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Professional Spotlight

Meet Crystal Farmer, Managing Director in Human Resources at Morgan Stanley

CrystalFarmer (1)

By Frank J. Mendelson

Editor’s Note: Crystal Farmer is a Managing Director in Human Resources at Morgan Stanley. She is responsible for planning and directing payroll and international services by providing strategic direction and operational oversight globally. With more than 25 years of experience, Farmer has held positions at ADP, Ceridian, Invesco, and Visa as Head of Global Payroll, Senior Director of Global Payroll Operations, and National Payroll and HR Training lead. Farmer has been featured in GPA Magazine for her global experience and has also been a keynote speaker for the Hackett Group and a panelist for EY and PwC. Current initiatives in which she is involved include global payroll and international services transformation.

What are your thoughts on the impact and consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic on the global payroll industry?

Six months ago, few imagined that a global pandemic would put leadership strategies, technology capabilities, and business continuity fitness to the test. Some cringe at the thought of change in our current global environment while others embrace the incredible opportunity to showcase extraordinary skills and push forward with ingenuity. As a leader, it is interesting to use this atmosphere to support and challenge my teams to think differently about how they manage their day-to-day operations.


How do you see the changing role of the payroll professional?

Payroll professionals were primarily viewed as only technical experts in the past. They have evolved over the years. Now, strategic partners and leaders have emerged who act in more of an advisory capacity. They collaborate with HR business partners, finance, tax, legal, etc., and provide assistance with strategic planning and long-term goals.

What emerging trends in global payroll are demanding your attention?

The trends receiving my attention are focused on technology, which includes automation with straight-through data flow, global reporting capabilities, and data integration. 

What are the chronic challenges for companies that have or are moving into global expansion?

Through my experience in leading global expansions, stakeholder alignment is essential to sustainable globalization. “Global but local” has been my approach—standardizing and centralizing where possible while ensuring local compliance and overall correctness. Garnering alignment from the business can be a tough feat. However, with patience, transparency, and a well-vetted plan, it can be achieved, yielding successful results for long-term growth.

How can a payroll department provide strategy to corporate finance, HR, and other departments?

Data analytics is crucial for any strategy to be effective and sustainable. By having global reporting capabilities, payroll can tailor dashboards for departments. This gives each the ability to review data trends that will aid in strategic planning.

What are the biggest challenges for payroll teams and what is emerging to address these challenges?

Communication can be an immense challenge. Payroll professionals tend to be extremely technical when interacting and communicating with colleagues and other departments, because compliance and adherence to regulatory and statutory requirements are a must in this space. This protects not only the organization but the employee as well. As a leader, one of the challenges (I like to refer to them as opportunities) I face is coaching teams to deliver a “less” technical response when assisting their internal client (i.e., employees, HR business partners, other departments, etc.), without diluting the message. There’s a memorable line in a movie I like that sums up my admonishments when trying to convey my thoughts in this area: “… explain this to me like I’m a two-year-old.”

I have discovered when simplifying the narrative, the responses are generally more palatable—as it provides greater comprehension and eliminates the bombardments of “why” that will inevitably follow ambiguity. My experience has taught me that it also provides an opportunity to build long-term relationships and be considered as a strategic partner.

What strategic advice would you give to a company moving from a domestic to a global payroll?

Easily stated, global payroll is managing an organization’s entire payroll function from a central location while proving oversight and accountability. However, in my experience, successful operating models have regional processing hubs or shared service centers because local expertise is critical to ensure efficiently run operations.  


What have been your experiences on successfully navigating cultural and other differences on a worldwide stage?

I have been fortunate to have been afforded the opportunity to work with diverse cultures over many years and the differences are fascinating. As a leader, it is important for me to build trusting and lasting relationships with my teams and colleagues—gaining insight into the differences by spending quality time, asking questions, taking an interest in areas of work and family, etc. This flexibility helps me tailor my style to lend support in achieving our goals. Fundamentally, our aspirations are the same. Some just go about it differently.

What do you see as the value and limits to emerging technology, robotics, and AI in managing a global payroll?

AI has significantly impacted the way the world interacts with business. It has aided in reducing response turnaround times, speeding up decision making, and improving accuracy and data security which ultimately enhances the employee experience. However, one should never be lulled into thinking that AI can ever replace the “common sense” factor that can only be found in our valued staff and partners.  


What are some essential practices and strategic choices to manage risk and compliance?

Risk implies uncertainty. The framework of risk mitigation should be documentation—identify, analyze, evaluate, treat, and monitor.


How did you get started in your career?

When asked about my career, I often reply my career found me. I was an associate in finance for a large firm when the finance controller asked me to manage and lead the corporate payroll space. Over the years, I’ve moved in and out of the HR and finance groups overseeing and performing duties in compensation, domestic/international tax, client training for HR and payroll, equity administration, and international services, to name a few areas.

What are some pieces of learned wisdom from your on-the-job experience that you can share regarding being effective and efficient?

Challenge yourself to be a good listener. Be present and in the moment. Don’t be too proud to ask lots of questions. Inquisitive minds are ever broadening minds.

What is the emotional experience of being in your position?

Although very rewarding, leadership comes with a great deal of responsibility. Making tough decisions often requires the ability to forgo immediate popularity and accolades for longevity and respect. You have to make tough decisions that are not always popular but ultimately yields positive outcomes.


What are the most important qualities of effective leadership?

  • Lead by Example—Never expect more from others than you do from yourself
  • Share Your Vision—Other will follow if the journey is clear
  • Effective Communication—It’s as clear as Dorothy’s yellow brick road leading to Oz
  • Never Shy Away From Making Tough Decisions—I have enjoyed the fruits of glory more than the detritus that follows blame
  • Praise Successes—Never be intimidated by the success of others. You will get your turn in the spotlight eventually
  • Integrity—Beginning, middle, and end with having it
  • Team Empowerment Is Contagious—You will be surprised by what freedom unleashes
  • Inspire and Motivate


What is your management and leadership approach today?

It is important to understand what excites and motivates a person. Excited people are extremely productive and proactive. By listening more and talking less, I am enabled to gain insight into what makes a person “tick,” if you will. This knowledge informs how I tailor projects and design strategies based on a person’s strengths and sometimes their weaknesses.


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

Successful change management starts with sharing and socializing the benefits and need for change. A well-structured team understands the geography and culture of its organization making a sponsor buy-in (someone who is eager to visibly advocate the change throughout the project) always at hand. The only caveat is that change management takes time. Be patient and remember that transparency and an open mind will eventually lead to successful transformations.


How do you personally manage to balance work and pleasure?

Like most people I, too, struggle with work and life balance. In my spare time, I like to travel and sing professionally. How do I ensure that I set a good example and be a good leader on and off the court? I have learned that the same intentionality that I employ at work must also be tapped to solidify my interactions with family and friends. I have no doubt that great epitaphs don’t include total hours worked, but the number of lives touched.

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Frank J. Mendelson is Acquisitions Editor for the Global Payroll Management Institute (GPMI) and the American Payroll Association (APA).