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Ventrica leader interview: Jo Passingham, CFO.

Fri, January 12, 2024

Our Chief Financial Officer talks about growth, A.I. and “servant leadership”

Ventrica’s Chief Financial Officer, Jo Passingham, was already a well-known figure within the BPO and finance worlds when she joined us in 2022 from her previous roles in the industry at SITEL (now Foundever) and Williams Lea.

Jo has established herself as an experienced CFO with extensive leadership experience at EMEA and Global level, across the commercial, public sector, and not-for-profit sectors.

Before joining Ventrica she had focussed on bringing a fresh approach to the public sector, most notably at The Prince’s Trust and Climate KIC. Throughout her career, Jo’s main mission has been to ensure that the finance function is well placed to support improved operational performance, driving growth, and increasing both efficiency and profitability.

During her varied and successful career, Jo has negotiated nine-figure outsourcing contracts, managed transformation projects, and brought her creative skills to bear to scope, design, and develop business cases, commercial model structures, operating models, and implementation plans.

Beyond the public persona, however, Jo has several passions which revolve around enabling and mentoring the people around her – be they her team members, other colleagues, or the young people she works with at her local youth centre.

We talked to Jo to find out a little bit more about her background, her altruistic philosophy of servant leadership, her plans for managing Ventrica’s growth, and her thoughts on the future of the BPO industry.

Jo, you mentioned that you fell into finance after leaving school. Can you tell us more about the incredible journey you’ve been on in the worlds of finance and BPO?

I was one of those people who wasn’t entirely sure what they wanted to do when they left school. I fell into finance and enjoyed it. The first 10 years were in more traditional finance roles, quite internally facing.

It’s amazing how much has changed. I used to work in payroll at a dairy processing place in Dagenham, where we had punch cards. We had to walk over to the site to get the cards and had to write 9 to 5 on the back of the card – and then punch it into the payroll. On a Thursday, the G4S man would turn up with cash.

What got me excited was when I realised that numbers could tell a story beyond themselves. I believe finance sits at the centre of any organisation as any action will ultimately flow through finance. If you’re curious and want to learn how a business runs, it’s a great place to be.

I am blessed. I have worked hard, but I have had lucky breaks. When we went to Cape Town a year ago, talking to some of the agents over there, they’re young kids. I talked to them about what this industry can give them, as it’s been amazingly good to me.

In 2001, you joined a small BPO called Williams Lea which went on an incredible growth journey. What were your experiences there and how did they shape your career path?

That was a very interesting seven-year journey. Williams Lea was a traditional English business run by four rugby-loving friends. They were an ambitious and courageous leadership team with a clarity of vision I’d not seen before and probably not since, until I talked to Iain (Banks, Ventrica CEO) about my current role.

At Williams Lea, there was a determination to go on a growth journey. I was very lucky to go on that with them. We went from £100 million to £850 million by 2008. There was lots of hard work but enormous fun. We went from being a traditional facilities management outsourcer with all clients in London to being a global multi-function outsourcer. We bought a US business in 2004, which was quite interesting and challenging culturally.

I got to develop and stretch my commercial muscles as well and I did various roles there with inspirational leaders who taught me a lot. I got to understand the commercial nuances around finance and that it’s not just cost that drives an outsourcing model, though it differs by client.

Operationally I worked in some client-facing roles too, which taught me good lessons about how as a BPO you must balance your own culture and your desires as an organisation with those of your client. We’re there to maximise our profit, of course, and the client’s goal is to obtain the best value they can. There is always room in the middle to meet. The most effective relationships are partnerships, and of course, we only achieve our goals by helping our clients achieve theirs.

Moving from Williams Lea to Sitel must have meant quite a cultural shift.

Sitel is US-led, of course, so culturally very different. Communication was different. Navigating hierarchies was different. I underestimated this initially. But we did have a lot of fun. Sitel was also my first foray into pure Customer Experience (CX) outsourcing.

Bert Quintana, who had just joined from Dell, was our CEO. I was the EMEA CFO. Bert was a very generous leader, and his vision was very people-centric. He consistently said our people were the most important asset. He drew a picture once when we were with some agents. He drew a stick man with the pyramid on his shoulders and then stick people around him. That was his executive team and other colleagues, and his job was to uplift them.

Can you elaborate on your idea of leadership and how it has impacted your approach to your work?

Sure. If you draw the diagram, it’s an inverted hierarchy with agents and customer-facing team members at the top. I try to adopt this model now. There’s a book by Robert Greenleaf called “Servant Leadership” that I highly recommend.

Servant Leadership means I am here to serve. Colleagues are not here at my behest; I am here at theirs. The better they are, the better I am. I get to work very hands-on at Ventrica with our teams. When I’m in the office, I prop my door open. I want to listen to what they’re doing out on the floor. I’m listening for that phenomenal call – or the one where someone is dealing with a difficult customer, and I can then go out and support them afterward. I can’t do my job if I can’t understand their job.

One thing I like more than anything else is developing my team. My number two, Phil Wagg, worked with me at Sitel. He’s from an operational background but was handed to me when they shut down the site he used to run. So, I made him study and do his accountancy. I love it now because when he’s working with our operational team, he knows his stuff. He was an agent, trainer, and site director, so he can do it all not just finance.

I’ve never brought a member of my team with me from a past job before, even though I love to see how well they have all done over the years. But here at Ventrica I needed Phil’s skills as ops and finance work very closely together.

And after Sitel, would it be fair to say your career took a bit of an abrupt detour? What did that teach you?

I had this vision that I wanted to teach. I went from designing the go-to-market for Sitel, with $1.5 billion in revenue, to a teaching assistant in a secondary school. I learned that I didn’t want to teach, at least not as a profession, but I did learn better communication skills.

I did quite a lot of education work with blind people, so I would have to read their text and then convert that into Braille. But if there’s a picture, I must describe it. The level of detail you must go into to describe an image makes you imagine how other people think. I was working with a blind woman, Jess, doing some algebra, and I told her to visualise a number line, but she’d never seen such a thing so she just couldn’t. It taught me you must put yourself in other people’s minds to truly communicate and connect.

After teaching I took up several roles in the not-for-profit and government sectors, including at The Prince’s Trust, National Citizen Service Trust, and EIT Climate KIC where we’re working towards a zero-carbon future. I keep my hand in at teaching and mentoring by volunteering at my local youth club.

With the shift to more remote work, what strategies are you implementing at Ventrica to maintain engagement?

Like many contact centres and BPOs we have a lot of remote workers now. There is a bit of rotation in and out with hybrid workers, but many are just remote now and live nowhere near a contact centre. Plenty of our older team members have moved out of our traditional recruitment catchment zones post-COVID but stayed with us working remotely.

It’s essentially like managing multiple cultures with onsite and remote workers. Everyone’s voice must get heard and we are using technology to help us with that. Our people champions are critical to that and we’re encouraging everyone to engage with that process. It must be driven from the ground up though, it’s not something that can be imposed.

I have responsibility for engagement in the organisation. My front-of-house team manages all our employee engagement. They run our people’s champions group and wellbeing page. I’m very proud of what they do.

Being a remote worker myself much of the time I understand what it’s like. Of course, my remote environment is very different to that of an agent. I spend most of my day talking to people, whereas some people can be in quite isolated roles. Even if they are talking to customers, they are not having sustained relationships with the same people. We must acknowledge that and adjust the way we manage remote workers and ensure they remain engaged.

The BPO industry, especially in the context of CX, is rapidly evolving with technology like AI. What are your thoughts on balancing the human element with technological advancements?

From an industry perspective, we’re in a very interesting place with lots of challenges to tackle. For a while now it’s been about balancing cost against value. And I see us now trying to find a balance between human capital and technology.

It varies a lot by sector but with the economic pressures right now we’re having to come up with ways to maintain quality for clients while driving down their costs. Customer Experience still has to come first, of course, but clients are much more open to considering options such as outsourcing some activities to our South Africa operations where they can be done with no loss of quality for a lower cost.

We’re seeing technology getting used to achieve the same goal, which is why the industry is steering away from having a human as the first interface. It’s just not economic. It’s also a generational thing. Younger customers don’t want to talk to people anyway. It’s going to be interesting to see how the industry deals with technology. We need to deploy AI intelligently and with understanding, and not in a blanket manner to everyone and everything.

For example, we have Housing Associations among our clients. You can’t have that being tech-driven as you’re often dealing with older or vulnerable people. Humans are probably the most complex thing ever to exist. Professionally, I think we will adapt to AI and find ways to use it to improve lives, but I do worry it will take some of the fun out of things. Failure, or doing things imperfectly, is part of how we develop and learn as human beings, and we would all lose something if technology took that away.

As you look towards the future of Ventrica and the industry, what do you believe are the key elements for sustaining growth and innovation, and how do you plan to navigate these challenges?

Until the economy gets moving again, which it should do in the next year, we must work in partnership with our clients during this demanding time. We must help them prepare now. Over the next two years, we have to make sure a fair proportion of our time is spent getting ourselves and our clients ready for when the economy does pick up.

I have seen it before following previous economic downturns. When an economy starts booming again it is those who keep themselves the fittest that thrive. We must be at the forefront of that and make sure our clients are ready.

We must be disciplined in our relationships and our mid to long-term planning. We have to understand when the best time for each client is to switch the growth tap on.

It’s like what we saw coming out of COVID. During COVID, all BPOs got used to much higher margins and increased cash flow. Some companies forgot, it seems, that there would be a return to normal and are suffering liquidity strain as a result and may fall away. I’ve seen it happen every seven years. My job at Ventrica is to ensure we stay on top of our game and ready for our clients whenever they call on us.