Successful Shared Services Leadership Characteristics


Tags: SSON

Simon Brown
01/10/2012

In our recent global survey with SSON members to find out what good boss quality looks like for shared services leaders some powerful themes emerged. Many of you told us you found these themes really useful to confirm and crystallize perspectives on the important characteristics of effective and successful leadership. Some commented that they will use these characteristics to confirm competency-based selection methods for shared services leaders; others said that the survey themes on successful leadership can actually transfer beyond shared services to represent good leadership traits in general across the organisation.

Read part 1: Key principle # 2

This week I will draw further on the learnings from the survey and my own experience working in this area to take a more in depth look at the actions and attributes needed to lead a successful shared services team.

By distilling the reported and observed key ingredients for successful shared services leadership into four skills and activity clusters, or key principles to follow, we can describe these as follows:

  1. Having and positively communicating a clear vision for future success.
  2. Taking time to fully engage with your team and your clients and proactively managing the change agenda.
  3. Being an effective team boss – delegating, empowering, coaching and supporting your team to play to their strengths versus playing the traditional role of micro management and control.
  4. Creating a positive working environment of trust, transparency, and with genuine work/life balance.


So let’s start today by focusing on what goes into # 1: Having and positively communicating a clear vision for future success, and we will pick up the other three key principles in the following weeks.

Straight away it’s clear that this first successful leadership characteristic comes in two parts:

1. Having a clear vision of future success to begin with – "begin with the end in mind", to quote Stephen Covey.
2. Positively communicating that clear vision – in a way which is compelling, involving, and is a call for aligned action by the whole team and the company.

So for me the first part requires us to build up a knowledge base of current situational facts, drivers, reasons for taking action, for wanting to change or transform from the current way of working to the new way of working. By understanding the current, burning platform this gives impetus to help to establish a clear future vision, which answers the questions: what do we need to change to? Why? When? How? and with whom?

I remember way back, my first experience of shared services in the latter half of 1995. I joined a project team of HR Generalists and HR process Subject Matter Experts in a major global pharmaceuticals company to design a blue print for change. The aim was to make the HR function more effective and less costly as a support to the business needs at the time. Our project leader, an enthusiastic Corporate HR VP in his early 50s, with grey curly hair, rosy cheeks, and a sparkle in his eye, opened up the first meeting by telling us that the company needed to "save significant overhead costs, streamline, standardise ways of working, and eliminate duplication, to make it easier for everyone – primarily our managers and employees who interfaced with HR".

This he said was WHAT we needed to do. At the time we had five business divisions and five HR functions. WHY change? The goal was to get to one HR shared services and centre of expertise, which would support all five businesses, and save £2.5 million overhead costs in year one so these could then be reinvested into research and product development. The idea was to bolster our profitability as an organisation, as well as freeing up employees and leaders from time consuming, inconsistent personnel processes to focus on developing and marketing new products. Sounded fair enough.

"So HOW are we going to do it?", we asked. He produced a recent article from the Harvard Business Review by a guy called Dave Ulrich entitled "Human Resources Value Proposition", and urged us to read it as it made some good points about developing specialist expertise, playing to strengths, and developing centres of both transactional and transformational excellence. "Once you’ve read this, I expect us, as the project team, to find the right way to make it happen in the context of the business we are in right now, and the business we want to be part of in 3 to 10 years time," he said. "The model from Ulrich is a catalyst and can be our starting point; but we should use the business drivers to help shape and apply our own blue print for success. And by the way, we need to design and implement this in the next 9 months to get the pay-back that the business needs!" So that was the WHEN. This seemingly alarming timeline, metaphored as a pregnancy or gestation period in our regular conversations, gave us clarity on when we needed to act, and the adrenalin surged as we worked our way through the "SARAH curve of change" (Shock-Anger-Resistance-Acceptance-Helping) to make the change happen; went through our grieving for the old ways; chose WHO was to be involved in making this change happen; and moved into a project team meeting routine to decide how we make this change happen to bring about the vision. The result was that we achieved delivery of our new Shared Services baby, in good health, on time (with blood sweat and tears, as expected, along the way). The cost savings and efficiencies of headcount synergies and consistent application of HR policy and process derived from vertically integrating 5 HR departments into one Corporate HR Shared Services then followed. By the time the baby was balanced on its feet, walking un-aided after 18 months, and the inevitable teething problems had been worked through, the HR Shared Services function at SmithKline Beecham was a great place to be!

Over 15 years later, this story of change in one of the pioneer shared services models in the UK is firmly imprinted in my memory and is an experience I regularly draw upon to help define the what, why when, how and who for change to create the future vision state. It is a simple, yet tangible, tale of a business case clearly delivered within a structured and measurable approach – with some "what’s in it for us" factors for all the key stakeholders. For example, for the HR generalists moving into the new model there was the real opportunity to specialise and play to strengths – either as a Subject Matter Expert, or managing end-to-end transactional processes with a continuous improvement application, or being "freed up" to work on a more strategic level of operations alongside the business leaders. The aim was always to deliver on business goals, and facilitate enhanced performance of their people assets through working on applied talent management and values and performance alignment initiatives.

So, what about the part which focuses on positively communicating the clear vision in a manner which is compelling? Hopefully, the above story of the first transformation at SmithKline Beecham (now GlaxoSmithKline) provides some insights; but let’s look at what else can be done. Here are a couple of pointers:

1 Tell a Story. As well as the clear logic of what, why, when, how, and who, as described above, do tell a story to bring it to life. How does the journey begin, what are the steps we will take along the way, key milestones to help us manage our journey and track our progress, what will it look like, sound like, feel like when we get to our destination? People remember and relate to stories with illustrations and human aspects far better than they relate to a white paper for action based on pure logic. This can be traced back through the mists of time to an age when we gathered round the fire and looked into the flickering flames, which ignited our imaginations, as we listened to our elders telling us about the legends of the past and the predictions for the future in a way we could understand and easily relate to. These fireside tales were about survival, hope, triumph, and belief – and they engaged folk to bind as a clan, work as a society.

2 Draw Together a Picture. Involve clients, stakeholders, and team-members in the creation of your story of transformation, your journey and road map for change. A good way to do this is to gather a group together and invite them to draw pictures of what it looks like now in our company, what we want it to look like in the future, and what the road looks like in between these two symbolic visions. Pictures engage, represent meaning, are worth a thousand words, and can be related to on a basic human level. Shrewd companies, for example The Sears Corporation in the 1990s, or Premier Farnell in 2003-2006, have successfully used the Big Picture mapping approach to transformation with their teams to make the change story compelling and help us to get inside the car on the road and be part of it all. Using facilitation of the meeting and a professional artist to draw out the final roadmap or Tableau for display and discussion in all meeting rooms, this approach can be very effective as a way to win hearts and minds and build the vision for success together.

If today is visualised as confusion, spaghetti ways of working, siloed clans in their turreted castles, and fights on the muddy battlefields of operations… then the future can be visualised as where the sun shines, where we can climb the mountains easily and collaboratively, overcoming obstacles, taking easy paths … Why on earth would you want to forsake that to stay stuck in the mud?

Next week we will look further at stakeholder engagement and proactive management of the change agenda. Meanwhile, if you have additional thoughts or questions feel free to contact me through the feedback link.

*View more articles by Simon Brown


About the Author
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 has successfully completed a 3 year change management assignment at Coca-Cola.

Simon has recently left Coca-Cola to launch his own consulting business, specialising in shared services design and selection, virtual working, coaching and mentoring. He has been involved in the 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. Based on his own learning Simon advises companies to choose carefully the right HRO mix for them relevant to their business profile and current situation along the HR transformation journey.