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Executive Spotlight

Marcia Aamodt, Executive Consultant on Global Payroll Strategies

By Frank J. Mendelson

Editor’s Note: Marcia Aamodt is self-employed as an Executive Consultant for Global Payroll Strategies. She is the former Director of Compensation Services at Apple, Inc., where she was responsible for global strategies relating to hire to retire and managed the global payroll and stock administration functions residing in three shared service centers throughout the world. Previously, she was Senior Director of Payroll & HRIS at Abercrombie & Fitch and Director of Payroll and Accounts Payable for Northwest Airlines, Inc. Aamodt is an active member of the American Payroll Association (APA). She represented the APA on IRPAC (IRS committee); led various national groups; was a Vice President at the national level; and held a number of officer levels locally. Her knowledge of payroll issues has placed her high on the request list for seminars and conferences both within the United States and internationally.  

1450881127_65372How is the changing role of the global payroll professional—typified by greater interaction with the human resources department, data analysis, and strategic planning—making an impact in the field? 

The role for the leader of the group (Manager/Director/VP) is becoming more strategic as that person assumes responsibility for the payroll around the world. Reporting and metrics are key in identifying opportunities and focus. For the payroll analyst, processing payroll is becoming more analytical. 

It is critical to work closely with the human resources department if you are going to be a true global payroll department. Your processes and systems must support complex regulations and multiple benefit plans. HR and payroll must be closely linked.

What are the emerging trends or issues that have your attention in global payroll? 

Having one payroll provider or system that will allow standardization of processes around the world is a common theme. Global payroll leaders are also focused on global compliance. 

Is there a frequently asked question that you think will no longer be part of the conversation in global payroll five years from now?

The question that I get from several companies is how they can justify moving from a decentralized model to a global model. In the future, I feel that most companies will see the benefits of going global and this question will no longer be an issue. 

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

I wish there was one place that the payroll professional could go, but this is impossible. My participation on global teams represented by companies all over the world helps me to identify trends. My team used the APA, the Canadian Payroll Association, our global payroll provider, and one of the Big Four accounting firms to help with legislative changes. 

How would you advise someone whose company is just beginning to expand to a global payroll with regard to risk management and compliance? 

There are a couple of different approaches. If a company is expanding into a country, I would recommend that it use both its payroll vendor and a legal team on the ground to identify work rules, employment laws, reporting requirements, legislative issues, and how to fund the payroll. 

If a company is moving from a decentralized model to a “global” model, I would recommend that it perform a review of its current practices and work with local professionals to make sure that practices are in compliance. I have found gaps in compliance that had to be corrected when I took companies to a global level.

How can a global payroll department integrate on a strategic level with corporate finance, human resources, and other departments to provide a competitive advantage?

The more standardized that processes, reporting, and systems become, the more it benefits other departments. For instance, accruing for company-paid benefits one way will help corporate accounting understand entries on the ledger/costs. It also simplifies the point of contact for employees and others who interact with the payroll department. 

Who were some of your early influences? 

I knew that I enjoyed accounting early in my career. I had a VP/Controller who really helped influence my career. Once I landed in payroll, I found that the American Payroll Association was a great teacher and provided some great opportunities for volunteering. Every volunteer opportunity was another learning experience. 

What were your early career aspirations when attending college?

Funny you should ask, because I really wanted to focus on home economics and home design. Once I found out how much science was required, I decided to go into business. I started my career in accounting and had experience in implementing various finance systems. I was asked to take over payroll in one of the larger companies where I worked, and this became the start of my payroll career.

How did you become involved in global payroll? 

I had some experience setting up payroll in other countries early in my career. Abercrombie & Fitch was looking for an experienced leader to take over its payroll department and help set the strategy for its global growth. During my tenure, we implemented a payroll in nine countries, and from there my career grew to overseeing the payroll function, where we paid employees in 40 countries. 

Tell us about your experience in mentoring. 

Early in my career I had a controller who helped to steer me in the right direction. I didn’t really have an official mentor. While I have not participated in an official mentor program, I have helped many individuals with their careers. 

As a leader, I have managed teams as large as 175 employees, and part of my responsibilities was to help others grow in their careers. The most important areas were to help employees obtain the technical background that they needed to perform their jobs. For those who are managers or want to become leaders of people, I feel it is important to be a good role model and ask, “What do they need to do to become effective leaders?”

What are some of the lessons you’ve learned from your first role in management? 

Be a good listener; don’t make assumptions. Effective communication includes listening and being able to communicate expectations. It is important to have an open-door policy and support your staff. 

What was your most important developmental experience?

I was 28 years old when I took over a group of 35 employees, and many of these individuals were middle-aged. I knew that I had to prove myself quickly as an effective leader. I learned who the individuals were who had influence over many of the employees, so I got to know them and made sure that I listened to input and treated them with respect.

What wisdom can you share in regard to being effective, efficient, and legally compliant in global payroll? 

I would say pay attention to details and be sure to ask the simplest of questions when you are moving to other countries. They are much different than the United States. Ask lots of questions so that you understand the issues.

You need to be sure that you are very aware of cultural differences; for instance, government authorities may require local languages. Don’t assume that you will be able to use English when working with other countries. 

What are some of the personal challenges you’ve faced in global payroll, and how have you met them? What have you learned about world cultures, similarities, and differences that impact your work in global payroll? 

There are some countries that want their countries’ payroll paid by employees within the country. They are very skeptical that someone outside of the country will understand the complexities of their country’s rules. I have found that if you listen and make sure that you hear their concerns you can help to alleviate their fears. 

Taking over the payroll from local country processing and moving it into a shared service center is sometimes difficult. Local processing allows employees to talk directly to the person that processes the payroll; there are less dependencies on using corporate systems and standards and allows more liberties to do as they want locally. 

This takeover means more standardization and compliance, and this can sometimes be a challenge. Again, you need to make sure you help the locals understand what’s in it for them and also for the greater good of the enterprise. 

What have you learned about world cultures, similarities, and differences that impact your work in global payroll? 

I have found there are commonalties wherever you go. Everyone involved in the payroll process has one goal, and that is to produce high-quality product for employees. Communication is different among cultures; with some you can be more direct when communicating, while with others it is important to develop a relationship and trust. 

How would you describe your style of leadership?  

My style favors an open-door policy and allows my managers to manage without micro-management. I help to set goals and direction for the year and make allowances for any changes that might impact their goals. This way it allows me to provide direction and let them carry out the plan.

What feedback have you received about leadership style through the years? 

Most of my managers have been very appreciative that I did not micro-manage but allowed them to be creative and get the job done. I also heard that they appreciated the amount of time that I spent with them and that I was available when needed. They appreciated my feedback that I provided on a regular basis.

What strategies do you use in team-building?

It is important to get the team on board as quickly as possible. In order to do that, you have to get them involved early in the process. It is necessary to communicate effectively, let them know what is in it for them and how it will help the company. It is also leadership’s responsibility to address concerns that may come up so that as they are addressed early on, rumors will be kept down. 

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

You cannot underestimate how change impacts an organization, so you must take the pulse on what is happening around you. Communication is so important. If you think you have communicated adequately, you probably need to do more. Celebrating accomplishments along the way is an effective way to build morale and teamwork. Celebrations serve to recognize the team, and that makes a statement on how important the project is to the company. 

How would you describe your strategy with regard to managing risk and compliance on a global basis? 

I initiated “health checks” for all of the work rules and taxability of company benefits to make sure that we were in compliance. I found that when benefit changes were made, research had not been done to determine taxability or reporting requirements. I also worked very closely with HR to ensure that payroll was involved in planning any changes going forward, including work rules and benefits. I also engaged a third party to provide updates on legislative changes. 

What are the key considerations in managing risk and compliance across your annual timeline?

I considered the number of employees that might be impacted, the dollar impact to the company, and the penalty of noncompliance. In addition, you must take into consideration the system changes that must be made. Once you find an issue, you need to also determine if you will take retroactive action or only prospective changes. This decision must include HR, finance, and corporate tax (if this is a tax issue) before you make a final decision. Payroll’s position should be that we must be compliant and that should help to drive the decision. Some in the organization may want to stay status quo, which is not an option. 

What global process service model do you use in global payroll, and why does this work best for you? 

I have used two different models in my career. With one retailer I worked for, we were centralized with a payroll officer in-country to assist store managers and employees and work closely with HR on the ground in-country. 

With my past employer, we had centralized oversight but processing was in four regional shared service centers. The shared service centers reported to the Global Payroll Leader. 

How do you hire? What are some key questions you ask?

I wanted to be sure that we had a balance of payroll experience, but often we would hire individuals with accounting experience and would teach them payroll. We would focus on the passion they had for customer service as well as the technical experience they had to match the position that was open. I was responsible for 130 employees at different levels and different responsibilities. 

What are key qualities you look for in people you hire?

I look for individuals who have a real passion to help others, team players who have a strong technical background to match the position. I also look for individuals who like to solve problems and think creatively. I will usually ask for examples of ideas that they have had in their careers that have led to efficiencies. 

How do you assign and oversee each person’s work in your group?

My department was organized by areas of responsibilities so each person understands their function. We had leads that reported to a manager and would assign work to their group. It was important for each area to have regular meetings to discuss the status of work being performed. 

What are some of the unique aspects in running an efficient and effective global payroll operation? 

One of the biggest challenges is coordinating hours for meetings with the managers around the world in the four service centers. Another challenge is implementing standardized processes across the globe.