Climbing the Ladder to GBS Leadership? Keep Your Eyes on the Prize

Are you committed and loyal, waiting to reap your rewards? It might not be enough!

Add bookmark

Deborah Kops

career ladder


The last character in my trilogy of Global Business Services leader archetypes is the lifer – the guy or gal who’s spent most of his or her career in one shared services or GBS organization, starting out as process expert then cycling through more responsible positions on a regular basis, ultimately leading a region or a center with an expanding scope. Think 15-or-so-year corporate veteran — conscientious, loyal, good performer, well-respected, safe pair of hands.

This pro can’t fathom working in any other part of the organization; suffering a cut, s/he actually bleeds a combination of efficiency and effectiveness. When the top GBS job opens up, the lifer tosses his/her hat in the ring, crossing their fingers that a career of devotion to the company’s business services cause will create an unassailable positioning.

But does it?

With GBS leaders now cycling through roles at what seems to be breathtaking frequency, you’d think that promoting from within the organization would be a no-brainer. After all, what’s not to like — continuity, relationships, expertise, good management, institutional understanding.
However, despite deep institutional and GBS model knowledge, a track record running stuff well, and a peer network, somehow, few lifers seem to get the top job.

Are there valid reasons for rejection? Or i sit just plain bad luck? How could a lifer be disadvantaged in the slog to the top?

Let's consider:

1. Seen as part of the furniture

Possibly, the departing leader liked to keep lifers under a rock, perhaps because the organization is hierarchical, perhaps because s/he was a publicity hound threatened by others’ capabilites. When GBS top roles open up, a low internal profile is not very helpful. No matter how substantial your continuing contribution to the GBS organization (and correspondingly the enterprise) has been, there usually is not a discernable list of individual accomplishments to underpin an effective campaign to win the right to sit in the GBS leader’s chair.

We’d like to think that rocks can be stepping stones … but not always.

2. Not in a succession plan

While GBS leaders and their peers talk a good game about formal succession planning, fewer than you’d expect actually go through the discipline to figure out whether there’s someone who should succeed and invest in grooming him/her for the role. Not all succession is well-orchestrated. In the event a GBS leader leaves or is released suddenly, there’s a scramble to appoint leadership. Lifers (especially those without a relationship with the right C-suite member) are usually overlooked in favor of a business native.

GBS legacies only live on through good succession planning.

3. Perceived as part of the problem, not the solution

If the top job’s open because GBS isn’t seen as delivering on its promise, the lifer might be considered as a contributory party. If transformation is on the corporate agenda, leadership will seek out someone who will rock the boat (the ‘bought-in’ GBS leader as described in my first archetype). If stakeholder relationship repair is on the table, a loyal business native with a track record of performance and strong ties to top management will likely be tapped to lead. No burning platform to promote a lifer.

To quote Monty Python: “Now for something completely different” may be management’s next goal for GBS leadership.

4. Lacking strong sponsorship

Because the lifer has spent all of his or her time in a model historically considered as a servant to the organization, it’s possible that s/he doesn’t have an executive-level sponsor. Sponsorship is the key to elevation. Look around to see all the business natives appointed to roles who, going in, knew nothing about GBS.

Internal promotions are usually more about who you know than what you know.


If you’re set on attaining the GBS equivalent of the corner office – and there’s no reason not to aspire to such a role – there are a number of moves you should take now to achieve your ambition.

1. Dial up your relationships

GBS lifers, as a rule, have strong relationships at their peer level. Years of moving up through the ranks with the same age, rank, and experience cohort are great – but the powers that be are usually a step or two up. If the C-suite doesn’t know who you are and what you can do, we’re back to the under-the-rock syndrome. Devise a campaign to get known and valued.

2. Put your hand up

We all think our contributions should speak for itself. But telling your boss you want to be his or her successor and asking for an honest appraisal of your chances to succeed with an assessment of your associated strengths and weakness is a fair ask. If he or she has been a good mentor and leader, your ask will be welcomed. You’ll get the support you need.

3. Get yourself enrolled in a company-sponsored leadership or mentorship program

Companies put talent through expensive programs to surface talent. Sure, a week or so away each year is hard, but don’t kid yourself: The enterprise won’t invest in you unless they see some potential they want to nurture.

4. Modify your behavior

Most likely you’ve been in a groove, exemplifying behaviors that highlight your capabilities as a good manager/team player – someone who gets things done. The pivot to top GBS executive means evolving a different persona — seeing across the enterprise and creatively connecting the dots, delivering to a bigger picture, and demonstrating executive presence.

5. Take measured career risks

Likely you’ve played it safe all your career as evidenced by the fact you’ve progressed steadily within one organization. But the prize usually goes to risktakers. Sure, you might fail, but with a bank of good will, you’ll likely be excused a time or two. Come up with a bold idea in an uncharted GBS arena and make it your mission to implement it.

6. Get an external profile

Today, it’s become very easy to get an external profile through such means as LinkedIn and participation in conferences and roundtables. And it’s critical. It validates what you and your company have achieved in an industry that is thirsty for successful case studies and benchmarks. Management will take notice.

7. Take history lessons

Look around you and see how others have managed to move up the ranks in a function or business. What was the catalyst for their promotion? Where did they show up in the business? Ask for their advice.

8. Be open to taking a small detour

Sometimes the best route to the job you want is to take an alternate path. If your ducks are not in a row for the GBS job now, perhaps moving into an operations role or a more visible functional role in the interim should be of your career strategy. You know the organization. You know the recipe for individual success. It’s unfortunate that appointments based solely on competence and capability are rare.

9. Watch your timing

As the old saying goes, timing is everything. Going after the leadership role when the context isn’t conducive to your candidacy is a mistake. As stated previously, sometimes there’s a need for change, at other times a need to slow down the GBS model’s evolution. Make sure you campaign for the role when the time is right, and you have the right capabilities, connections, and sponsorship. There is usually one shot at the role.

10. Act as if you already have the job you want

Carry yourself today like the GBS leader you aspire to be, and a good bit of the battle is won.


If you are successful, it’s likely because your organization really values what you can deliver to the enterprise. As a lifer, you’ve come up through the ranks with many of the business leader peers, resulting in superb stakeholder relations that have stood the test of time. You can be counted on to deliver a good service without a high degree of angst.

If you are passed over, don’t be too hard on yourself. GBS models continually evolve — sometimes the highest corporate value is rapid change and new approaches; at other times it’s about silent running. Although you’ll naturally think it so, being passed over is not personal. And there’s some financial consolation. Those of us who aren’t lifers don’t have compensation such as vested stock, options and pensions as a reward for dedicated service.

With GBS leaders churning at a two-to-three-year rate, waiting for the next opening could be considered a career strategy. However, hope alone is not much of a career strategy. Get yourself positioned in the next round now.

What are your options this time around if you don’t want to wait out the new leader’s tenure?

Find a new job in another function, change companies, or find other sources of joy in your current role — perhaps a different GBS job that will round out your experience and give you a new perspective.

A dose of reality here: You might become discouraged by rejection and think it’s time to fly the coup. You might think that the world will beat a path to your door if you decide to leave and you’ll automatically have your choice of top GBS jobs. Consider again. One of the downsides of a lifer career is historic immobility. The lifer leader’s more than 15 years or so of service in one organization may get in the way of moving to a new enterprise. In today’s talent market, the ability to adapt to new cultures and context is highly valued. Having drunk one flavor of Kool-Aid over many years could imply you are not flexible and adaptable.

If you are successful in your pursuit of the top GBS job, you are a model for the industry. It’s often harder to succeed by conscientiously coming up through the ranks than it is by changing companies.

It’s good to know that doing your job and doing it well can be rewarded!

With best wishes for every success


For a look at the other archetypes, the bought-in GBS leader and the voluntold business native, please check out these columns:

Bought in as a GBS leader? Tough job


Voluntold to Tackle Global Business Services Leadership? Lucky You!