Building a career in the KPO sector

CAREER GUIDE

CRITICAL APTITUDE Those with a high level of self awareness are more likely to succeed in the field.

In this article, I touch on specific aspects of building a career in the KPO sector. It must be noted that the term KPO is loosely used to cover a wide range of services that do not come under the broad BPO/ITO umbrella. Usually, however, there is a high degree of ‘judgment’ and ‘insight’ required when providing higher-end KPO services.

Each sector has its own requirements, and it is helpful to recognise and understand what these are before attempting to build a career in one.

Based on my experience, I believe six aptitudes/abilities are critical for success:
nThe hunger for knowledge, learning, and the ability to produce insights. This is a foundational trait – your self-importance, value, and long-term career growth are often directly linked to this

*The ability to be hands-on at every level, although in different ways. People quickly lose respect if they realise that you neither have the ability nor the inclination to understand what they are doing

*Initiative and self-leadership. More than in any other sector, the nature of work in this sector places a disproportionate amount of responsibility on the individual for self-development

*Self-awareness. This is the most interesting. Individuals with a high degree of self-awareness, and who are willing to acknowledge their shortcomings and seek help are appreciated. There is a surprisingly high degree of intolerance in this sector for those with low self-awareness

*Ability to communicate and influence — clients, teams, peers, leadership. High-end KPO work is characterised by high levels of interaction. Sophistication in communication with key stakeholders is key to producing high-quality output

*Ability to work in and build high-performing teams. It is like attending an Ivy League college — your peers are of high quality and very competitive. Competing in a team made up of such individuals and building such teams is crucial for growth

One need not be born with these six abilities perfected. It is important, however, to a) be reasonably good at at least four of the six, and b) put serious effort into reaching acceptable levels on the remainder.

The hiring process checks for these aptitudes/abilities.

Firms that are serious about knowledge services usually have a rigorous and high-touch process for selection, with a combination of written tests, case studies, and interviews for identifying the right fit. At mid-level recruiting, it is not unusual for a candidate to go through 10-12 interviews. Consequently, the ratio of those finally selected to those that were shortlisted at the start is very low.

Some key aspects to consider once you make the cut and join a knowledge services firm

*Determine whether you are a specialist or generalist

A key decision that everyone in the knowledge services business needs to make is whether he/she wants to be a specialist or a generalist. The usual dilemma that people face in most other sectors is that it is not very easy to climb the organisational ladder through the specialist route.

For one, the number of such roles is limited, and secondly, the number of such roles in the higher echelons of most industries is even more limited. However, in the knowledge services industry, the chances for launching on a specialist career are better than in most other industries. Nevertheless, one can still make a wrong choice because of the visible perks of a generalist role. Making the right choice, then, is a key determinant of long-term career success.

*Develop depth in at least one area (even if you choose to be a generalist)

It is helpful to explore multiple areas and develop some familiarity with areas other than your core area. The breadth of familiarity would depend upon the career track you have chosen, naturally narrower if you have chosen a specialist track, and wider if a generalist track has been chosen. For instance, a generalist in an investment research firm may choose to work in areas as diverse as fixed income research and equity research. During the course of such exploration, however, it is important to identify one specific area that is of interest and to develop some non-trivial capability in this area. This could relate to modeling, knowledge of a particular sector, or understanding high-yield bonds.

*Identify a mentor

Having a mentor within or outside the firm will be helpful, as the mentor can a) help you make important career choices, b) ascertain vital skills you need to develop at critical junctures in your career, and c) act as a sounding board.

At one level, building a career in the knowledge services business has certain nuances, but at another, it is not very different from building a career in any other sector. The other basics of career building would, however, remain the same, e.g. gaining stability, building character, and taking up roles that play to one’s strengths.

(The writer is Managing Director and Global Head of Human Resources at Amba Research)

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