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Meet Michelle Whitfield, Vice President, Global Payroll Operations, Honeywell

By Frank J. Mendelson

Editor’s Note: Michelle Whitfield is Vice President of Global Payroll Operations for Honeywell in its Corporate Human Resource Services organization. She has been with Honeywell for almost nine years and is responsible for the payroll delivery and compliance for over 127,000 employees globally, throughout 100 countries. Honeywell is a $39 billion diversified technology and manufacturing global leader and has a demonstrated heritage of both innovation and achievement. Over the course of her career, she has been involved in all aspects of payroll delivery; both insourced and outsourced as well as significant ERP implementations across many business segments—manufacturing, business services, and local government. Michelle has a diploma in Electrical, Electronic and Computer Engineering, is a member of the American Payroll Association (APA), the Chartered Institute of Payroll Professionals (CIPP), and is Vice Chair of the Webster Buchanan International Payroll Forum.

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Michelle Whitfield,
Vice President, Global Payroll Operations, Honeywell

How 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 payroll professional of 2016 is very different from the start of my career. Back then we delivered a pay slip and paid taxes to the government. Today, we need to understand what the business drivers are, and identify how we can use data from the payroll and associated databases to understand how we can optimize the use of our workforce. 

Payroll not only needs to interact with HR, but also with IT and finance as well as external third parties, where it’s necessary to understand the future drivers of the business. This way we can set the strategic direction of how the payroll services will be delivered in the future.

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

I think the most important trend is the use of data to develop our future delivery strategy; following trends in government requirements, and asking how can we optimize our systems to eliminate manual error. 

For many years, governments have identified areas of potential weakness in organizations in the area of mobile—more long term—employees across countries. There is now a sense that with better tracking technology it will not just be long-term travel that needs to be addressed, but short-term business travel inside and outside of countries.

Is there a frequently asked question that you think will no longer be part of the conversation? 

Yes, I think it is less about asking, “What is the employee ratio?” With more global payroll practitioners, we understand that all countries are not equal, and need to be resourced correctly to ensure compliance.

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

Today there are more resources available to identify trends, but we shouldn’t just focus on those that impact payroll—we should be thinking about the supporting functions to understand how we may need to develop. For example, keeping in touch with what is going on in the wider markets’ ERP system development by reading industry white papers, social media, and even online for HR, finance, and system developments. 

I am a member of both the APA and CIPP (American and U.K. payroll associations), and use their resources. Most governments have really great websites that help you answer unusual questions.

I regularly join, and encourage my team to attend, networking events so we can share our experiences—that’s a great learning experience. I also learn from my team. We are so diverse. I spend time understanding what the trends are in the countries, as that also helps us identify if there is something we might have to tweak to support the business.

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

Compliance is the key to success for most companies. It is the reputational foundation, and you need to ensure that you hire the right team or partners who have the same ethic of intentional compliance and the elimination of risk that could impact the business. Always ensure as you expand into new locations around the world that you are taking professional advice on data privacy, country-specific specialties, and ensure you have a disaster recovery and business continuity plan. It might seem expensive to start off with, but it’s a lot more cost effective in the long run.

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

As support organizations, we need to continuously analyze how competitive we are in delivering services. To this we should always consider how to model our services using resources, technology, and partners—and then identify if any competitive advantage is gained by the business. 

How would you describe your present strategy with regard to managing risk and compliance on a global basis? Are there different approaches you’ve taken over time before adopting your current strategy? 

As I previously explained, I will never compromise on compliance. If you identify an issue, my strategy is, and always has been, the following: One, put your hands up to the authorities and explain the issue and two, ensure that you are compliant going forward. 

Many companies are following the trend of full outsourcing to manage compliance. This is a strategy I had previously adopted, but unfortunately, the third parties may not have the same vision of compliance as you. 

Today we use a blended model of internal systems and resources, best-in-class third-party providers, and professional consultants who we leverage for knowledge in areas of specialty such as expatriates and complex tax transactions. When we move to a new geography, we engage with local experts during the setup to ensure we understand what we need to do and who needs to be involved.

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

We have a very detailed control checklist for all areas of our payroll process, including annual activity. As with all payroll operations, we are regularly audited. One of our key activities is ensuring that any areas of concern are not just corrected in that country/services but across our global footprint. Control requirements change as your strategy changes, and I think we need to continually assess and answer the question, “do your current controls on compliance fulfill today’s requirements?” An example would include never being complacent that your vendors and partners have not changed some of their practices which may have an impact upon you—so you should continually want to explore their controls.

What global process server model do you use in global payroll, and why does this work best for you (centralized, decentralized;, regional, local)? 

Our global delivery hubs in Asia and Latin America support our blended model which optimizes the delivery model for the individual geographies, while at the same time providing the standard process, visibility, and rigorous controls which ensure our compliance and minimize risk.

How did you become involved in global payroll? 

It was a complete accident. I graduated with a diploma in Electrical, Electronic and Computer Engineering. I really enjoyed the theory, but I just couldn’t see myself in a career role, and I didn’t really know what I wanted to do. 

After several smaller jobs in bakery management, retail, etc., I decided to try to be a machinist in a local ladies clothing manufacturer. I was so bad during the sewing machine test that they asked if I wanted to try a role in the payroll office (then wages)!

My first role was to calculate the machinist piecework payments on a daily basis and it went from there. What I enjoyed about it—and still do—is that it is a very detail-oriented role where no two days are ever the same. As my career has developed, I have learned a lot about process improvements and Six Sigma; how to utilize systems to the fullest, while at the same time getting to meet and make friends all over the world.

I think I have done almost every job in the payroll organization, which I think gives me a different perspective on how things need to occur. I was a payroll actioner long before I became a leader.

What are some pieces of wisdom—your on-the-job experience—you can share in regards to being effective, efficient, and legally compliant in the sphere of working in global payroll? 

Never get tired of asking “why?” Question if there is a single best way.  And if your heart says it doesn’t feel right—it generally isn’t. Although simple, I think each statement answers either efficient, effective, and/or compliant.

What are the most important qualities of effective leadership? 

Strong communication and being able to actively listen, along with being able to coach and inspire your team to think differently. Also, being confident and decisive, and finally to identify talent or potential, and to give honest constructive feedback regularly, not just in a review season.

What is your leadership style now?

I am a leader whose door is open to everyone to discuss and share ideas. A former boss once told me, “You should never have a team who agrees on everything. It doesn’t always develop our ideas and strategies to the fullest.” So I would say I am mostly a consultative leader. I am sure my team would tell you that I have a strong bias for action.  I don’t procrastinate on ideas for long.

How do you develop your employees?

Payroll development has changed a lot. I think we need to continue developing the qualities within our team, but the most important thing to remember is that not everybody can be a leader so we need to identify what the key attributes of that individual are and what it is they would like to do. 

We should have a combination of skills, and we need to be clear on the roles and responsibilities to show individuals where their careers can develop and provide them with the opportunities to get there. This will be a combination of cross training, formal external education, projects, and ideally for the future leader, getting them to understand the wider organization so they are not just focused exclusively on payroll which can stifle some of the ideas as to how to better support your customers. 

I have a key belief that we spend more time at work than we often do with our loved ones so you should enjoy your work and take time to celebrate and have fun times together. For the last couple of years at Honeywell we have celebrated Global Payroll Week across our virtual teams, and this year we were all “Payroll Ninjas.” So team-building is not just about your direct team but also the wider global team. Everyone understanding the shared objectives with the same mission and energy is always a powerful team.

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

Energy and resilience in payroll; no one is going to thank you for what you do every period to ensure that they get paid on time and accurately, but when something goes wrong you need to dust yourself down quickly and identify improvement opportunities so that it never happens again. The person needs to have integrity, inquiry skills, and being detail-oriented is important.

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

Having a good understanding of the end-to-end process, having your processes mapped to include the upstream and downstream impacts, everyone having clear roles and responsibilities (understanding what they are accountable for), working to an agreed schedule, and if there are any slippages, communicating early and accurately.  

What are areas of additional education and training you think will be important to global payroll professionals? 

Cultural awareness. For any global role you need to understand that although we all (well nearly all) pay tax through the payroll in some form or other, no two countries’ requirements are the same, although there  are lots of similarities. 

Please share your views on the strategies you use in team-building.

Everyone understanding the shared objectives with the same mission and energy is always powerful team building, also everyone knowing that if they see something not correct or you don’t know, raise your hand and have confidence that you won’t be judged but that we will all share in reading a solution.

When I was promoted to my first significant leadership role nearly 20 years ago, I was struggling with my new big team. I was in Birmingham airport in the U.K. and a book caught my eye called FISH. It was a really quick read, and I understood that this was the way I already lived my life but it was so well-written and simple that I took it back to the office and shared it with the team. My approach was different from anything they had done before and had a different impact, so eventually almost everyone bought into the idea, and we all had fun together understanding what our shared objectives were.

I still use similar approaches today but keep trying slightly different versions so nobody, especially me, becomes complacent.

How do you personally manage to balance work and pleasure?

I am really lucky as I love my job and my team. We call ourselves the “HON Global Payroll family,” and we do like to virtually celebrate together as we did during Global Payroll Week last year when we all celebrated together. But my proper jobs are being a mother to my daughter and a wife. My family puts up with a lot, so when I’m away on business travel once I am home our time together is about being the three of us—eating out, walking a lot, and obviously going on vacation. My other secret pleasure is interior decorating—even while at home I always like to have a project in the works.  

What books are on your reading list? 

I like to have a mix of books to read when I’m on business travel.  I like business books. One of my favorite business authors is Marcus Buckingham whom I saw speak recently. I am reading StandOut 2.0 (Assess Your Strengths, Find Your Edge, Win at Work). I also like to watch TED Talks, which I download to my tablet when I’m traveling. A favorite is “Simon Sinek—How Great Leaders Inspire.” And, obviously I like the latest Danielle Steel when I’m at the beach.