscionable decision and thoughts of moving to another industry repulsive…

  8. What a sobering article. Here we are oblivious to the fact that there are others out there with the same delusions! Perhaps we should start a support group around each of these themes.

    What comes to mind is a an old HBR article read years ago that indicated the 3 specific motivators behind careers in the first place: 1) Compensation and Benefits 2) Accomplishments and 3) Social and cultural attractions. Not to mention of course, the excitement of facing a professional challenge to bring us closer to realizing our potential in the first place. I suppose we are all inclined to 1 of the 3 in various proportions hoping perhaps to achieve the holy grail of all three while attending to the fundamental of realization of our own unique potential.

    This article is very helpful in terms of re-framing our narrative in pursuit of the next role. I suspect that there is a bias on the part of the prospective employer to bucket all of us into some combination into some combination of each of these narratives. Does our CV, the way we position ourselves towards new roles or our marketing strategy in general reek of these foul characterizations?

    I suspect it will. One of the best ways to eliminate some of this unfortunate bias from those that don’t know us personally or are otherwise indifferent to our personal plight, is instead to try to build a future career narrative with people that do give us the benefit of the doubt and market ourselves authentically. They will recognize our real strengths and enable us to collaborate and hopefully, find real success. In other words, stop selling to the effaced masses of would-be employers promising the world of success that comes from the siren of that wonderful new role.

  9. Mo, thanks for a very thoughtful comment. Perhaps support groups are in order; after all, this article is about patterns.

    I doubt human nature will ever evolve to the extent that people (in this case would-be employers) won’t look at would-be employees thru various lenses. To expect that they will take the time to uncover hidden strengths, or be sympathetic to personal plight–well, I think that is unrealistic. It’s my experience that most employers hire to avoid dramatic failure, and don’t hire to be successful.

    I wrote this article because I do see these narratives–and they all seem to end the same way. How does an outsourcing executive escape the inevitable? I think a bit of self awareness is the first step.

  10. Written with the cynicism of those who can’t find a job they enjoy and an employer that enjoys their contribution! These narratives may describe the majority of the tortured souls in this industry. But how about this–the few of us that love what we do, believe it contributes to the economic and social well-being of the planet, and yet manage to make a living and progress through the ranks of our employers (be they one or many) All of us are capable of making an employment (or hiring) mistake here and there, but if we know what we have to offer and continue to seek that which makes us lead a balanced and fulfilling life, we can recover from those mistakes and weave a narrative of an entirely different kind:

    How about the “I’m human but competent and will land where I’m supposed to be” narrative? I don’t feel qualified to speak for an entire industry, but almost 20 years in, my narrative is nowhere near the sour grapes of this dirty dozen. My career mistakes (there have been plenty) inform my decisions and how I focus. And I would not change a thing.

  11. Job hopper, thanks for your thoughtful comments. I agree with you that most of us do or can recover from our mistakes; indeed, as i responded to Mo, it’s a matter of self awareness. Whether you agree with me or not, in every industry there are career narratives, and the majority of them are silently successful.

    You also make a good point: anyone who does not love this industry–as you obviously (and I) do, will not have a hope of success.

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