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Executive Spotlight

Meet Michael A. Elliott, CPP, VP, Global Payroll Services, Wells Fargo


By Frank J. Mendelson

Editor’s Note: Michael A. Elliott, CPP, is VP, Senior Business Initiatives Manager–Global Payroll Services–Wells Fargo Corporate Global Payroll Services. He is Six Sigma Green Belt Certified, with more than 23 years in the financial industry. He has held roles in finance, mortgage, OED, PMO, and payroll, and is the current Centers of Excellence (COE) Leader for the Wells Fargo, Global Payroll Services–Effectiveness COE. He and his team are focused on developing key HR talent, leveraging internal and industry benchmarking to identify gaps to meet future business needs. They publish the monthly global payroll dashboard/scorecard for 40 countries, comprising six global regions.

What do you see as the changing role of the payroll professional?

The trend in global payroll is leaning toward being more centralized from an operating model, with subset teams in-region to support employees and contingent workers.

Having a connection with your HR 24partners is a key success factor to plan for, as is being looped into conversations for business changes and integration. The need to collect data (metrics) to tell your story and support your business partners is critical—now and in the future.

I’ve known colleagues who have found themselves in decision-making situations, who had to rely on what they thought or felt would be the best solution, without data to back up their decisions. That can be a dangerous position to find yourself. Accurate and timely data can greatly support your team’s position on certain decisions, requests for funding for new initiatives, or even to validate what you do —and why. Having timely and accurate data, especially industry benchmarking and gearing ratios to tell your story, can also be your defense to justify having your team continuing as a viable option for the firm.

What are some of the emerging trends in global payroll?

The 24/7 model will be critical. Having timely support for employees will require payroll to think differently about the operating model and service delivery. I feel that robotics, mobile applications, and other technologies will quickly help fill the gap in some areas, but the ability to have a global staff with readily accessible data and speed-to-market results will be key for our industry. I definitely feel opportunities exist for more mobile applications to support global payroll; however, security and data privacy issues continue to slow the developments in this area. This is the future opportunity, but we still have much to solve in this arena.

Is there a frequently asked question or function that you expect will no longer be part of the conversation in global payroll?

Most questions being asked today, especially around systems access and updates, will possibly be eliminated or greatly diminished once more stable mobile applications are developed. Having self-service options and support available via mobile device will be a contributor to reducing the questions asked and the calls required to call centers or other support environments.

What resources do you use to stay current on the latest trends and legislation?

More information is becoming readily available through reliable sources; online and real-time. The Global Payroll Management Institute (GPMI) is a great resource, and I always encourage my staff to check the GPMI website as one of the first-stop resources. It’s also important to continually challenge your staff to stay tuned to government publications, updates on regulatory changes, etc., especially if they are in-country or in-region, where the changes occur. An educated staff is your best asset, and allowing a venue (e.g., email, company blog) for them to keep you aware of changes can really be a time- and cost-savings opportunity, if managed properly.

How can a payroll department provide support on a strategic level to corporate finance, human resources, and other departments?

This is probably the most under-utilized opportunity facing the payroll industry. The payroll department, especially in large organizations, manages some of the most substantial amounts, tax payments, filing of documentation, etc. Yet many payroll teams still function as order-takers within their companies, due to management not promoting the value the team offers to the firm.

Payroll should always be at the table for critical business decisions and, in many cases, having the data to tell your story can act as the segue to get you there.

The skills to paint the future vision of the organization are key; making payroll a key element of that vision is critically important. If you are a leader and not at the table for these important conversations, it never hurts to ask for a place. If asked why you should be there, start with promoting your team’s responsibility for managing and paying everyone on time. Then present the value you and your team bring to the organization, and describe how the partnership is vital to the organization’s success. Payroll should never be an afterthought but a key contributor to business planning and decisions.

What are the biggest challenges for payroll teams?

First, maintaining a well-trained staff that understands how to interpret and incorporate changes within regulatory and governmental rulings.

Second, the rapidly changing environment facing our industry. As more companies become global, understanding how well your team can adapt to the changes and what skill gaps exist can be a challenge for leadership to identify, understand, and close in a timely manner.

Third, if you are planning to implement a global team, you need to understand both the cultural aspects and time zones in which the teams operate. Different cultures function and interact in very different manners. Being flexible, and including your global teams in the decision process, will ensure a more successful experience. You might also find yourself being on calls at any hour to accommodate your global team’s schedules.

What would you advise for a company moving from a domestic to a global payroll in Latin America?

The Latin America market is very relationship-focused. If you are planning to move business to that region, you need to understand a few things. Having a payroll provider (third-party supplier) to calculate your payroll for automated upload might be the right solution for your business model. The costs might be high, but the risks can be substantially lower with that model.

Additionally, the Latin America region is predominantly a Spanish-speaking region. Like many countries throughout the globe, many countries in Latin America require employers to have documentation, website publications, etc., translated to indigenous languages. Knowing the regulatory rules and having a bilingual staff to support your employees within the region will add a huge tangible asset to your operating model and employee satisfaction.

With the emergence of technology and data-driven HR decision-making, how do you see the role of the payroll professional evolving?

Technology will shape the look and feel of payroll in the near future. How we process payroll today will be very different in five or 10 years. Many of the processes and tasks we now conduct will become obsolete, especially with the incorporation of robotics and artificial intelligence. Payroll professionals, more than ever, need to stay abreast of changes and continue to build their business acumen. Payroll teams will become smaller, but they will also be expected to make decisions using and interpreting data. This will lead to new opportunities for payroll professionals to expand their scope of knowledge and transition into new roles, offering a broader view and perspective to drive results. If we can grasp that single concept, we will see ourselves continuing to be a valuable asset to our companies.

What are the emerging trends in data management and data security?

Data security and maintaining compliance with the evolving global economy will be critical for our industry. For those old enough to remember the music CD; compare that invention, which at the time seemed like the be-all/end-all and highest-quality delivery of music, to the MP3, MP4, file-streaming, etc. Today, people listen to their music on-demand via download or streaming. The idea of purchasing a CD to add to your “collection” has diminished to a few of us who still “collect” music. Much like that example, compliance updates and changes will begin to occur more frequently and in different delivery methods, with which the payroll industry will be required to comply,  much like today, but at a faster rate.

The delivery of those updates and changes will become more real-time, and the float time to acclimate to those changes will become shorter and more compressed. In this area, we cannot negate the human capital element, which will be key for establishing best practices, understanding when changes to systems will need to be made, etc.

Additionally, data security and how to maintain a stable environment in the ever-increasing “cyber threat-infested world” in which we exist will continue to require new innovations and technologies to protect customer, employee, and company data.

What emerging trends do you see in meeting payroll needs and compliance in payroll management for mobile employees?

The complexity in this area continues to grow, almost exponentially. Understanding the mobility laws and requirements for states and countries, the payments and frequency with which they are to be made, and how to track the mobile employee can all be challenging. If your company uses an online system to book travel, ensure your team is getting a report to help reconcile “when” and “for how long” an employee was working abroad or within another state. See to it that you have strong relationships with your risk, compliance, legal, and other teams to understand the dynamics associated with mobile employees, and that you submit the required tax forms and additional reporting to the proper authorities.

What are some of the considerations a company should ask to determine if there is a good fit with a prospective vendor?

Considerations include the size of the files the vendor system can deliver (i.e., how many employees can they accommodate per entity and/or country within one pay cycle), technology platform used, if they have a 24/7 support staff, if they have filed BCPs (business continuity plans) which can be reviewed, years in business, their SLAs (service-level agreements), experience working in the countries you have targeted, etc. If you have knowledge of existing companies using the vendor’s services; having a conversation with those companies (if possible) can also provide additional insight for assist with your decision.

How can companies better leverage payroll data for strategic decision-making; how will payroll data emerge as a critical analytic business tool?

As mentioned previously, having payroll metrics is critically important. How frequently we pay, how much we pay, the costs of producing a pay slip or paycheck, the accuracy of payroll runs, the number of employees paid, etc., is all data that can support the HR model or other division the payroll team rolls into.

How do you track new legislation and trends across regions when it comes to legislation, and compliance enforcement?

A staff that monitors changes and communicates to your department, especially if they are in-region, is essential. Online publications from GPMI and notifications can also assist, but most importantly, understanding what items require action now and which items will have future impacts is key. Ensuring your team is aware of changes, your technology team has the correct information loaded within your payroll system, communications and training are conducted—all of these are key attributes for success in these areas.

Why and how did you become involved in payroll?

I had been on a short-term ex-pat assignment in Hong Kong and Singapore in 2009 with another company. When a role for international payroll became available with Wells Fargo, I was intrigued. At the time, I had no formal education in the actual practice of producing payroll, but did understand governmental and regulatory processes. Once I was hired and began to be exposed to the global payroll process, I quickly found payroll an amazing practice. I really enjoyed learning the intricacies of regulatory requirements, payment schedules, methods of pay, etc., which are very different outside the United States. It really is an amazing community of practice for which we provide the most important asset to employees: their pay. You can have the best salesperson in the world working for your company, but if you’re not paying them on time and accurately, they won’t be working for your firm for long.

What are some pieces of learned wisdom from your on-the-job experience that you can share on being an effective, efficient, and strategic business partner?

Technology is your friend, if you understand how to leverage it, to make your life easier. I still find many payroll professionals completing tasks that could be automated through programs like Microsoft Excel. I always encourage employees to educate themselves, both for now and the future. Staying on top of your personal development is key from a knowledge and functional ability standpoint.

What kinds of skills, training, and education would be most useful for someone moving into a managerial role in payroll?

Behavioral skills training is an incredible resource I recommend to all managers. Understanding the concepts of Situational Leadership, Strengths Finder, the Seven Habits, etc., will help you understand your leadership style and the style of others you manage. Possessing the ability to work well with others having different styles without compromising the integrity of your work is a great skill we all should continue to develop and modify.

What were some of your early career lessons?

I mentor (both formally and informally) employees seeking career advice and I continue to find many of the same reasons I had when seeking new opportunities. One question I always ask is, “Why are you looking to make a change?” Inevitably, after asking the “Five Whys,” in most situations, I find the employee wants to make more money. Money is great and I understand “why” individuals continue to seek more money. However, money should never be the key driver for your career choice. Follow your passion first—and the money will ultimately follow. I made two major mistakes early in my career. First, not knowing my value (meaning what I should be paid for the skills I had at the time) and two, not understanding exactly how my skills might align with a targeted role.

I strongly suggest prospective employees research the specific requirements for targeted roles and job shadow when possible.

What career and life advice do you give to new college graduates?

Have a vision for where you want to be in five years. When I first entered the banking industry, I was wrapping up my bachelor’s degree in finance but hadn’t a clue what I really wanted to do as a career. Again, I highly recommend job shadowing or internships to anyone, especially those planning to graduate from college, interested in pursuing a career opportunity or a next role within your company. The worst thing one can do is “assume” what the role is about, interview and land the job, and then find it’s not a career fit for your skills. Always remember; life is a continuous learning event. Even though you graduated with your associate’s, bachelor’s, master’s, etc., you will still continue to complete annual compliance training, job-skills training, certification training, etc., throughout your career.

What are the most important qualities of effective leadership?

Leadership is not about you, but your team.

Being flexible and truly caring about your team are critical behaviors a successful leader must possess. Every day, you should be thinking about how to grow and educate your team to prepare for the next role, phase, or upcoming change in their career. I constantly ask myself, “If I weren’t here tomorrow, who on my team would have the necessary skills to step up and move into my role?” If you ask the same question and your answer is “no one,” then you should begin identifying the gaps to fill and begin planning to develop your team in those areas.

Explain your management and leadership approach today.

I have the most incredible team and I don’t micro-manage unless there is an issue that needs to be resolved. I also try to be 100% clear and transparent with my team and ensure they know what is expected.

It’s not a perfect strategy and may not work for everyone, but I see my team as professionals having the ability to manage their work and themselves, accordingly. If we encounter a problem, then we discuss and talk about the next-time opportunities and lessons learned from the event. If an issue with a business partner exists, I always expect the employees to work out any personality issues with their business colleagues. That requires me to be an effective coach and counselor when the need arises, and I always focus on how to improve my skills in those areas. Remember, you don’t have to like everyone you work with, but you do have to work effectively with everyone you work with.

How has your approach to change management helped to make a successful organization?

Change management should be the opportunity to help your team realize the potential for new opportunities. Unfortunately, many organizations do not plan appropriately for change and simply let it happen, hoping everyone will adjust.

As part of a dynamic leadership team, we are adamant about planning for change. We consider the human capital and talent assessments needed to support the change, business process, systems migration, training, communication, and other external factors that might impact our organization. I always anticipate change, although not all change can be known. I believe if you are connected with your team and transparent, change can actually be a positive prospect.

How do you hire?

For newly created roles, I research the company’s internal database for similar roles and try to coordinate a conversation with other managers regarding what they looked for when hiring for the role. This tactic allows me the opportunity to assess what skills were needed when the manager hired for the role and any new skills they might find are needed for future considerations. Sometimes managers have even recommended talent within their organizations who might be looking for a new opportunity. Having a conversation with other managers is a great strategy to understand the work within other lines of business and establish new relationships.

When I back-fill a role, I always look for the skills the previous resource had as the minimum for the new candidate. I additionally research other businesses with similar roles (internal and external) to understand potential trends. From there, I write the requisition and then I ask my peers to review. It’s important to gain additional insight for your posting and ensure you’re not looking for the 1-in-a-billion resource, which you may never find.

My advice is look for 80% perfect or near-perfect fit, and then build the additional 20% to grow the employee. Again, this might not be the perfect formula for everyone, but if you’re only seeking the 100% perfect fit, you might be passing up some really great talent that could bring new perspective and ideas for improvements and efficiencies.

How do you personally manage to balance work and pleasure?

I’m a husband, father of two amazing kids, a musician, an avid rock collector, and active member of my church. I love my job. Even on the worst of days I find myself thankful for my amazing company, manager, peers, and team. I also really enjoy my family and love playing and composing music. My kids, definitely not my wife, love to go “rock hounding,” and it’s a real bonding opportunity. My wife and I have a joke that “I like to look for rocks and she likes to wear them!”

What books are on your recommended reading list?

Dr. Stephen Covey’s The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. If I hadn’t read anything else, that is the one book that helped me to think differently.

FrankMendelsonFrank J. Mendelson is an Acquisitions Editor for the Global Payroll Management Institute. He has been working with the American Payroll Association since 2009 as an editor for
PAYTECH magazine, and has presented workshops at the Annual Congress on effective communication.