99X Technology: Winning the battle for talent

Friday, 2 August 2013 00:11 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

Co-Founder and CEO Mano Sekaram outlines the company’s thriving organisational formula It is now time for Sri Lanka to position itself as an employer destination of choice in order to compete with the best in the world, and aiding this, the Great Place to Work Institute in collaboration with LMD and the Ceylon Chamber of Commerce conducted the country’s first-ever study of great workplaces this year, assessing the feedback from over 5,000 employees from a myriad of organisations in Sri Lanka. Among the 15 companies presented with this notable accolade is 99X Technology, a leading player in the country’s IT/BPO industry. In comparison with the global top 25 multinationals, 99X Technology scored an overall 92% in comparison to the global benchmark of 89%, surpassing the percentage with positive responses in factors such as credibility, respect, fairness, pride and camaraderie. Co-Founder and CEO Mano Sekaram credited this to the company’s innovation and initiative-driven open culture and of course, it’s people. He expanded on the company’s journey, its formula for managing and inspiring its people to reach greater heights, winning the battle for talent, and as the newly appointed Vice Chairman of the IT/BPO sector’s apex body, Sri Lanka Association of Software and Service Companies (SLASSCOM), shared his views on the industry as a whole. Following are excerpts from the interview: By Cassandra Mascarenhas Q: How does it feel to be presented with this accolade in the very first study conducted in Sri Lanka and surpassing the global average of 89%? A: It’s a great pride and privilege to be listed because it’s the first time it has been conducted in Sri Lanka, and you’re benchmarked against the best, which gives you a sense of satisfaction. Moreover, it shows that Sri Lanka has great companies to work for. I think this is the most important thing – that people understand that there are companies that are great places to work at in the country. It’s good for the country, and for us, it only endorses what we have been doing and gives us a massive sense of pride. Q: Could you outline some of the criteria assessed in this study? A: There is a trust index – an employee survey through a questionnaire which captures responses through 62 statements. They have a one-to-one survey with all the employees which are conducted online. It’s very confidential and has high ethical standards. Then they have open-ended questions and do a culture audit. We have to answer a series of questions which covers how we hire, inspire, speak, listen and develop our employees, in addition to other factors. We had to submit a culture audit in the form of a comprehensive report. Q: What would you say has been done differently at 99X in terms of being one of the best workplaces in Sri Lanka? A: For us, it is a journey. Building a great place to work is a journey. You can’t build a great place to work at overnight. First, you need to build a great culture – this is an important aspect of building a great company. It must be based on trust and people must be absolutely open. You have to build on this openness and trust and respect diversity. Once you create a massive amount of trust between yourself and your employees, openness comes automatically, so that you aren’t hiding anything. Everything needs to be very open. The fundamental aspect of this is trust. Then, you have to have the best because when you hire the best, within the company, it is the best that will start mentoring the others, will create excellence and, because of this openness, will create personal brands for themselves because they are someone in the organisation. So after we created trust, we started hiring the best who really delivered excellence. The way we do it, because it’s a flat structure, we build leaders without titles and this is fundamentally important. We said you don’t need to have a title to lead and it’s so important for us because whatever job you do, you can be a leader, you don’t need a title. What happens through this is that you really build people up. When you do that, everyone is a leader and when you create such an organisation, you have an army of lions led by lions. It creates a self-organising and self-managed workforce. Finally, we created blue oceans for our employees. We asked our employees what they desired and what they wanted to be – they have their work and also something they are passionate about. We wanted to create blue oceans in which they wouldn’t have any competition, so that they will be the best in that specific field. For example, we have an employee who is very keen on helping poor children, so though she has a full time job, she also leads our CSR program. Another guy, he’s fantastic at general knowledge so he leads our quiz team. We try to align to our employees’ passion to their jobs. When they come to work, it’s fantastic, because when you’re passionate about something other than your work, and if you can make use of that during work and also do your job, it’s great. It’s a journey. You build trust and culture, you hire the best, create leadership and create blue oceans, and all this combined has made us a great place to work. Our customer satisfaction went up, we started growing by 35% year-on-year and profit increased as a result of this. One man can’t make a difference so it’s not just me who created a great place to work. It all really depends on the people you have, so the credit for this achievement should go to everyone in the company because I’m only a cheerleader. At the end of the day, it is a very participative company and it is they who decide if it’s a great place to work at. Once you have the trust and you enable the employees to do their work, they ensure that it all works. There are a lot of lessons other companies can learn from us because once you make it a great place to work at, I think you become very competitive. If you win the battle for talent, then you win the war in the marketplace. Q: Do you feel that the flat hierarchical structure that you employ at 99X has helped in winning this accolade? A: I think that has been a fundamental part of being named a great place to work at. We have to move away from this hierarchy, from command and control. When you have a flat structure, people are very agile. When you have a flat structure, two things happen. You create more leaders, so everyone is a leader and they are empowered. The workers are extremely creative, so much of leadership happens and then, that gives them a chance to make a difference. In a hierarchy, only the boss takes all the credit. But when you make it flat, it empowers them and they become visible and they produce as much as possible. Q: 99X backs many industry-related initiatives – what is the reason behind this and how effective has this been for 99X’s employees? A: We believe that a value-centric company like ours can help the industry in many tangible ways. It’s not only the Government that can help the industry; even the private sector can do so and do public good. For us, it’s not all about making money – you also have to give back to society. We really believe in a philosophy – for us to do well, we have to ensure that the ecosystem and industry does well. I can’t stand here and say I’m a great company and am doing well. We have to build the ecosystem as well. For us, we need the industry to prosper, as well as our peer companies. Then we need to share this knowledge with our universities so that they too do well. This is why we conduct many camps, industry shows and code camps – because it’s so important that we build up the ecosystem. Through our initiatives, we share our knowledge because we believe that we are inter-dependent. We are all dependent on the universities and peer companies which is why we collaborate with them. Q: This definitely sends out a positive message to the country’s youth, especially with the need to drive up the employee base in the IT/BPO industry. What are your thoughts on this? A: The IT/BPO industry belongs to a knowledge industry. You cannot run this industry with the traditional command and control methodology. All our management practices, what are seen in the older industries, especially the manufacturing and agriculture sectors, are based on trying to treat people like machines. This stems from the old industrial way of managing people. In the new economy, which is based on people, knowledge, innovation and creativity, people can’t be treated like that. You have to give them space and treat them like equal partners. The whole way of managing people completely changes. You now have to mentor them and ensure that they are a part of a family – I think that this is a fundamental change that will happen. When managing new economies and new industries, you can’t use old methods and that is good for the industry. We are knowledge workers. As a CEO and founder, the power is not in me but in the people who think like me. Q: Do you feel that Sri Lanka’s IT/BPO industry is on track to achieve the goals set out for it by 2016? What do you feel could be done differently in this aspect? A: If we go by the organic growth that we have been achieving, we had about $ 500 million in exports in 2012. If we go on by the previous year’s growth of 26%, we will reach a billion in 2016 – it’s a no-brainer. We are on track and we will do this. But what we are trying to do as an industry is to create a 1,000 more companies in the IT/BPO industry. We will do this through entrepreneurship and innovation. We need to increase the volume of the companies coming up and that will definitely take us to the next level. I think we have the talent, it’s just about positioning Sri Lanka as a destination for knowledge and one way to do this is by increasing the number of companies coming up. Q: In terms of talent, do you think the university system is meeting the industry’s requirements? A: If you look at the State universities, the best go there, so I don’t think we have an issue with quality. The need is to expand that pool but we can’t do it at the price of quality. What the industry needs is to expand the capacity while retaining the quality.