Behind the challenger scenes at Colt

06 July 2017 | Jason McGee-Abe


Colt Technology Services has undergone a significant transformation process over the past nine months. Jason McGee-Abe spoke to Tim Passingham, VP of its wholesale business, to find out how Colt executed this strategy in the build up to relaunching on 1 January, 2017

Tim Passingham 680x400

I first met Passingham at our Capacity Middle East event in Dubai earlier this year and was immediately impressed not only by his enthusiasm but transparency about Colt’s plans in the marketplace: two things which very much exemplify Colt’s culture in the wholesale marketplace at the moment.

“The leadership of the company is absolutely fundamental to our success,” says Passingham, who was appointed in September 2016 to help spearhead Colt’s business transformation.

What makes a good leader for a carrier?

Commenting about Carl Grivner, who was appointed CEO of Colt in January 2016, Passingham says: “Carl is a great example of leadership. He’s part of the reason that we’ve found it so easy to attract good talent and he’s part of the reason I joined. He’s well-known in the industry and is a very capable leader. He builds great, diverse, talented teams around him and he always listens and is open for ideas. He did that at Global Crossing, XO Communications, Pacnet and he’s doing that now at Colt. It’s a massive privilege to be part of Carl’s wider team.”

As an ex-US marine, leading from the front is part of Grivner’s training and make-up, something Passingham wholeheartedly believes. “He really leads from the front and by example. When you have that in your chief executive it percolates down and throughout the organisation because companies do reflect their leaders. Leadership often casts a shadow, often a much bigger shadow that leaders actually appreciate and Carl’s shadow encourages people to also lead.”

Wholesale didn’t really exist as a separate entity at the time when Passingham joined as it was sat within what was effectively different regional organisations. ”We carved out a new wholesale team, bringing new talent into some critical roles, moving talent sideways in the organisation and promoting talent within the team.”

Since Grivner joined Colt there is almost a completely new leadership team at Colt Technology Services. Passingham joined alongside Tom Regent, who was appointed as chief commercial officer and as a member of the executive leadership team, and Paula Cogan, the company’s VP of enterprise EMEA and LATAM. When Colt Technology Services’ wholesale business went live officially on 1 January 2017, “we really hit the ground running to grow the business and with our newly-built team, taking a really new approach to the wholesale market".

Colt House: A challenger environment

Colt moved into the heart of East London’s Tech City in November 2016, which felt like a hub for innovation when Capacity recently visited their offices in Shoreditch. Passingham says Colt is creating a “disruptive challenger culture”.

“We’re putting a huge effort into our cultural transformation and challenger culture. For us it means, going back to Colt’s roots. When City of London Telecom started out digging up streets of European cities almost 25 years ago, they had a really disruptive challenger culture in the marketplace as a real alternative network provider taking the fight to the competition.” A few years back this seemingly had been lost a little bit along the way, but the new leadership team is trying to, and quite successfully, injecting that into its people and the market.

Colt’s done a number of things to do just that. It’s implemented a new strategy for the wholesale marketplace to go with the new unit. It’s focused on growing organic business and winning new strategic transformational deals. It’s selling new capabilities, such as its SDN product, which won the best SDN/NFV deployment award at the 2016 Global Carrier Awards, and the capability they’ve built with the new Colt IQ network, which is connected to around 700 data centres in Europe. “We’ve done some really good work to transform our approach internally first and then externally to the marketplace.

Passingham’s own background was geared more towards enterprise than wholesale but he’s certainly helping Colt to try and bring a much more of an enterprise sales mindset to the wholesale marketplace. “We’re not just selling point-to-point bandwidth but focusing on the specifics of what our customers need, great solutions for extremely high bandwidth across our network,” he says.

“In building the challenger culture, we’re communicating a lot more,” says Passingham, who personally holds a call on the second Friday of every month with the wholesale team on its performance. 

Colt also has company newsletters and enhanced staff engagement at social events, such as the first Wednesday of every month is “Wholesale Wednesday” where people staff and partners get together for a drink, and training days. “Using our new facilities at our hub at Colt House to help create that environment is key. Internally, we try to challenge ourselves to respectively not accept mediocrity and challenge ourselves.”

Passingham believes Colt has a responsibility to help move the wholesale industry forwards. “We think the industry lacks behind others, like retail, with customer service. The place to start is to transform internally and then to the marketplace.”

“We spend a lot of time together on creating this challenger environment. For example, Carl’s last extended leadership team meeting took place last month for two days and was very much centred on our challenger culture and how we drive this through the organisation. 

“That’s a huge investment of leadership time but we’re passionate about it as it’ll make a big difference.”

Executing a succession plan

It is absolutely crucial to have a succession plan. Why have one? Many companies talk about it and lots have a process for it, but very few actually do it in practice. It is fundamentally just good business practice. “It is crucial for any organisation, particularly those in the service industry, where your key asset is your people. It certainly is for us and from a Colt perspective, we want the very best talent in our organisation,” adds Passingham.

“A crucial part of our strategy was to double the size of our salesforce and we’re recruiting very heavily. But we’re not just recruiting anyone. It has to be the right people and they have to have the right cultural fit for our challenger culture and mindset to help us transform our approach and the market.”

And how do companies prepare for the day when a top executive retires or moves on? “It’s a fundamental need from a business continuity perspective and risk management point of view to have a plan in place. If something happens to any of our key roles, not just the chief executive, it’s crucial to have a number of people in mind who can step into these key critical roles to protect the business and make sure we’re not putting the business at risk.”

The former Level 3 SVP, who headed up a large team and was responsible for over half a billion dollars of annual revenue adds: “We owe it to our own staff, prospective or existing, so that they have clear career paths and the knowledge that we believe they have the ability to help lead the company one day. We’ve put these paths in place for everybody so their career is roadmapped for them.” Staff retention and motivation is important but so is transparency, he adds. “Identifying skills people need to progress and being transparent about their opportunity to grow, learn and progress is very important. We can’t guarantee this unless we have the right succession plan in place and the right talent management linked to that.”

“We owe it to our shareholder, Fidelity, who we have a responsibility to deliver a good return on their investment. We can’t do that if we don’t have the right leadership in place, and in turn we can’t guarantee that we have the right leadership unless we put the right planning in place.”

He also says it’s crucial to have the right people managing the relationships with partners, such as Ciena and Cisco. “The constant focus though is our customers; to make sure the quality of service that we deliver is the best in the market,” he adds. Colt already has one of the highest net promoter scores in the industry and it has its sights on having the highest.