Bought in as a GBS leader? Tough job

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Deborah Kops


So: You’ve been persuaded that taking on the GBS leadership challenge at X company is the opportunity of a lifetime. Perhaps it’s a chance to really make a change, a career-ending role on a high note or an opportunity to prove that all your hard slogging wasn’t for nought? The scenario you are walking into probably goes something like this: the organization has made feeble attempts at Shared Services delivery that haven’t scaled; or some CEO gets religion about Global Business Services models and wants to start one from scratch. Either way, the company sets out to find a GBS leader who has been there, done that. It plucks an executive with an impeccable corporate brand and a track record in making change. And then the games begin.

Shared Services and GBS rock stars, beware. The role may be very appealing, associated with a great brand, global scope, a CXO seemingly hell-bent on making change, a rich package and a top-of-the-house reporting line. All indications are that the model—and the leader—will be wildly successful. But after the euphoria of snagging one of the best jobs going wears off, reality can bite hard.

Of course, not all buy-in leaders live to rue the day they signed up. When an enterprise embraces the value created by GBS, and hires the right person to sit at the helm, both are wildly successful. But all too often, the buy-in GBS leader role is a career minefield.

What can derail your career?

Looking around at the career experiences of some of our top tier leaders, there seem to be a number of recurring themes.

1. Expectations are often insanely high

If it’s the company’s first serious foray into a GBS model, then usually a consultancy has spent a year developing a strategy and business plan that’s aspirational, not necessarily implementable. Based on some omni-vision about what a GBS model should look like, the PowerPoints suggest that $x will be taken out in y years, fueled by a delivery model and org structure that looks great on paper. What’s in print does not consider the reality of transition, operations and change because the consulting team 1), may have limited experience as operators; 2), doesn’t need to understand the culture; and 3, simply has no skin in the game. But the die’s been cast. In leadership’s minds the operating model is fixed and the savings are already baked into the numbers.

When the leader shows up, and can’t possibly deliver, s/he’s already on the back foot.

2. Egg-breaker positioning

If a company has its druthers, it will appoint someone from the inside; and that’s a safe strategy. Success in any business model change is dependent on having the right, strong relationships in order to navigate the organization. However, buy-in GBS leaders have one simple mandate, and one mandate only: Make a change that no one internally has been capable of doing thus far. S/he has to upend the organization by imposing a new operating model and taking control of heads, organization, process, and accountability—and doing it on steroids!

When folks are challenged by GBS change, the leader has a target on his/her back.

3. Highly impacted by events

There will always be a finance department in some shape or form. And HR will never go away. Someone will have to run the enterprise’s technology infrastructure. But GBS organizations aren’t hard-wired in a corporate operating model and they are affected by leadership changes, mergers and acquisitions, divestitures, and the devolution of power to geographies and business units. That means that the GBS could be a pawn in a merger, or split up when the organization moves from a centralized to a federated model.

Market or internal disruption always impacts operating models, sometimes positively, sometimes negatively. Remember: GBS is a model, not a function.

4. Having to change the tires while driving

Corporate transformation leaders who don’t have to operate have it really easy. They get to design a program, then devise a business case that others have to deliver against, moving on to the next transformation. Memories are short; no one remembers the strategy – they just live with the outcome. GBS leaders have no such luxury. They have to be bipolar in the first stage of model implementation, simultaneously transitioning and running operations.

When you push to change and operate at the same time, things will always fall through the cracks.

5. No time to learn the secret handshake

Designing and implementing new operating models are the least of the GBS change equation. Knowing how the organization works on paper is easy; in reality, it takes at least two years to really understand where the power base exists, how the organization actually makes decisions, and where the dirty laundry is stored. And in enterprises that don’t easily welcome outsiders into the fold, skepticism is two-fold: first, the model won’t work; and second, the new kid will never “get us.”

The old saying “culture eats strategy for breakfast” is too apt.


How to counter these roadblocks?

1. Spend most of the time walking the C-suite halls

What can the buy-in GBS leader do to succeed wildly, not only on behalf of the enterprise, but also on his/her terms (and ensure employment until s/he decides to move on)? 

Most buy-in GBS leaders forget that their number one strategy for success is getting the sponsor and his/her executive peers aligned with the program. Instead, they focus on implementing a model as quickly as possible. When the inevitable noise starts, execs have no program intimacy, no sense of shared purpose, and no trust of the GBS leader, because there’s not a strong relationship.

Executive stakeholder management is the number one factor when it comes to surviving and thriving. Make sure you apportion your time appropriately.

2. Know how to spin a darn good story, simply told

Fact is that telling the GBS story is an art form. It not only is highly contextual relative to the imperatives the enterprise has at any given time, but if it is overcomplicated, management is lost in the weeds and not able to communicate the value proposition effectively to their peers.

Follow the advice of Einstein: Make everything as simple as possible – but not simpler.

3. Challenge the business case early on with facts

The enterprise brought you in for a reason: Your brand and experience underwrites the fact that you know what you are doing. You may not be able to overturn all of the assumptions, but going on record early on (ideally, as part of the interview process)that the business case is not fully grounded in reality, is critical. The numbers you are working to should be your numbers; getting a baseline as a first order of business is the right first step.

There’s no joy in debating the going-in assumptions that caused you to be hired. But if you don’t challenge and sound the alarm early on, it looks like you aren’t capable of delivering.

4. Make someone else on the team obsess about delivery

Certainly, the buck stops with you as the leader; there is no dodging that responsibility. However, too many leaders spend far too much of their precious honeymoon time deep in the weeds of delivery rather than ensuring that CXOs understand how the model works, what to expect, and what it can and can’t deliver. That’s the only way to ensure sponsors have your back.

Get competent delivery and performance management leadership in role as a first order of business and spend your time walking halls at HQ.

5. Move to the headquarters city

Yes, it shouldn’t matter which airport you fly out of since you’ll be on a plane most of the time (travel budget permitting), but arranging to be a fly-in GBS leader is tempting fate. Truth is, the model (and you) are being grafted onto the status quo. Your success or failure turns on your ability to form a sustainable relationship with your executives and peers.

Proximity is critical; don’t underestimate the power of impromptu meetings and drinks after work.

6. Balance incumbency with external hires when staffing

Having your own circle of trust around you from day one is a great comfort in a challenging situation. The tendency to quickly bring in former colleagues who have been through the same drill with you is very tempting. But the buy-in GBS leader is always saddled with some semblance of an incumbent team; tossing them out without taking sufficient time to evaluate their capabilities isn’t a good resourcing strategy. Orchestrating the right team is critical, and ensuring a sufficient number of internal team members with institutional knowledge, alongside outsiders with experience and a fresh approach is key to success.

Blending a team proves to the enterprise that you respect internal expertise and are not there to throw the baby out with the bath water.

7. Make your peers your very best friends

The folks who most often trip up a GBS initiative are your peers. Sure, they are your customers on paper, but experienced GBS leaders know that they are partners, responsible for the up- and downstream tasks that will trip you up, create noise and leave you holding the bag when it comes to the blame. Peers have tenure in the organization, so when the going gets tough, their voices will be always heard over yours.

Build relationships that underscore “we’re all in this together.”

8. Take corporate history lessons

Enterprise reactions to change are like a broken record—they keep repeating. Every organization institutionalizes responses to change initiatives, and GBS is no different. Your approach to and pace of change must be built on past experience, mimicking the characteristics of successful transformations and avoiding repeating the mistakes inherent in failed initiatives.

Find a tenured and objective coach outside your internal client base who can tutor you.

9. Demand resources going in

Common wisdom suggests that staff costs and out-of-pockets for GBS implementation are not much more than a rounding error for global initiatives. But the going-in position may be that there is no need to provide for travel, parallel running, knowledge transfer, change management or an extra or two. If the budget is set at GBS ideation and cannot scale to meet the challenges of the program as they appear, raise the issue immediately.

Check the budget assumptions while x company is romancing you and make sufficient resourcing part of your agreement to join.

10. Ask the CXO whom s/he’d put in role if s/he had to hire internally

This simple question will tell you heaps about what type of executive the organization values. You’ll get clues about persona, understand who is a favored son or daughter, and perhaps even learn who was considered for your job. It will help you understand how to navigate personalities and loyalties, and what behaviors are good to emulate.

Likely the internal hire is your successor if the role does not work out. Enough said.


Net, net…

Most important is your mindset going into the role. Define success in your own terms, pace yourself, and internalize the fact that this role may not be a career-ending position. In fact, buy-in GBS leaders, by the nature of what they are charged with achieving, have a two-to-three-year shelf life in many organizations. Use the position to learn new tricks or as a stepping stone to a bigger organization or a new career.

The best GBS leaders are a special breed. They have a broad range of capability, learn quickly, and usually have the knack of easing rapidly into a variety of roles, both within and without GBS. If that shiny new GBS leadership gig doesn’t work out for you, it’s not personal. And the industry won’t take it as a failure.

Whether the organization ultimately isn’t ready to adopt a GBS model, the role wasn’t as advertised, or you made some mistakes going in, remember the phrase “this too shall pass.” Take the episode as an opportunity to learn. There is always another day…and another GBS challenge out there.


Written to help some of the smartest people I know (and like) survive and thrive in the career quagmire that sometimes is GBS and shared services.