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Keys to Developing Success, Leadership in Global Payroll

By Robert Gerbin, CPP


The career arc that has positioned me as a leader in global payroll has been one of the most rewarding—but also the most challenging—in my professional career. My good fortune, through hard work, is to have traveled the globe and gained payroll experience in more than 50 countries, either as a global payroll leader or as a consultant. The wonderful and talented payroll professionals I have had the pleasure of meeting all share a powerful work ethic and a passion to ensure that all employees, team members, associates, etc., are paid correctly, timely, and in a compliant manner. Personally, I am blessed to get to do the job I do and work with some amazing colleagues.

Now, saying that, working in the global space does have its challenges. In that regard, I don’t mean the 4:00 a.m. (or 11:00 p.m.) conference calls, sitting in the middle coach seat on a 14-hour airplane trip, or trying to demonstrate openness to other cultures by tasting foods that are outside of what my taste buds may be accustomed. But complexities such as “leading” a global team, staying one step ahead of the ever-changing global compliance environment, driving strong controls around global data movement, and pursuing a relentless effort to make the world a smaller place in which to operate—these all give meaning to the word challenging. Despite those challenges, what an amazing day job!

In recent years, it has become more common to hear that a U.S. payroll manager has been given global responsibilities. Thus starts a whole new set of challenges. In fact, for a new global leader, it’s actually their strong knowledge of U.S. payroll that could become their greatest hurdle when they start to tackle the global space. One of my greatest lessons during my journey occurred when I departed for another country. I needed to fully immerse myself and let go of the U.S. “way” of doing things. Yes, payroll across the globe has similarities, but as a former colleague of mine once said, “Robert, you are in Brazil, not the U.S.!” Obrigado, my friend!

Recently, I was asked by a new global payroll leader about the key areas that they should be aware of as they start their own global payroll journey. The following are several main factors upon which new and current global payroll leaders should focus their attention:

  • Become a key global business partner
  • Start to develop your intercultural competency
  • Understand that global governance is just as important as global management
  • Stay positive and build a strong network

Become a Key Global Business Partner

Global organizations are quite dynamic as their global footprint is aligned to meet their business objectives. Mergers, acquisition, divestitures, and even organic growth lead to a need for aligned strategic planning and execution. Payroll professionals agree that having payroll involved in early discussions with business strategic decisions can solve or anticipate issues down the road. Saying this, I still hear that payroll is one of the last to be “brought to the table.” Below are a few key approaches to becoming that key global business partner:

  • Spending Time Outside the Payroll DepartmentOne of the most valuable, if not the most valuable, lessons I learned in my payroll journey was that if I wanted to be a key global business leader, I needed to build strong relationships with various stakeholders across the organization. This means not just within HR or technology, but also sales, marketing, product development, and even manufacturing. I would engage colleagues about what they were working on. Over time, these same relationships resulted in my being brought into the fold much earlier.
  • Really Understand Your Business Products, Services, Customers, and Market—Early in my global payroll career, I gained a very valuable global partner as part of my introduction with a regional president. I did not lead any conversations about payroll, but first spent time getting to know that leader and understanding what challenges the business was facing. My conversation included and provided my understanding of our regional products and services. I genuinely wanted to understand more about our local business and how I could help to be a valuable business partner, rather than solving point solutions related with HR or payroll systems.

Develop Your Intercultural Competency

One of the most important aspects leading to the success of global payroll projects and operations involves cultural awareness of global team members. The ability to effectively communicate and collaborate with team members from various countries and regions is extremely important. Developing your intercultural competency is more than understanding the dos and don’ts of certain countries; it’s about a structured personal development plan with a focus of transitioning from an ethnocentrism state to an increasingly ethnorelative state of culture awareness.

Over the years, I have seen and heard of global implementations or initiatives that have failed because the importance of understanding culture was underestimated and unanticipated. In some cases, global projects have failed due to the perceived lack of respect or understanding of culture that took place during a first meeting. Today, there are many cultural development resources and tools, and as such, every global payroll professional should improve their own intercultural competency as an annual goal.

Global Governance Is as Important as Global Management

One of the greatest misconceptions in the global payroll space is that all global payroll teams should report to the global payroll leader. I slowly learned that taking a leadership role in global governance and providing input on strategy, policies, practices, systems, and partnerships made me a true global business partner; it goes beyond becoming just a global manager.

Beyond earning trust with global leaders, one must be involved in developing, presenting, and executing a successful global governance model. Success is based upon listening to what customers are saying, to what employees are saying, and to what leadership is saying. In most cases, what you hear will not be to take over their payroll team, but how you can assist in areas such as improving communications between the enterprise and that region or country, standardizing processes and lowering operational expense, strengthening risk and controls, and ensuring compliance. As such, being a leader of global governance is the real key in becoming an impactful global payroll business partner.

Stay Positive, Build a Strong Network

During the early days of my global payroll journey, I heavily leaned on fellow global payroll professionals whom I met via the American Payroll Association (APA). I owe so much to them, not just for sharing their knowledge, but also for their positive support, which was so helpful as I encountered my own obstacles and corresponding lack of support during various efforts. I would say to any new payroll leader, “Stay positive, believe in yourself, and always keep moving forward with what you believe is right.” Also, be vocal about saying “payroll rocks!”

Two factors that contribute to building a strong and productive network are:

  1. Build a network or group of a few close contacts that are at various stages of their own global payroll journeys. This will help you gain multiple perspectives.
  2. When you join a group, forum, or committee, do not be silent. Do not just join the call, listen, and hang up. Ask questions, explain where you are in your journey, and start the conversation.

As I look to the future, I feel the current generation of payroll professionals has a unique opportunity to move our profession forward—not just through recognition within an organization as a key strategic partner, but also with bringing increased visibility to new professionals entering the workforce that a career within payroll is an amazing career opportunity. 

Our profession must start to be recognized as more than payroll processors who are just “pushing a button.” I challenge my colleagues to build a grass-roots approach within each organization of being that strategic business partner and to collaborate as a profession. We must use our individual platforms, while leveraging various media outlets, to highlight our amazing payroll profession to a cohort of college graduates who desire to work in a true global setting.

The Payroll Professional Takes Care of People

As I noted previously, there is that common passion around the world for accurate, compliant, and timely payroll. But I truly believe that each payroll professional has an inherent trait of generosity, which is manifest in taking care of our employees, our team members, and our organizations—and as such I am very proud to part of an amazing global profession.

Personally, I am looking forward to where our profession is heading and to being part of leading our profession into the future.

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Robert Gerbin, CPP, is VP, Global Payroll Leader with Wells Fargo Bank & Company. He is a strategic global payroll leader with more than 25 years of human resources and payroll experience who brings a unique mix of industry and consulting experience within various industries. Gerbin is a recognized global payroll expert with experience in more than 50 countries and transformation experience on five continents. He is a member of the American Payroll Association’s (APA) Strategic Payroll Leadership Task Force (SPLTF) and The Conference Board Payroll Executives Council, along with being a contributor to the Global Payroll Management Institute (GPMI).