“I have seen the day of wrong through the little hole of discretion.”
William Shakespeare – Love’s Labour Lost
On November 17th, the local newspapers ran a commercial from Digicel Barbados announcing that having found no suitable candidates for the role of Barbados CEO it was seeking to appoint a non-national to the position. Cable and Wireless Barbados ran an ad on November 26th advising that it too could find no suitable local candidate for the position of Finance Director South Cluster and it was exercising its option to fill the post with a non-national.
There are some things that happen in this country that are funny; I mean actually so funny that you have to hold on to something to steady yourself and laugh hard from the gut. There are other things that are funny in the dark Shakespearian sense of the word, that make you shake your head and again seek support, but with more of a sense of nausea. The delivery of positions to non-nationals like the two mentioned above are more of the latter and simply do not past the sniff test.
There is no way a suitably qualified or able CARICOM National could not fill both these posts and be bored with the short learning curve. Simply no way. We have very open markets and we are very embracing to visitors and expats; that will never change. But when we are saying to the world that you cannot get a telco CEO from a market that has been training them since 1972, and when we say to the world that in one of the most successful PwC, EY, KPMG and Deloitte markets in the world you cannot find an accountant, what is it that you are really trying to say to the people of this country?
Did anyone at the Immigration department even care to read the document? Cable and Wireless wants the Barbados Immigration Chief to believe that they cannot find a suitable accountant in Barbados? ICAB is bursting at the seams with talent, and with the contraction of the International Business industry over the last 11 years, there is an abundance of high-quality candidates available. If there are two professions where you can throw a stone and hit at least four such persons in Barbados it is lawyers and accountants, with doctors as a close third.
Further, what are the criteria that Digicel uses to select its local CEO’s? We have enjoyed six of them over the last eight years, one notable local and three of those six now work as senior executives with a local operation. We are about to get the seventh in year nine. Only one of those is from a pure telephony background. The others are from diverse industries in the City of Cork, Ireland, from technology to hospitality. So when I say diverse, it is not meant flippantly. The other question that I will put to my business colleagues is how much impact can a non-national who is in the role for an average of 18 months, which is the aggregated length of tenure for a Digicel CEO in Barbados, have on the market? How do you learn the market, learn the operation, shape and execute a strategy, validate its intended deliverables and augment accordingly in eighteen months? I submit, it is not impossible, but it is highly unlikely. So, the question to be answered is what is the real strategy with the hires?
Telephony in the Caribbean dates back to 1872 when the first telegraph lines were linked from Panama to the West Indies. In 1972, the Cable and Wireless Telecommunications College was opened in Barbados as part of a £4 million investment in the country. It was one of four in the group at the time with the others located at Porthcurno in Cornwall, Bahrain and Hong Kong. The Colleges were set up for the sole purpose of moving the then 54,000 worldwide employees forward at the same time, with the same knowledge and under the same conditions.
In the Caribbean, our talented nationals were trained at the College or on the job and led the national C&W organizations in their successive markets. The operations were world-class with many of the regional alum, so distinguished by their work, that several have gone on to lead major global companies outside of the Caribbean, surprisingly, very few in the telecom industry.
Caribbean nationals led these markets from inception until the Digicel Group came to the region in 2001. Digicel, which operates in 31 markets across the Caribbean, Central America and Asia-Pacific regions, returned to year-on-year growth in quarterly earnings in the three months to March last year for the first time since 2015. Last year, the group set about cutting more than 1,500 jobs, or 25 per cent of its staff, in an effort to reboot earnings and lower the burden of its $6 billion-plus debt pile. One would see it as prudent management to reduce the operational expense by hiring local talent. This is not the case with this group which has migrated more Irish into the Caribbean than any other organization post colonization. Don’t get me wrong I love the Irish; on my last trip there in July there were not welcoming to non-nationals taking jobs that locals could perform.
Both these companies have been going through major changes and though I believe neither one is at risk, there is still a long way to go on the roller coaster before they actually settle down.
Since Digicel’s entry into the market, Cable and Wireless has been in flux and has finally settled as a part of the Liberty Media Group Latin America, a wholly owned subsidiary of Liberty Global. Liberty Global is the world’s largest international cable television company and offers a wide range of advanced services. When Caribbean national Garfield Sinclair, former President and COO of the investment bank Dehring, Bunting & Golding in Jamaica took over the helm as CEO of C&W Caribbean, many believed we were on track to wrestle back more leadership roles. That was short-lived as Mr Sinclair’s role has now been split into a North and South Cluster and he has responsibility for the North Cluster. Additionally, Mr Sinclair is the only Caribbean national and the only person of colour on the new Cable and Wireless/Liberty Media leadership team. Consequently, his ability to influence the appointment of more Caribbean nationals might be significantly diminished.
Digicel, since its market entry in 2001, has ushered in a steady stream of expatriate country managers. Despite being a Jamaican headquartered business, with most of its $565 million in annual revenue coming from the Caribbean, the leadership team does not reflect the diversity of the markets where it operates. Neither does the country leadership, with a few brief exceptions. Cable and Wireless followed in the footsteps of Digicel by seeking to appoint Irish and British country managers as well, something that we in the Caribbean thought we were well past.
Today, the message that resonates across the world as these Caribbean based ‘international’ telecom operators and other multi-nationals continue to roll their services out is that the Caribbean nationals from whom they exact the greatest percentage of their income are not equipped to be leaders of these entities – despite having led similar organizations domiciled here before. Neither are we equipped to take in the transfer of knowledge that should emanate from these titans of industry. We are not equipped to advise Boards that operate in our backyards and take our money. We are not equipped to give guidance as to the strategic direction of the operations or even local knowledge like go-to-market strategies. When one scrutinizes the CV’s of some of the individuals who take up residency in Barbados and other Caribbean territories under the pretext of being able to offer skills that do not reside in local talent, there is so much substance absent that they would find it difficult to be hired in a blind hire construct. But it is not a blind hire, it is an insidious perpetuation of the neocolonialism thinking, that the value of our people is in our ability to take instruction not lead. We have the power to change this, but will we ever do anything, but take instruction?
George Connolly is a Finance and Technology professional.