With nearly three decades in the industry, IBM’s Mary Sue Rogers has evolved with the human capital business to become one of today’s leaders.
by Debbie Bolla
Mary Sue Rogers knows from experience it’s ok to start small as long as you dream big. The general manager for global and Americas HR and learning business transformation outsourcing for provider IBM started her career on a method and time study line for automaker GM nearly 30 years ago. Today, she is one of the leading executive voices in the HRO industry.
“Through labor relations, I got hooked on HR,” said Rogers, who is based in the U.K. “I enjoyed the mathematical side of the business. I’m an industrial engineer by degree so [it was] the whole idea of how to make things smarter, faster, cheaper. One of the key things I like doing in life is learning how to reengineer things to make them better.”
You won’t find too many minds more attuned to HRO development than Rogers, who has been one of the industry’s visionaries. Under her leadership at IBM, she has helped the company become a well-respected global provider, win huge contracts with the likes of Bristol-Myers Squibbs and American Airlines, and served as an effective evangelist for HRO. She’s also popularized the terms such as “your mess for less,” which became a popular description of lift-and-shift outsourcing in which HR organizations turn over undisciplined processes to providers at a lower operating cost. But beyond reeling off snappy catch phrases, Rogers boasts a keen intellect and natural curiosity around process efficiencies.
And she put those skills to practice at GM, where Rogers melded her engineering mindset with line management skills she picked up and applied the concepts to help streamline HR processes to increase efficiency and productivity. And as the HR and learning industry evolved, so did Rogers.
“You didn’t have an HR department 30 years ago,” she recalled. “It was one of those necessary evils like food, water, and shelter. You had to pay people, make sure unions didn’t go on strike, avoid health and safety issues,” she recalled. “As things have evolved, market drivers have forced organizations to say who should own the business challenges that we have around human capital, and HR colleagues have stepped up and [played] a role to make the business better.”
As someone who has witnessed myriad changes in the human capital business, Rogers herself has undergone some considerable transformation in her career. She has gone from internal HR to consultant to service provider, building her credentials as a domain expert with each iteration. She recalled enjoying each career change that has taken her down a new path.
At a time when HR was becoming an established function of all businesses, Rogers stepped outside of the corporate box to focus on consulting. The day-to-day aspects of routine back-office work were no longer challenging, and following her corporate career, she discovered that her true passion was for project-based work when she joined the ranks of PwC. Implementing a project from start to finish—whether it was establishing a shared-services center or helping to outsource an HR function—was gratifying and complemented her ability to rethink things more effectively. In consulting, Rogers has worked on key HR issues such as the maturing workforce, workforce management, performance management, and talent development.
Not a person to rest on her laurels, in 2002 Rogers capitalized on the opportunity to establish an outsourcing business with global blue-chip brand IBM. During the merger of IBM and PwC, she came over with 3,000 of her team members. At the time, IBM had a footprint in place around core consulting activities, but it needed help to expand and develop them into an outsourcing function.
“The first two years (at IBM) was storming and norming, building up the business, getting the right focus on the marketplace, and the right players and talent where we needed it,” she said. “Since then, we’ve built a vibrant business for outsourcing capabilities and (have) the ability to transform our clients’ HR learning processes.”
Rogers can still recall her first great win at IBM—a contract with PNG—after spending two long years developing the business case for outsourcing. During her six-year tenure, she’s held multiple senior roles. And as general manager for global and Americas HR and learning business transformation outsourcing, IBM has won over industry giants such as Bristol-Myers Squibb and American Airlines as clients.
“IBM has core competencies to design, build, implement, and operate HR learning as an outsourcing business,” Rogers noted. “It also has the size and strength to grow a business from being nothing six years ago to the size it is today.”
One of the company’s main strengths in delivering customer service is what Rogers deems its “three degrees of separation.” She recalled an instance when one of her clients experienced difficulties with a complex software system. She didn’t have the knowledge to solve the problem herself, but she knew within the company’s three degrees of separation, she could swiftly have a solution for the client. “I needed an expert with Microsoft and a DB2 database. I placed two phone calls and found the exact technical person to help my client,” she said.
The success of the company’s HRO business can also be attributed to its culture. “I’ve got a great team. The culture of any group comes from the team and leadership you have and what motivates people to come to work in the morning,” Rogers said. “With any strong leader, it’s about changing the vision of where we are going, having the whole team understand the type of clients we are going for, and how can we add value to those clients.”
A Journey Well Traveled
With a recession underway, success won’t come easy for anyone in any industry this year. But Rogers said she remains both realistic and optimistic for the HRO business. “For the next six to 12 months, everyone is going to have challenges. We still have a healthy pipeline, but with uncertainty in the market, people are not as fast to make decisions. They need more information and time,” she noted. “Yet the long-term growth for HR learning and outsourcing is significant. Clients still want to get rid of what’s not core; they want to focus on what is core like talent management and globalization.”
One sector in which IBM is expanding is through a recruitment process outsourcing partnership with Kelly OCG that began in the fall of 2008. Through their arrangement, Kelly OCG works directly with the client while IBM assists by providing back-office support. Rogers is hoping to announce the company’s first win as a team by the end of the second quarter. IBM has also toyed with venturing into the mid-market offerings for the past few years.
“I’ve been kicking it around for two or three years, and every year I dust off the strategy,” Rogers explained, noting that the pitfalls of the segment tend to throw the train off the tracks. “You can’t go to it globally. If you pick the U.S., the competition is rather significant. You can’t pick Europe; you have to pick a country. It’s a different value proposition than what we’ve been doing. It’s a bit more utility.”
But if there’s anyone who can figure out how to do it successfully, it’s Rogers. Her leadership skills have helped clients to focus on transforming their HR function and not just outsource it. She has endeavored to make HRO a strategic aspect of human capital. Having worked global organizations and multinational clients in the industrial, financial services, and distribution industries, Rogers said she has developed the ability to produce cross-cultural change. She’s also a permanent fixture in the HR market with her participation in the community as a speaker for such organizations as the Center for Advanced Human Resource Studies (CAHRS), the Human Resource Planning Society (HRPS), and the HR Technology Group.
With her place in the HRO industry well established, Rogers expresses gratitude for her success. “I’m a little bit lucky in some ways. I am where I want to be. I run a global business for HR outsourcing in a market that is great, in a type of business that I love, with a team that’s excellent,” she said.
Not surprisingly, as a senior statesman for the industry, she is sharing her insights and expertise. From hosting women-centered round-table discussions to mentoring talent within her company, Rogers is passionate about developing the next generation of HR business leaders.
“I’ve reached a point in my career where it’s more about building future leaders than necessarily what do I do next. I love working with our next generation, seeing their enthusiasm and desire to learn, motivation to be proud of the business, and their passion,” she said. “I’ve had great mentors for advice, guidance, and support. Having the right mentors and support staff around you is what makes great leaders. It was critical in allowing me to be successful.”
What’s Rogers advice to rising corporate stars? It’s pretty simple: Make customer service your first priority. Of all the variables in the HRO equation, the client is the most important, she said. “I always listen to the voice of a customer. When things start to fall apart at the end of the day, focus on the customer and everything else will fix itself.”