Editor’s Note: Davida Lara, Entertainment Partners’ Executive Vice President of Payroll Services, combines a high level of proficiency in business applications, business process, and organizational management in leading her payroll teams. She believes in tailoring client needs to deliver a superior payroll experience. In the past decade, Lara has gained extensive expertise developing systems and process automation and training personnel. She has been responsible for developing global mobility best practices and payroll shared services. Additionally, she has led initiatives involving international assignment policies and global mobility.
Prior to joining Entertainment Partners, Lara served as the Senior Vice President and Head of Global Payroll for The Blackstone Group, where she directly oversaw global payroll operations impacting more than half a million employees. Prior to that, Lara was the Head of Global HRIS and Payroll at Harman International Industries, where she oversaw system strategy and implementation for 23 countries.
Currently, Entertainment Partners pays all of Hollywood and is in the middle of digitizing the back offices of film and television production so data will all flow through an integrated, paperless process.
What are the biggest challenges for payroll teams—and what is emerging to address these challenges?
The biggest challenges I see are in perception. When you say you work in payroll, people conjure up images of humorless workers pounding ten-keys in dimly lit, depressing surroundings. And so, payroll workers feel powerless to challenge this image. We need to own the fact that payroll is sexy! You deliver people’s sustenance, the bridge between their livelihood and their lives, and you do it with expertise, grace, and efficiency. Payroll is like the blood of the working world—it stops flowing and you die.
Now some of this is changing. As we partner more closely than ever with other critical functions and as other teams see the value and the insights we bring, it starts to chip away at those false perceptions. I think these closer collaborations across the company are not only shining a true light on the reality that payroll workers are rock stars, but are also emerging to address many other needs such as the following:
- The very real challenges of the wave of new laws and regulations that are ever-changing
- The need to continuously assess, update, and integrate technology solutions
- The real-time expectations people have for communications with us
We are now bringing full support from a workforce management perspective, not just payroll.
What more would you say about this changing role of the payroll professional?
People often ask me, “How can payroll provide support on a strategic level to other corporate functions?” I’d say flip that around and ask yourself, “How can they support us?” It’s not enough to be able to refer someone with questions to your legal team. You need to be ready to articulate the impact of paid family leave, the differences in requirements across state lines in the U.S., and why someone’s interpretation of the law may be off. So, with these issues and with overall business strategy and planning, both sides have to reach across the table to educate one another and truly collaborate.
In our business, production workers are mostly freelance and may work for a large number of employers in any given year. States and countries offer lucrative incentives to lure filming to their locations. The data we are aggregating is gold to our clients when they need to analyze production trends. Technology isn’t just partnering with us to provide workplace tools but rather to discuss how we can both expand our business and deliver incredibly valuable insights to our market.
What resources do you use to stay current on the latest trends and legislation in payroll?
Definitely the American Payroll Association (APA) and the Global Payroll Management Institute (GPMI) are such useful resources. Also, I maintain a host of local and national government relationships, the unions and guilds in our industry, our accounting firms and lawyers, and networking. Networking is key. What someone maybe hasn’t heard yet is likely already being planned for somewhere across the state. You really need to build a wide network of contacts to share information.
What have been your experiences on successfully navigating cultural and other differences on a worldwide stage?
Usually, you do have an advantage in that everyone speaks at least one common language—that of paying people accurately and on time. But listening, learning, and not forcing a process or a system that didn’t quite fit have been critical. I also found that local customization is preferable as much as possible. You can keep the back end in English, but the front end needs to be in the local language. Then you’ve really got to do your homework. For example, Germany is very fond of SAP, while China, not so much. If you come in unprepared, you can lose credibility rather quickly.
What has the emotional experience of being in your leadership position been like for you?
No two days are ever the same. But I will say you have to have the emotional intelligence to read yourself well. As a leader, people are watching you for cues. When I first interviewed for my current job, my CEO asked what it was I loved about payroll. I don’t think he was expecting the passion I exhibited, that I feel every day, about what we do. Lead with passion and that will push you through anything. Just recently—and it is important to understand that entertainment production personnel all get paid on the same day of the week—it was time to get the checks out the door and our folding machine broke. It just conked out. Off I went with an army of volunteers to fold the thousands and thousands of checks we had to distribute. We did it like it was the most exciting thing we had ever done, and in that moment it was! Using your own physical resources and whatever it takes to overcome a challenge to make sure everyone gets their checks on time—that is pretty exciting.
It’s still not very common to find a payroll expert with a spot in the C-Suite. What advice do you have for others who might wish to follow in your footsteps?
The usual qualities still apply here—maturity, a willingness to learn, strong relationship skills, etc. But in our field it is really about absorbing and thinking critically about your experiences. I didn’t learn my lessons in school. I got the tools at school but learned at work. I got exposure to some incredible learning situations very early on, including a structural realignment in my early 20s that was really sooner than was fair. At the time it was, “Why me?” But in hindsight, I am so grateful because those early days formed the core of what I build my mentoring and coaching style on today.
In practical terms, payroll probably has a better shot at a seat at the table if it comes up through human resources. Note to CFOs: Payroll isn’t about numbers, it’s about people. It’s about human capital. But here’s a little tip: If you start in payroll and get a chance to move up or expand your role, take payroll with you! Maybe it’s ironic, but if you must deal with some misperceptions about the vitality of payroll, use it to your advantage.
What can you offer to those who are looking to move up from that first payroll position?
Observe and learn all you can. Be the one who connects dots other people can’t even see. Then speak up! Not in a way that demonstrates how much you know, but in a way that demonstrates the value you bring to other stakeholders. You have accumulated a proficiency of payroll information that is unique and comprehensive. If you’ve got it, flaunt it.
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Frank J. Mendelson is Acquisitions Editor for the Global Payroll Management Institute (GPMI) and the American Payroll Association (APA).