How to select for success

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Simon Brown


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The decision we take to recruit someone into our team is one of the most important management decisions we will make. This is particularly so at the start, when you set up a shared services team, as the organisational eyes are closely watching your every move to see what team you field to kick-off the new way of working. So it’s really important to give due care and attention in the sourcing and selection process.

If you want to get off to a good start (and who doesn’t!) then do make sure you choose people for your shared services team who want to be there and who already display positive indicators of effectiveness through their performance in a previous but similar scenario – ie, one which demonstrates their experience in high profile customer service within a context of change in ways of working.

Yet before we even think about placing an advert to hire a new team member, let’s be clear about the rules of engagement and let’s have agreed the organisational approach and context for selecting the team with key stakeholders.

Here are some parameters to discuss and sign-off on with the key leadership team and the functional heads of your customer board (representing the business units for which Shared Services will provide operational coverage).

1. Context – effectiveness versus cost

Check-in and align with (and hopefully influence) the business model your company has chosen for shared services, and also understand your company philosophy for compensation and benefits: mid point, 60th percentile, upper quartile etc.

Ask yourself these questions:

  • Why are we doing shared services?
  • Why have we chosen the retained or captive model of shared services, where we employ the workforce, rather than outsource this to a third party provider?

Hopefully you will get clear answers to these questions supported by a strong rationale for the chosen model.
Expect good reasons for choosing shared services to include the opportunity to introduce or enhance scalable and consistent processes, streamlining of work operations, a more effective and improved customer services delivery, whilst managing overhead costs more efficiently.

Key words to listen for are "effective," "improved," "customer services," "delivery."
If you are hearing this then you have a good foundation on which to build a shared services team which will deliver transactional excellence and delight the customer.

Get worried if you are just hearing "cost savings," as there is a danger this mindset will drive your next actions in sourcing and selecting candidates for shared services, too.

What do I mean by this?

It’s all about whether you set a High Bar versus a Low Bar for entry when setting out your shared services sourcing and selection stall.

Do you have the ability to pay good market rates to attract candidates with a past track record of success in the relevant competencies?
Will your selection process have in-built methods of assessment that enable you to choose only those individuals and team players who can demonstrate real competency and motivation for the work to be done?
Or are you more focused on getting people in quickly at the lowest cost possible?

Funnily enough, very few organisations will answer yes to this last question, yet it is surprising how the mindset is often set around a Low Bar selection process – a single interview – and in a compensation framework where the salary bands will "obviously be much less than those we have for the other parts of HR"!!!

My view is simple and it is one I have found works well when deployed. Go in with the view that to get transactional excellence you need to choose people who have already demonstrated transactional excellence, and assess this properly through a combination of competency-based interviews, customer service role plays / business simulations and other appropriate methods. Be rigorous rather than light touch in the selection process to optimise your chance of choosing a team which can hold its own and act as an Equal Partner to Centres of Expertise and HR Business Partners. Best not to have the mindset of buying in people at the cheapest price possible on the external market, but rather one of hiring talent which can provide good value in your own internal market-place.

2. Effectively Marketing & Communicating Your Shared Services Brand

To attract candidates to a career path which includes Shared Services it is really important to invest time to clearly outline:

a) what is good about working in Shared Services, and

b) why could it be a right move for them to join you now.

Your picture needs to be compelling and based on openness and honesty, including a line of sight for entrants about what their career path through shared services can be.

What is the vision? What does good look like?
Be certain to articulate this.

Sadly the image that many strangers to shared services centres have is one of a giant call-centre, like in the film "Slumdog Millionaire," where hundreds of people are housed in one overcrowded room with phones ringing incessantly and conversations and background noises constantly buzzing in your ears.

And yet, the reality can be so different.

Contact centres I have set up and visited are more often quiet and informal with a combination of group areas and private spaces and more customer contact via e-mail (in some cases up to 80% of contacts are now through e-enquiry ) than telephone. So it’s actually a pleasant environment in which to work, just like many office environments are for most other functions of the business.

When you are moving from a generalist function –whether it be Finance, IT, or HR to the "triangle model "there is often initial resistance from those traditional generalists now being asked to consider Business Partnering (too top-table political-strategic), Centres of Expertise (too ivory tower) or, worst of worst, Shared Services (won’t it be boring to specialise in one admin area rather than do bits and pieces of everything, like I do now?).

We all have a choice. No one needs to be a prisoner in the workplace and so my approach is, firstly, to give good information so that people can make an individual choice; and secondly, invite them to make an informed choice, not a forced choice. Ultimately if they don’t want to do it, don’t make them. Let them choose. Motivational Fit is the first and most important selection criteria. Don’t press-gang reluctant HR generalists into your shared services team just to save redundancy costs or to "transfer knowledge." It’s a lose-lose option which will work against you.
So in painting the picture of what it is like to work in shared services, do explain that there will be the opportunity to:

  • Manage a process through from end-to-end, from A-to-Z,
  • Be at the front end of customer service,
  • Seek ways for continuous process improvement, and help to apply them,
  • Dive in deep and learn fully about an area of HR such as compensation, recruitment, learning & development, etc. and become a specialist in transactional excellence in that chosen area.
  • Broaden contact with your customer base – working beyond the old business units and location- or country-HR teams into a context where you get to interface with all internal customers, managers and employees who are users of particular HR products & services within a process. So customer interaction may grow from just "site" to "multi-site," and from just "country" to "international."

Give real examples of "A day in the life" for each role within your shared services team structure. This really makes it much more tangible for the individual who is considering a career in shared services.

Also be clear and honest about career paths through shared services.

  • If the organisational structure covers several processes there is the opportunity, over time, to rotate or move laterally from one process area to another.
  • If the structure has team leaders and a shared services leader or director then there is clearly an opportunity for career growth vertically.

There are many true stories from companies where Service Desk team members have progressed from:
-tier 1 enquiries work to tier 2 advisory services and consulting
-to shared service team leaders, supervising tier 1 and 2 teams, or
-to tier 3 Centres of Expertise, designing policy and benchmarking best practice.

Whilst moving from shared services to HR business partner roles (tier 1 and 2 work to tier 4 work) is not so easy a jump to make, again I have seen many examples of shared services directors who have to manage internal stakeholders, complexity of demand, and external vendor relationships, leveraging their transferable skills sets to become an effective HR business partner.

My own career path over the last 15 years covers roles in a Centre of Expertise, providing HR advice on Compensation, Benefits, International Mobility, and HR Information systems; moving through to HR business partner, through to Shared Services Director, European HR Director, Shared Services Director again, and HR Transformation Director, etc. So if you go into one point of the triangle model it doesn’t mean you need to stay there for ever, unless you choose to do so.

3 Sourcing and Selection

A good source for finding your shared services team members is to identify people who have already made the shared services journey successfully with another company as they are likely to have transferable skills and learnings.

People with a customer services background where there is a high level of interaction with people are also worth considering when sourcing candidates.

Individuals who can already demonstrate examples of effective change management, process improvement, and providing high levels of measurable customer satisfaction, are also worth considering.

In my experience, the best mediums for sourcing candidates are direct sourcing through key word enquiry on LinkedIn, use of specialist contact centre agencies, or referrals from enthusiastic and well informed company employees.

The selection process should be structured, objective, relevant to the role and fair.
Key Competencies to include in a competency based interview are:

  • customer service orientation
  • delivering results
  • attention to detail
  • continuous process improvement / problem solving, and
  • adaptability to change

Add to that the evidence of technical competency in the relevant process, plus, of course, Motivational Fit.
Telephone or e-mail role-plays with "customers" are a good way to simulate the actual work context and assess the candidates’ skills to resolve enquiries, and provide good customer satisfaction levels within the scope of policy and agreed codes of practices.

Bigger than the job.

If you are creating a shared services model for the first time, be sure to have some, not all, people on your team who are a little bit bigger than the job, and who have the capacity to do the change management and stakeholder engagement consulting that is an essential requirement, as well as doing the transactional process job. In the first 12-18 months you do need a few shapers and creators on your team as well as task doers. And these people are your future team leaders and shared services directors. Build your succession plan now, otherwise you are on your own with no-one to delegate to or take over when you are on holiday.

So, before you even start to conduct your first selection interview, do ensure you have the right environment that supports success , a clear vision, and an attractive career path in place for your shared services function.

If you want to discuss this article or provide feedback please email

Next time: Simon discusses "Boss Quality" - What are the key success factors for effective shared services leaders? In preparation, we have 5 brief questions we'd like you to provide input on. We'll include this survey's results in Simon's next column...

About Simon Brown

Simon Brown has over 25 years experience in HR Management working in the change management, talent acquisition and talent management space, with a range of FMCG, B2B and Pharmaceuticals sector organisations including Duracell Batteries, GlaxoSmithKline, Premier Farnell and The Coca-Cola Company. He has been involved in the full end to end design and deployment of Shared Services four times since 1995, including vendor selection for outsourced partners. Simon has a strong expertise in selection and development of HR Shared Services teams and has worked with both onshore captives, off-shore, outsourced, and virtual working teams where a blended solution of retained and outsourced has been chosen. He now runs a management consultancy advising a range of companies on aspects of shared services and organisational change.