Editor’s Note: Angela Wagner is Senior Director of Payroll; Hire to Retire (HTR) Global Tower Lead in the Accounting & Financial Services area at Hilton. She is a multinational payroll leader who, over the past 20 years, has supported a broad range of industries across multiple markets. As the global head of payroll for Hilton, Wagner is responsible for leading the pay delivery strategy and globalization of pay standards, as well as providing oversight of payroll technology and solution deployments. Wagner has transformed the global payroll practice for various Fortune 500 organizations including Starbucks, Amazon, and Alaska Airlines. Her key accomplishments include payroll operations transitions from local markets to offshore teams, strategic planning to support mergers and rapid acquisitions, global market expansion, and pay delivery methodology as part of collective bargaining negotiations. Wagner is an inventive, forward-thinking leader whose creative approach to meeting business needs has yielded results such as decreased labor costs, increased sustainable repeatable pay services, and increased visibility to the strategic value of payroll.
What is the changing role of the payroll professional in terms of greater interaction with HR, data analysis, managerial, and strategic planning?
My mission has been to transform payroll into a practice and demonstrate why a robust payroll practice is critical to the success of an organization. Here is why: Historically, some payroll professionals inadvertently created the illusion of a black box, primarily out of necessity in order to focus on getting payroll processed and, as a result, isolated themselves from segments of the organization.
Over time, that isolation created a silo, which has resulted in payroll departments completing work through heroics and antiquated processes and, in some instances, created animosity with their cross-divisional counterparts. Today, payroll professionals must focus their efforts on building strategic partnerships and demonstrating business value in parallel with pay execution. This is challenging, but we have to get over the past. Segments of what was once a payroll task will be absorbed either through tech and/or through other areas across the organization such as recruiting, benefits, compensation, accounting, etc.
How did you evolve with the process personally?
I had to learn to let go of the straight process. I fought this initially because I was viewing payroll as a discipline, not as a practice. Over the last 10 or so years, I recognized what a great point in time we were at as payroll professionals. We’re uniquely positioned to sew together the various cross-divisional efforts, processes, and technologies, with the thread comprised of taxation, regulatory reporting, and pay delivery. In addition to paying employees, we can provide strategic advice, rather than just regurgitating regulation and tax rates. That’s a very different way of payroll management than perhaps we’ve seen historically.
What are the chronic challenges for companies that have moved or are moving into global expansion?
There’s a myth that the smaller the size of the foreign market the lower the cost. The level of effort and cost to pay 10 employees in Germany is close to the same to pay 1,000. Of course, there are other factors that drive cost, such as type of industry, the mix of hourly or salaried employees, etc., but the punchline is market size doesn’t necessarily matter.
Every global organization I’ve supported has sorely underestimated the effort to pay “just one employee” or “just one office” in various overseas markets. The challenge isn’t necessarily going into the market; there are plenty of service providers that can help stand up the market, get employees paid, and offer subject matter expertise on taxation and labor laws. The main challenge is managing expectations of ongoing costs and level of effort to administer.
What current initiatives are you involved in?
My organization is currently involved in the following initiatives:
- Pay delivery–frequency and method
- Operating model–right sizing and geography
- Optimization of technologies and services in Hilton’s portfolio, specific to pay delivery and statutory reporting. This includes exploration and deployment of robotic process automation (RPA) and artificial intelligence (AI) solutions.
What are your experiences on successfully navigating cultural and other differences on a worldwide stage?
Listen, learn, and then create your policies and practices. There are so many advantages to having global standards and processes, and I’ll continue to advocate for standardization. That said, not everyone is a digital native, not everyone has a smart device, not every technology is in multiple languages, and not every market values speed. Having a pulse on what’s important to various demographics will go a long way in serving your employees.
What would you like to see payroll vendors address in the next three years?
I’d love to see vendors address what I call “the gap.” Many large human capital management (HCM) and payroll service providers offer out-of-the-box solutions that will cover 80% of the business’ payroll needs. The remaining 20%, “the gap,” is where we spend 80% of our time. We’re starting to close the gap with AI or RPA solutions, so perhaps that’s the route the providers will go. I’d also like to see providers get really focused on what they do well and then double down on their strengths. Some providers are spreading their resources thin so that they can be all things to all businesses, and their clients are suffering because of it. I’m happy to manage multiple vendors that do specific things really well rather than manage one vendor that is mediocre at everything.
How did you get started in your career?
I began as a staff accountant and, over time, I inherited various other responsibilities, including recruiting, training, some IT help desk work, and then payroll. I found myself focused on holistic processes, such as onboarding, and the impact to employees’ pay, and ultimately payroll became my focus. I have been privileged to be in the right place at the right time for some of my professional opportunities. One of those opportunities was an entry-level role performing administrative work for Canadian-based accountants who supported multinational entities. The work was not sexy, but it was interesting. I used that experience as a means to get my foot in the door with large, multinational organizations–not everyone in Seattle had exposure to Netherlands or China payroll, but I did. I wasn’t an expert. I’m still not, but I know how to leverage resources.
What are some of pieces of learned wisdom that you can share in regard to being effective and efficient?
Use your resources. I used to try to learn every detail of each payroll process, because I thought for me to lead a team I had to know exactly how to do their job. I learned to trust my subject matter experts and to leverage their expertise. That offered me capacity to coach and develop others and to focus on strategic work.
What kinds of skills, training, and education would be most useful for someone moving into a managerial payroll role?
You have to be passionate about serving others. If your focus is to be the person with all of the answers, do not peruse a leadership role. Rules, regulations, and trends change so quickly that payroll leaders need to let go of “knowing everything.” You’ll burn yourself out. Learn how to bring the best out of others, including your vendor partners.
What career and life advice do you give to a new payroll employee?
Don’t attempt to know everything. I see this all of the time in new-in-role employees. No one knows everything. Ask for help and demonstrate curiosity. Recognize that no one will call you and thank you for paying them—nor should they. Payroll is not about recognition; it’s about being a steward of the company’s finances and balancing that with the employee experience.
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Frank J. Mendelson is Acquisitions Editor for the Global Payroll Management Institute (GPMI).