Five years ago, a young man uprooted himself from his home in Melbourne, Australia for an expat assignment to a country he knew very little about. He was 27, a greenhorn in the industry, and was assigned to head a promising company. He would operate in a market whose culture and corporate nuances he was totally unfamiliar with.This is the story of Daniel Alexander and his continuing encounter with the Philippines.
Alexander has been working for more than half of his life, and now, at only 32, and a college undergraduate, he is Country Manager, Philippines, of Converga Asia, a top Australian Business Process Outsourcing (BPO) company based in Bonifacio Global City, Taguig.
From the bottom, up!
Alexander began his career at the age of 14 in Melbourne. He went to class during the day and worked as a kitchen hand in a hotel after school until 10 in the evening. The youngster, however, refused to see himself at the bottom rung forever. He went to university to take up Business Marketing. Eventually sensing that he did not belong in the classroom, he left school to start a small business with some friends and continued working in the hospitality field. Alexander would often stay on after his shift in order to learn other kitchen functions. His tenacity paid off, working his way to becoming general manager of a property belonging to the Australian Leisure and Hospitality Group for six years.
Alexander left pushing rooms and restaurants to join the BPO industry with Converga as Customer Service Manager, with 20 people under him. Within six months, he was promoted to National Account Manager. He assumed more responsibilities and actively engaged various stakeholders in the organization because he believed the acquisition of knowledge is best done on the job and through interaction with people. Further career advancement followed—a 12-month stint as General Manager for Data Entry Shared Services, after which came the position of Country Manager for Finance and Human Resources.
All these movements prepared him well for his biggest challenge to date: Country Manager of Coverga Philippines. Converga Asia started its Philippine operations in 2010 with a mere 40 employees. It has since increased its manpower complement to 1,000 employees in 2017 to emerge as a major player in the local BPO landscape.
Life in the Philippines has proven to be a genuine learning experience for Alexander. He says: “I think personally and professionally, it took me some time to get used to the size and the scope of the job, in another country, in another culture. Not only was I responsible for the daily operations of the company, but I was also responsible for the company’s cash flow, making sure there was enough money in the bank for payroll and for profit.”
He was also introduced to the culture and work dynamics unique to the market. “The biggest difference between working in Australia and in the Philippines is that here, the workplace is an extension of one’s family. Your seatmate at work quite often becomes your lifelong friend.
“The connection between employees is a lot stronger than what it is in Australia. I believe this is good for the company as long as professional distance is maintained. There are instances when managers find it hard to provide feedback to someone who is their friend. So in Converga, we ensure that people have a way to always have positive conversations.”
Alexander had to contend with two critical elements that characterize the local workplace. First, he needed to understand the psyche of the Filipino employee. Filipinos, as Alexander came to realize, are generally more shy, less assertive and non-confrontational compared with “Aussies,” the popular nickname for Australians.
To mold his staff into individuals who could navigate an international business environment, he encouraged more self-expression, which helped to boost self-confidence. At the same time, he had to remember to marry the Filipino traits of being nurturing and making personal relationships a priority with corporate panache.
Alexander also had to consider the influence millennials have had on BPO office dynamics. He believes there is a stigma attached to this sector of society, which employers have generally perceived in a negative light. But when handled properly, this group is capable of unleashing its creativity for the company’s growth and staying loyal.
The appreciation for millennials stems from a reasoning that what drives and motivates them are for, the most part, what drives and motivates Alexander himself. “For millennials, it’s not always about the paycheck,” he says.
“What matters sometimes is that sense of being part of something bigger than one’s self and making a positive impact on the community… of being recognized when they do a good job and being part of a company they can be proud of.” Youth, instead of being a drawback, became Alexander’s friend and ally, leading him to find common ground with his employees, most of whom are in their mid-20s to early 30s like him.
Alexander is an advocate as well of Positive Organizational Psychology, which, according to Professor Fred Luthans, one of the foremost experts on the subject, is “the study and application of positively oriented human resource strengths and psychological capacities that can be measured, developed and effectively managed for performance improvement in today’s workplace.” The Converga boss tapped consultants to conduct workshops on the subject for his team, aiming to develop in them a mindset keen to come up with “win-win” situations for themselves, their colleagues and their clients.
Alexander explains: “We had a creative guy who seemed to have lost his flair. When we talked to him, we found out it was a case of him being moved to another workstation. He wanted to sit near the window because that was where he got his inspiration from. This was a really simple matter but a valid concern.
“So, it’s all about training leaders in Converga to be more sensitive, to look at the physical working environment, to have conversations with people and to pick up subtle signs on the emotional and mental state of employees.”
This has developed an inclusive culture within the organization and hastened Alexander’s assimilation into the Filipino work environment, making him more attuned to employees’ needs and aspirations.
Leading with purpose
When asked what else is on his professional to-do list, Alexander reveals: “I’ve never really been about job titles. My career goal has always been to have a positive influence on others. I love my job now because it puts me in a unique position where I am able to lead a company of this size and have a positive effect on our staff and the community.
“We have a strong relationship with the non-profit group Kanlungan sa Erma (KSEM), which runs an orphanage, some of whose graduates we have hired. One thing we are looking into next year is to conduct a Disability Hiring Program.
“These kinds of things are where I get my motivation from. The business part will just come naturally. I think people will want to do business with a responsible company. We in Converga Asia have already been able to demonstrate our technical expertise. This time, we want to win the hearts of our customers by showing them we are a company that deeply cares.”
When asked to parse his management style, Alexander shows wisdom and maturity beyond his years, preferring to be regarded as a “servant-leader.”
“When I look back on what we have accomplished in Converga, the people we have brought in, and the jobs we have created, it has always been about bringing out the best in people. So, I constantly ask myself, how do I clear roadblocks for my team? How do I create a platform where people in the company can be who they want to be? How do I help them get what they want out of their work?”
Alexander shows optimism about Converga Philippines’ future. “We’ve doubled in size every year. We’ve developed a strong pipeline. We’re looking at opening alternative provincial properties for expansion of our operations, and we see a long-term commitment to the Philippines. We see a growth in the range of services we provide.”
He has full faith in the country’s potential as an international business hub. “What everyone has to keep in mind is that investing in the BPO industry is not just about the company’s brand. It is also about the country’s brand. It is essential that the Philippine brand is protected and promoted in order for the BPO industry to continue to grow.”
The buzz over robotics and Artificial Intelligence (AI) dominating BPO operations in the near future, Alexander says, should be seen as a catalyst for opportunities, rather than the threat as doomsayers would have it. Adds Alexander: “I think robotics and AI will be complementary to the human workforce. It will enable people to deliver better services because they are aided by better technology. I don’t think it will have a devastating effect on the workforce if the industry is able to prepare their employees for the future.
“It becomes a question of what training should be provided to upscale their skills in functions like analytics and data mining, things that only a live, human being, with empathy and emotional intelligence, is capable of performing. The current workforce will have to continue to learn and upgrade their competencies to continue to make themselves relevant in the industry.”
Alexander continues to learn on the job and from his environment, constantly seeking to make himself and Converga battle-ready for the changes on their horizon. In his off-hours, Converga’s chief sharpens the saw by reading books on leadership and studying the lives of successful people. In his spare time, he volunteers with KSEM where he celebrated his birthday on February 10.
He is active in the Information Technology and Business Process Association of the Philippines and Australian-New Zealand Chamber of Commerce-Philippines (where he sits as Vice President of the Executive Committee).
Establishing a strong network, he believes, leads to discovering similarities with other people and learning from their experiences and best practices.
Five years since he’s set foot in the Philippines, Alexander has acclimatized himself to its people, the workplace and the community. He finds it easier now to relate to Filipinos because he sees himself as part Filipino. In the same breadth, he has found it easier to relate to millennials because he too is a millennial.
Photos by Russell Palma