Changing of the Guard

Royal Guards stand at attention during guard changing ceremony in London

By Deborah Kops

The other day I was speaking to my good friend Cara Herrick of ServiceNow, bemoaning the fact that when I go to a GBS industry event, increasingly the leaders are sufficiently young enough to be my children—just like her. The discussion prompted me to go beyond their age and tenure, trying to unpack the difference between their GBS leadership approach and those of my age cohort who are moving onto the 4 G’s—grey hair, golf, grenache, and grandchildren at increasing rates.

Now, I must confess that, as a baby boomer, I’m not always au fait with how my younger peers work. I’ve never figured out work-life balance; I prefer picking up the phone; I like writing emails and penning monthly articles such as this one—and I struggle with Slack, podcasts, wearing iPods, and 25-minute Teams meetings.

But I’m increasingly working with GBS leaders who were born after IBM released the first personal computer or even when the Berlin Wall fell, forcing me to figure how these folks tick, and what it means for the future of GBS. No doubt about it, they are a different breed—now more likely to come to the role either as a loyalist—from another enterprise function—or as a step-up leader from a shared services or smaller GBS organization.

Looking at these next-gen leaders, does any of what I am seeing resonate?

  • Less flash and splash: Next-gen leaders are focused on getting their GBS houses in order and all their internal ducks in a row rather than looking for industry glory. When do they have a story to tell, they often need cajoling to take a conference podium, preferring venues that allow them to share practices and explore ideas rather than play rock star.
  • Tightly aligned with the enterprise agenda rather than to GBS orthodoxy: I see our younger leaders really focused on their enterprise agendas rather than being seen as external vanguards of a GBS movement as their predecessors did.These folks don’t swallow the GBS common wisdom hook, line, and sinker. While they actively look at industry trends and best practices, imposing GBS best practices as a North Star is not in their DNA. They pick and choose, mindful of what will drive effective change, and eschew the rest of the usual playbook.
  • Penchant for action: These leaders do not act sequentially, first thinking through a transformation blueprint. Rather, they come up with a thesis, then continually test and learn to drive change. Operations becomes a transformation lab rather than an implementation, driving operations with transformative actions rather than making change sequentially. They are sufficiently agile and flexible to pivot quickly.
  • IT, their new best friend: Fewerlate Gen X or millennial leaders are fighting battles royal with their IT counterparts as their forebears often did. The imperative to go digital, partner in an S4Hana implementation, and figure out AI use cases is forcing a more collaborative co-existence—and increasingly new reporting lines to IT. Under their stewardship, the dialog is combative and fraught with fights over who’s the boss.
  • Unrelenting incrementalists: More often than previously, our new leaders come into GBS roles as loyalists, having had success in another enterprise position. They take the helm with effective working relationships with their stakeholders and know which change levers to pull when. Adeptness at forming coalition is a hallmark of their leadership. Consequently, they exhibit far less of the “savior syndrome.”
  • Less tribal: Let’s be honest; our more mature GBSs have been staffed by keeping the tribe together; when an expert leader moves, they are more often than not bringing at least one member, if not the entire tribe, along with them. Next-gen leaders have become adept at blending the DNA of their organizations, with less dependence on their friends.
  • More tech conversant, if not savvy: It seems to me that they don’t jump as quickly to the trifecta solution of people, process, and cheaper location as their GBS forebearers did (and are still doing) without first looking through the lens of digitization. They know what they are buying and are often more fluent in the features and functionality of their tools than the salespeople knocking at their doors. Last, they expect their workplaces—and GBS to have up-to-date tools and platforms, and are willing aggressively to fight for them.
  • Fixated on talent and structure: Having the right capabilities on their teams is priority one for these leaders. They tend to think about their organizations as an orchestration of capability rather than a hierarchy, embracing structures that are flat, moving talent into roles laterally as a cross-training exercise, and compelling double hatting responsibilities. And, because their management prowess was honed during the pandemic, they aren’t afraid of appointing a truly global leadership team.
  • Transparent: No black box for many of these folks; governance is as much about keeping their stakeholders informed as it is managing performance, risk, and compliance. They’ll more easily discuss their challenges and set realistic expectations as opposed to glossing over them.
  • Adept at forming critical coalitions: Collaborating internally is a priority for these next-gen leaders. They pick their battles when driving change and looking to increase scope, pairing up CXOs and peers that share and support key elements of the GBS imperative (note that I don’t use the term “vision”).
  • Less dependent on outside help: These folks are sufficiently confident and fluent in GBS operations to keep their own counsel. When a big name is “transforming” their operation, it’s more likely a decision in response to a major corporate change or made by a CXO than by themselves.When they do hire outside consultants, it’s likely due to a) a need for arms and legs; b) a request for strategy validation; or c) a discrete project. They are also less fussed about consulting brand names; they will fight procurement to hire small boutiques, one-man shop advisors, and interims to help move the dial.

So, if you are coming away thinking that I’m dismissing the old guard, nothing could be further from the truth. Because of their hard graft, today’s GBS leaders have career advantages that those of us around at the advent of the model never had; the new leaders don’t have to spend the same amount of evangelizing, fighting, and figuring out what good should look like. The model is accepted, career potential is acknowledged, and we have practices and precedents on which to build.

I’m optimistic that this next generation of leadership will force a radical rethink of the GBS model, about five years overdue to my mind. Perhaps we will be less fussed about GBS orthodoxy, creating new operating models where control and ownership are no longer the main imperative. Perhaps we’ll move a little bit closer to harnessing the promise of technology. Perhaps GBS will become an enterprise state of mind rather than a service organization, delivering value beyond cost.

New guard, I’m counting on you.