Do you have what it takes to be a good boss?

Simon Brown
Posted: 07/09/2012

Success Factors for "Boss Quality" in Shared Services Leaders

"Boss Quality" is a phrase sometimes used to describe the characteristics of leaders and managers - it’s a quality that either makes you want to follow them all the way if they are good, or leave them as soon as you can if they’re bad!

Read more articles by Simon Brown

Some years ago, the Corporate Leadership Council conducted widespread international research into what constitutes a "compelling offer" for employees to want to stay with their organisations. Those employers wishing to attract, retain and motivate their people have recognised that providing personal development opportunities, alignment of strategy with personal and corporate values, and the quality of one's own manager (boss quality) come out as the top three factors – above pay, which ranks fourth. All of those first three can be directly influenced by the style of the leader – the environment they create and the example they set as a role model.

There is a well-known saying: "we join a company and we leave our manager," and there is a strong vein of truth in this A-Z of the employee lifecycle, starting from the beginning of the relationship, where employer branding (the employer value proposition) has a big initial impact on the potential candidate; to the end of the road, as demonstrated in data recorded during the leaver’s exit interview – honest feedback, wherever this is well structured and independently conducted.

It’s fair to say that people very rarely tell their own boss exactly what they really think, so it’s good to share our thoughts and feelings here, as shared services team members, and to capture the key themes in a confidential, shared services employee’s survey, such as this.

It should make essential reading for all Shared Services Leaders!!

We received well over a 100 replies to our survey on Shared Services Leaders, from a wide range of countries and continents, and across both private and public sectors. Thanks to you all for responding and for your additional comments, which were most valuable and insightful. Here are the highlights from the survey:

Feedback from across all Shared Services Functions

AThe feedback came from across all shared service functions – ranging from Finance (37.1%), Human Resources (30.9%), Business Services (14.4%), IT (9.3%), and Procurement (8.2%). Whilst we expected high responses from both Finance and HR shared services, the relatively high percentage response rate from those of you working in a Shared Business Services function was interesting. A Business Services shared services function is one where Finance, HR, Information Technology and in some cases Procurement (following the example of early pioneer Proctor & Gamble) are integrated into one enabling back office function providing a scaled and consistent foundation for the effective delivery of transactional excellence for business services functions. I would expect this business services growth trend to continue, particularly in the UK where public sector headcount cuts will surely encourage more office integration.

In this article I will share with you the key themes emerging from the survey, together with my own observations from working in shared services functions over the past 15 years, both as a team member as well as a leader.

Most Important Characteristics for a Shared Services Leader

Let’s start by looking at the top five most important characteristic of a shared services leader.

In fact, the majority of you saw four leadership characteristics as clear front runners, and these all centre around the importance of the leader providing vision, engendering trust, and being effective in their communication.

An overwhelming 92% of you rated the top most important shared services leader characteristic to be one where the leader "Provides a clear vision of where we are going and leads by example."

My own shared services experience has shown me that those leaders who can paint a compelling picture of the future business and show how shared services can play a big part in delivering it, will be more likely to engage and win the "hearts and minds" of their followers than those who are more anchored in the "here and now" of today’s tasks, routines and in-tray. A story is something we remember, a picture is worth a thousand words, and a leader who can confidently create a positive vision of the future and the journey route map to get there – in a context where success is not yet tangible– will inspire others to follow them. Any successful change management formula will confirm that it’s difficult to create a rationale and a movement for change unless the vision of the future can be illustrated as brighter than the current (unsatisfactory) reality. Otherwise, why change?

Building trust and allowing individuals some freedom to operate within a broad framework are also seen as very important factors for shared services leaders. The second highest score of 74.5% was for a leader who "Empowers us / trusts us." The strong message here is that Shared Services Leaders will do well to ask their team to get more involved and to take on more of the tasks of day-to-day operations within the shared services function.
Leaders should take heed: they can let go of the strings just a bit more and trust their team members to "just do it!"

The importance placed on the shared services leader to invest energy growing his or her team shows up in third place in the survey: team members really appreciate the characteristic of leaders who: "Offer support and provide regular coaching" (67.9%) where empathy, listening, and allocating regular time in the calendar to team members is very much valued.

As a team member, I can recall how it felt when my boss kept changing or cancelling appointments with me, or at best was running late for our meetings. It seemed like I was never –on their top 20 priorities list, and felt like a kick in the teeth in terms of self-esteem and recognition. When I became a leader of a shared services team a few years later I made sure I kept to regular one-to-one routines with my direct reports and respected these agreements, as I knew they were relying on them for their psychological fix and continued affirmation and growth.

Fourth most important leadership characteristic is "Keeping us informed of progress," with 55.4% of you voting for this.
Regular one-to-ones and team meetings, tracking progress against project plans, Gantt charts, and performance status diagrams using traffic lights and balanced score cards can be useful ways to illustrate this while also being easy to follow.

Fairness is is also deemed to be important characteristic for shared services leaders. In fifth place on our "most important" list, with 49.1% was "Manages performance fairly," and following closely behind in sixth place was the need for alignment: "Stakeholder Engagement with clients" (47.3%).

Team members do expect to be rewarded for good performance and challenged when performance is not good, and I have found it’s really important to be transparent and consistent with this as a leader, to ensure you continue to earn respect and are seen as fair and even-handed.

Stakeholder engagement is another leadership activity, one that is often missed or underestimated on the shared services journey, particularly at the design and go-live stages. Staying close to your customers and clients, managing their expectations, and meeting and exceeding their requirements … will only be achieved by putting in time and effort to, first, seek to understand where that customer is at; and second, align on and provide what they really need. Understanding the issue from the business end (customer-driven) is an important perspective to have and maintain. Team members expect their leader to be hot on stakeholder engagement, and are often happy to get involved and help with this process. Team members can be equally critical when their leader does not stand up to unruly or over demanding customers, or to defend them against unjust criticism from a client.

Another important factor in the "top ten" of Shared Service Leadership characteristics is Change Management experience, with 35.7% of your vote. If the leader has previously helped lead change in a similar process, or has access to another leader or consultant who has done so, this experience gives them an edge and often transfers to the confidence they project onto their team. If you as a leader know the pitfalls and can learn from mistakes made before, you can help your team to avoid falling into those same traps. And they will thank you for that!

Leadership factors seen as significantly less important in the survey were those which focus on management and control and the tough style, hard-ball aspects of management.

Effective Time Manager: 20.5%
Has firm control of the department: 16.1%
Strong negotiator: 13.4%

This reinforces the view that true leadership is more about the big picture vision and enablement of the team than hard management of the task.

Lastly, only 4.5 % of respondents thought that a most important characteristic for a shared services leader was to focus on "Hands-on task management."
Presumably, many thought this activity could be delegated to the team through an effective and empowering Shared Services Leader.

Next we asked:

How effective is your current/most recent Shared Services Leader?

This question provided a real opportunity to give an appraisal of your boss, and it is encouraging to note that leadership of shared services functions is generally in a good place for the majority of you, with almost 54% of you seeing your leader as being "Effective most of the time" (top answer with 41.5%) or, as in over 12% of cases, "Very effective."

Wow – let’s hear more from those leaders! You are our role models.

Your shared services leader being "Some times effective" took 34% of the votes, and "Rarely effective" (9.4%) or "Not at all effective" (4.7%) accounted for just over 14% of your total votes.

What are the three things your Shared Services Leader does best?

There was a lively range of responses to this question, together with full commentary from around 70% of respondents.

Again, three themes emerged as key characteristics. "Visionary", "Full Engagement with stakeholders" and "Effective in working with our team" proved to be the most important areas of focus. I have quoted directly from some of your own comments to describe these characteristics:

1. They are Visionary: A leader who can think longer term and is visionary, who provides and articulates a clear vision, tells a compelling story of future success, and sets clear objectives to get there. Someone who is both strategic and tactical – a nice blend called "stratical," with more emphasis on the compelling and inspiring vision for a successful future that we all want to become part of, than the granular detail of today.

2. They have Full Engagement with Stakeholders: A leader who is strong on stakeholder relationships, management and engagement, who can "schmooze the client," has access to senior management and can negotiate effectively with the executive team, who promotes collaboration between the different businesses, and who puts in the time to create buy- in, championing and enabling change and making change happen.

3. They are Effective in working with our team: A leader who is an effective communicator, shares information, communicates fully with their staff, keeps us informed of progress, empowers the team, fosters teamwork, energises the team, instils trust, "tries to understand how we could get better," is available for guidance, supportive, listens to us and takes on board our feedback, has a sense of humour and does "management by walkabout", makes us accountable, sets goals and manages performance effectively.

Finally we asked you:

What would you like your Shared Services Leader to be better at?

There was a wide range of responses here with the most overt and extreme responses being: "Change the manager immediately!" and "Change the Shared Services Centre location" to "Be less political" and "Be less aggressive"!

However, many of the comments were clustered together in three distinct themes, highlighting areas that shared services team leaders needs to focus on – in terms of their interactions with other people as well as in terms of managing themselves.

What the Leader can do differently

  • With their own team

Delegate more, do more team building, engage more, share learning – show the ropes and bond the people, be more visible, more time with us, more visits, more visibility, be more available, listen to us, more time to see us 1-1, increased availability of time. Help create more work-life balance in the team.

Key messages:
*Don’t have too high expectations of your team;
*Do offer positive as well as negative feedback.
*Don’t have too high control or too much involvement in the details.
*Don’t take credit for the ideas of others.
*Stop micro–managing us!

  • With key business stakeholders

Become better at selling the value of your Shared Services Centre to Executive Management; be more confident in defending the team to the rest of the organisation, push back with difficult clients. There is a need for much stronger influence with stakeholders, to engage more with the executive team, market shared services benefits with all stakeholders, avoid office politics and deal better with the hidden agendas of critics.

  • Themselves: self-management

Improve your time management, become better at planning and prioritising, communicate more clearly – avoid mixed messages on what’s important, accept new ideas and pathways faster, don’t take the credit for all good ideas, and do understand the processes and have an eye for the detail as well as being able to correlate the long term vision.

In Conclusion
Overall, this survey has been very useful to help crystallise what needs to be at the top of the "Must Do" list for all shared services leaders wanting to be at their best in the current context. And in summary it is very much about:

  • Having and positively communicating a clear vision for future success.
  • Taking time to fully engage with your team and your clients and proactively managing the change agenda.
  • 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.
  • Creating a positive working environment of trust, transparency, and with genuine work/life balance.

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.

Simon Brown
Posted: 07/09/2012


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