March 2023

Meet Michael Francis, Director of Global Payroll at SBA Communications—Part 1

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By Frank J. Mendelson

Editor’s note: Michael Francis has 20 years of experience in global payroll operations, HRIS, and consulting services. He has worked for Fortune 100 companies such as HBO, Johnson & Johnson, Applied Materials, Ernst & Young, and SBA Communications, where he is currently the Director of Global Payroll. In addition to payroll management and operations, he has driven full lifecycle programs as an industry resource leader and as a trusted consultant. He is highly experienced working with challenging systems implementations for clients in different industries such as entertainment, energy, oil and gas, manufacturing, and technology with clients in Great Britain, Australia, Malaysia, Canada, Brazil, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Chile, Philippines, Tanzania, South Africa, Peru, Columbia, El Salvador, and Singapore. Currently, he has several initiatives that he is working on with SBA Communications, including global overtime rollout to all markets; optimizing money movement for seven markets; implementing a new vendor for the Tanzania market; and onboarding an acquired company into the payroll platform in Brazil.

How has the role of the global payroll professional changed over the last few years?

I have been in this industry long enough to see the evolution of the global payroll function from a back-office operation to a trusted business partner. Throughout that evolution, however, the importance of the payroll function has remained constant: paying workers globally, accurately, and on time to keep the global economy moving. Organizations such as the American Payroll Association (APA) and the Global Payroll Management Institute (GPMI) have led the charge of upgrading payroll’s profile and fostering and improving the relationship between HR and payroll. Lastly, I have seen more organizations consult payroll when considering mergers and acquisitions (M&A) or implementing new benefit programs, which is a marked difference from the past where payroll was the last to know. There is still room for improvement, but I am encouraged that we are up to the task. Our industry is constantly changing and operates best with a continuous improvement mindset.

What are the chronic challenges for companies that have expanded globally?

Companies that are starting on or continuing their global expansion often have an aversion to change. The mantra, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” and the canned response of “That is how it is always done,” are counter to what is required to expand globally, which is a culture of continuous improvement. This is compounded when you are expanding globally where payroll professionals may have limited knowledge of the compliance environment in countries outside of their home country and must access processes and information gathering to fulfil their fiduciary responsibility to their organization (i.e., protecting their organizations’ compliance with local laws and regulations). Companies would do well to access their culture and align it to foster successful global expansion.

How can a payroll department provide support on a strategic level to corporate finance, HR, and other departments?

As I mentioned earlier, payroll is now considered a trusted internal business partner that can provide information to assist with due diligence for an M&A transaction, providing finance with reports that assist with budgeting and forecasting, and partnering with HR to build a seamless and world class employee experience. Payroll is at the heart of a company’s culture and financial performance.

What are the biggest challenges for global payroll teams, and what is emerging to address these challenges?

The COVID-19 pandemic has negatively impacted the talent pool. In fact, the impacts to available talent and their skill level were evident even before the pandemic. Global expansion challenges payroll talent to transition to softer skills around cultural interactions and collaboration, managing vendors, analysis, and strategic thinking. These require training and with training comes time. This is difficult to find when payroll professionals are processing transactions. Exploration of robotic process automation (RPA), artificial intelligence (AI), and machine learning (ML) removes the transactional burden and allows time to upskill the current population and fill the talent gap.

What strategic advice would you give to a company moving from a domestic to a global payroll?

As a payroll practitioner and consultant, I have found that companies that have been successful with global expansion have done an above average job of accessing their policies and procedures and discovering where they can standardize them across the enterprise globally. They don’t rely on their knowledge and experience with a specific country’s regulatory environment and apply it across other countries or have one HCM system of record globally and consolidate global payroll under one vendor. They embrace change.

What is the difference in responding to urgencies in global payroll versus U.S. domestic payroll?

The greatest challenges are time zone differences, cultural differences, and language differences. Without consideration of all of these outside of the United States (and on a lesser scale domestically), payroll (and other operational areas) will not be able to respond to our team members with the correct level of expediency and completeness.

What have been your experiences on successfully navigating cultural and other differences on a world-wide stage?

While I do lead a multinational team where English is not the primary language, I am not bilingual. Thus, I have had to use creative ways to keep the team connected and valued as well as foster effective communication. But there are also cultural differences that must be considered. I have been effective with bridging the language and communication gap by using technological advances where language translation is available; promoting and supporting team members who desire to learn and become efficient with English; taking language courses to enable communicating in the team member’s preferred language; and being intentionally respectful of the team member’s culture. This entails checking my ego, as well as my personal preferences.

What do you feel is the consequence and value of effective communications in global payroll—internal and external?

The consequences of non-effective communication are vast and can be potentially devastating. This can create issues, such as inaccurate payments, negative employee experiences for our internal customers, and inefficient and dysfunctional relationships with our external customers, which can impact payroll, health, and benefits vendors. Ultimately, the organization’s reputation and financial performance can be impacted negatively over time. Effective communication has the opposite impact.

In Part 2 of this Professional Spotlight in an upcoming Global Payroll issue, learn about Francis’ insights on global payroll trends, career lessons, work-life balance, and more.

Frank J. Mendelson is Acquisitions Editor for the Global Payroll Management Institute (GPMI) and the American Payroll Association (APA).
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