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Executive Spotlight

By Frank J. Mendelson

Editor’s Note: Ian Sparrow is Vice President of Global Payroll for Multinational Corporations (MNCs) at ADP. In this role, he works with highly experienced service management experts putting payroll at the heart of the human capital management (HCM) suite. In his 26-year tenure with ADP, Sparrow, who lives in Barcelona, has pioneered full outsourcing of payroll services in the U.K. and across Europe and led the drive to deliver compliant services in more than 110 countries using a combination of ADP affiliate companies and accredited third-party specialist providers.

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How is the changing role of the global payroll professional—typified by greater interaction with the human resources department, data analysis, and strategic planning—making an impact in the field? 


Global payroll leaders should be spearheading the transition from a transactional environment to one focused on business transformation. In fact, their roles are transforming along with the businesses they support. One of the most profound changes payroll professionals are encountering is the global scope of their roles. This is a trend we’re seeing not just in multinational companies, but in companies of all sizes.

As global payroll professionals, their responsibility is not limited to considering ways just to reduce costs—it’s evolved into serving as a catalyst for change that brings savings, efficiency, and added value to the employee experience.

Frequently, payroll organizations are supporting employees across various geographies and countries. To do that effectively, they need to build skills to manage organizations, systems, and technologies that support multiple regulatory environments, laws, and compliance frameworks. These elements have to become facets of their new, strategic role in business transformation.

Is there a frequently asked question you think will no longer be part of the conversation in global payroll in the next few years? 

Today, the conversations we have with clients center around the capabilities, controls, and accuracy linked to what I’d call the more “traditional” processes and tools connected with “input” and “output” of local payroll. I think those discussions will become less and less frequent as global businesses implement integrated payroll solutions. Although truly global, integrated payroll is still developing, it features a new generation of solutions that enables global businesses to evolve the way traditional processes are controlled and managed.

Ultimately, the success of global payroll will be directly linked to its ability to be fully integrated within a suite of global human capital management solutions.

How would you advise someone whose company is just beginning to expand to a global payroll firm, with regard to risk management and compliance? 

Business risk, resiliency, continuity, compliance, operating risks—there are several dimensions to global payroll risk management and compliance. If we take compliance alone, as organizations consider globalizing their payroll function or expanding their current operations, global HR leaders need a thorough understanding of local and regional regulations, as well as the implications of those laws for their organizations.

Often, the impact of compliance regulation is difficult to fully assess without the support of a trusted partner that has expertise in local laws. It may be prudent to embed this expertise into the business’s operations group so it can monitor compliance in a context that allows effective and accurate business oversight while being balanced with other related risk management initiatives. 

What is the one thing that happened in the past year that you didn’t see coming but has had a profound impact on global payroll? 

The pace and depth of regulatory changes related to data privacy recently seemed to have increased significantly. Among the most far-reaching is the General Data Protection Regulation from the European Union (EU).This data privacy legislation may have far wider impacts than just within the EU and could affect the way global companies retain and share data. These regulations also have teeth, so there are defined penalties for not working within the regulation framework. It’s possible these new regulations could impact global payroll professionals who support employees who work with or within Europe by governing employee information that is held, moved, and shared globally.

How is technology helping global payroll become more strategic? What is on your wish list? 

Technology is helping global payroll become more strategic to organizations in several ways. Let’s remember payroll is at the heart of human capital management (HCM), and HCM is at the heart of people management, which is strategic to all companies. Technology is making payroll even more strategic because of the way it’s delivered, and technology is enabling HR leaders to leverage the information to improve the employee experience. As far as a “wish list” goes, the conversation needs to shift to how service is delivered to employees—mobile, real time, ease of access to information, working in professional communities, self-service—with no constraints based on locations and time of day.

How did you become involved in global payroll? 

During my entire career, I have been close to the payroll function. In the 1990s, while at ADP in the U.K., a team of us launched ADP’s managed payroll services. That led to further expansion of that offer in Europe across eight countries. These experiences taught me that truly global services must address a wide scope of regional and cultural variations and influences while remaining consistent across geographies. This knowledge continued to serve me well when I became responsible for developing the ADP Streamline global partner network, which now is available in 112 countries.

What are some pieces of wisdom you can share?

Simply this: Payroll, whether it’s global or local, is about paying employees accurately, in compliance, and on time, every time, in every location where they may work. This fundamental principle should guide every business regardless of how a company is organized to gather payroll data and what solutions or tools they use to pay their people. Ensuring end-to-end, robust compliance, continuity, and payment execution is still critical and should remain the overarching, constant goal of any payroll organization.

Today’s employees want to know more than just that they got paid. To many of them, their pay slip is at the center of how they manage their lives. So, it should also be the goal of every company to make the experience of exploring and understanding payroll information as helpful and positive as possible.

What kinds of training and education would be most useful for someone moving from a U.S.-based, domestic payroll system to a global payroll?

Formal training to refine skills as a payroll specialist is very important. That kind of education is invaluable when combined with an understanding of how payroll and workforce data can strategically support broader business goals.

Payroll today actually is an important source of critical data that can help all executives at a company make better decisions—where to allocate resources, where to invest, and potentially what markets they’re better poised to serve.

Leveraging payroll knowledge and expertise, as well as understanding the payroll technology landscape, can be a powerful business combination.

What are some of the skills you bring to your position that are particularly suited to a position in global payroll?

Some of my most valuable expertise is in identifying the overlaps that exist between payroll, HR, and other relevant business processes. When people ask whether payroll is an HR or finance function, it’s really both—and this isn’t the only overlap as we increasingly deepen the accessibility to the wealth of data and information in payroll and HR to help drive business decisions.

Another valuable skill is having a truly global frame of reference. It gives you the ability to take one country’s payroll and compare and contrast it to another. Having common points of reference and seeing comparable activities certainly helps drive a vision of how to innovate common practices and processes and then apply them consistently, globally. 

What are the most important qualities of effective leadership?

Rather than thinking that my team works for me, I think I work for the team. Teamwork is absolutely key to any success—having a motivated and engaged team, with complementary skills, can in some way or another make the difference between success and failure.

Personal recognition for work well done is also important, as well using the words “please” and “thank you.” 

Also, engage with your team—say hello and acknowledge individuals. Asking people questions and showing interest is never a bad thing. We all spend a lot of time working, so taking short breathers and showing humility never hurts.

Lastly, leadership is a daily full-time job—not just part of it. You need to treat people fairly and evenly, and be approachable at all times.

How would you describe your leadership style?

Coaching and empowering your team is the way forward. Leadership is about setting goals and outlining challenges and a vision. How you achieve your goals doesn’t have to be determined by the leader alone—it should very much be a team approach. If you empower your people, the best ideas and solutions and real success will stem from inside the heart of the team.