Will shared services leaders take the GBS helm?

By September 3, 2013January 3rd, 2022Archive

By Deborah Kops

The current common wisdom assumes that GBS leadership will be the pinnacle of career progression for shared services leaders. After all, who’s the logical inheritor of the mega-services platform mantle but the guys and gals who slogged it out early on, establishing the first consolidated, standardized service delivery models.  But should the top enterprise services job go to those hardy folk that have climbed the rungs of process owner to center leader to global shared services operators extraordinaire? Or will dark horses give putative GBS leaders a run for their money?

I’ll be the first to admit I am somewhat flummoxed by the GBS concept. Talk to one pundit and GBS is merely a shared infrastructure platform. Speak to another who says that if processes aren’t delivered end-to-end, GBS has no reason for being. Others say that shared governance is a must, otherwise GBS is just shared services on steroids. There’s just so much chatter; what’s a person to think?

But there’s one dimension of GBS that few of the commentariat are speaking about—who should lead GBS? Since we—clients, advisors and even providers—all have a stake in the game, we naturally assume that GBS is the next, or final iteration, the pinnacle as it were, of an enterprise-wide delivery platform. And the logical inheritors of leadership are those who are skilled in sourcing, or delivery center set-up and operations. But while we’re sitting through presentations and reading the seeming plethora of reports pontificating on the subject, and “architecting” new organizational constructs, are we being gazumped by management that have an entirely different idea? That taking over GBS leadership is not necessarily the natural right of shared services leaders.

Unfortunately the concept is so trendy that we’re all still groping around in the dark to ascertain the implications of GBS. And anyone who tells you he or she has got it all figured out is displaying hubris in extremis. But while we’re searching for the meaning, is our executive management formulating a very different leadership construct? Are they looking beyond their trusty and long-suffering shared services leadership to find the best talent to change the business model?

It’s easy for shared services leaders to tick the box on many of the traits we naturally presume are critical for GBS leaders. Certainly global experience, the ability to manage virtually, a process orientation and the ability to effect (or at least valiantly attempt) sticky change are front and center in a good shared services leader’s bag of tricks. But do SSC leaders have the monopoly on these capabilities?

We’d like to think that shared services leaders have the corner on managing virtually or globally…and certainly these skills are key to the success of global services operations. But any rising corporate executive worth his or her salt has to get up for 3 am calls to India, or learns how to cope with managing team members via telepresence.

I know it’s anathema to profess otherwise, but I am starting to think that the natural inheritor of global business services leadership may just be someone who returns us to the old days before onshore/offshore/outsource/shared services and similar topics preoccupied us—the operations leader. Remember the time before shared services where the ability to run something was prized above rubies?

Why is the operating leader a good bet (or even better) bet to lead GBS organizations?

Let’s be honest, operating leaders have a lot going for them that, frankly, shared services leaders just don’t always have in their bag of tricks:

  • Known and noticed It’s always helpful to have your name on an org chart. And since operating leaders own P&Ls, their names are much more likely to be noted on a formal chart than those of us that troll around in the bowels of the organization. Not convinced? When it comes to moving names around in a corporate reorganization, it’s the guys (and gals) that deliver the revenue who are the topic of discussion, not the process folk.
  • Respected and trusted If GBS is seen by top management as a bold, strategic move to change the status quo, the first names on the list  will be executives who already have the trust of the C-suite.  Strong operating leaders with the street cred earned by years running core operations are more likely the natural      inheritor of the mantle; after all, why bet the house on a good shared      services or sourcing leader as a game changer? This is not to say that shared services leaders aren’t trusted or respected—they are—it’s just that they may not have the same level of trust and respect coming out of the back office.
  • Have stronger peer networks We’d like to think that shared services as a horizontal touches every area of the business…and if the ambition is to be truly pan-enterprise, it does. But is the shared services leader’s peer network as strong as that of the operating leader who 1), most likely has had a rotation throughout the front end of the business; or 2), probably has been the beneficiary of much more investment in skills development and training than the shared services leader, particularly if s/he has been tagged as a rising star? I suspect that operating leaders have a stronger network as a result of a more calculated career path, and when they are dealing with the business as GBS leaders, have a much more intimate relationship with some of the same leaders they are now in a position to serve.
  • Longer tenure We underestimate the power of tenure in an organization; it is actually an exceptional plus if the leader is open-minded, creative, imaginative and a risk taker. It will take a GBS leader entering the organization at least a year or two to understand the culture and master the code of conduct, not to mention understanding the personalities. Because operating leaders have a more calculated career path, and probably much more purview to navigate between jobs and divisions, they likely will stay in the same company longer.
  • Process and quality orientation Shared services leaders don’t      have a lock on process and quality; in fact, we are Johnny-come-latelies to sigma ratings in business services. We forget that Six Sigma was invented to improved manufacturing processes and that, by extrapolation, experienced operations leaders are more likely to look at the world through a process and quality lens than accountants      or HR leaders. If a C-suite exec associates the concepts process and quality with GBS, the first names that will come to mind will more likely be those of operations leaders.
  • Closer to the business We all talk about moving up the value chain, delivering deep insights and operational efficiencies to the      business, but for many of us with back office experience, what the business actually values (and will buy from us) is hypothetical.      Operating leaders don’t have to hypothesize, or ask; they know from experience what drives efficiency and effectiveness.

If operations leaders are tapped to take the GBS leadership helm, will it be career death for experienced shared services leaders?  There are at least two ways to look at it:

  • Pro If GBS leaders come from the business, it sends a signal that the company is committed to make fundamental business model change by dispatching its best and brightest talent to lead the way. Since strong talent is never fungible, the concept will by association be elevated in the minds of both corporate stakeholders, and industry at large.  Perhaps corporate execs will no longer say “GBS what,” laying the groundwork for a greater expansion of the model, and more opportunity for high performing shared services leaders to convince their executives to move forward, opening up more career options.
  • Con Could shared services leaders find that they are hitting their heads on a glass ceiling, losing out on the top job not only to      operations executives, but also IT leaders? Will GBS be seen as a strategic operations gig, foreclosing opportunities to those painted with    a back office brush?

No matter what the implications, the message to shared services leaders is clear: if companies embrace the GBS model, chances are that they’ll be competition for the top slot. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing, forcing shared services leaders to manage their careers in new and different ways, perhaps venturing out into the business, or focusing on acquiring other skill sets.

To those of you who thought I took too long a vacation….I promise to scribble more regularly now that summer is over.