Andy runs the recruitment division at Australian Payroll Association. It’s unlike any other recruitment function in Australia. In this conversation Andy discusses what he’s seeing and hearing in the payroll recruitment market at the moment and what employers are specifically looking for. Andy always has great advice about how to build an impressive payroll career and in this podcast he shares his ideas, insights and experience freely.
Follow along with the transcription below
Tracy Angwin: So I’m yet to meet someone, Andy, who planned a career in the payroll industry. How did you get into payroll?
Andy Thompson: Yeah, I think you’re right, and from all the people in the years that I’ve spent in the payroll sector, I too have yet to come across someone that left school with a strong lifelong ambition of being a payroll person or a payroll professional. For me, it was a case of spending time, many years actually, in the generalist recruitment sector and becoming increasingly frustrated with the lack of career path and value that we were potentially providing our clients. And at one point I got involved with a payroll assignment and it sort of went from there.
Tracy Angwin: So, you help employers find and recruit senior payroll staff.
Andy Thompson: Correct.
Tracy Angwin: Why are good payroll professionals so hard to find?
Andy Thompson: I get involved in these processes at varying stages, and quite typically, the reason for people struggling to find people themselves or being able to go about sourcing people, is that the very best payroll people are not actively in the job market. They’re being actively retained, they’re high performance within their businesses, they’re highly valued, and they’re not actively looking for the next job tomorrow. So, I’m seeing increasingly the default process for a lot of organizations is things like job boards and they’re becoming increasingly ineffective in most of these situations.
Tracy Angwin: So you’re saying that the best payroll people aren’t sitting around looking on Seek all day looking for their next payroll job?
Andy Thompson: That’s right. Yeah, it’s the last thing on their mind. They’ve got payrolls to run, they’re very happy at their employer. In terms of day-to-day, they’ve provided great value to them, and in turn, they’re being recognized and rewarded appropriately, so they’ve got no reason to be looking for another job. In saying that, some of the best ones are also very interested in furthering their careers. So if they’re presented with something in an appropriate manner that shows them very clear career advancement opportunities, then of course they’re going to be interested.
Tracy Angwin: I think, from the employers I talk to, one of the frustrations that I’m told by particularly HR directors and recruiting professionals internally, is that they can’t necessarily recognize a great payroll professional. So in your mind, what characterizes the best payroll people?
Andy Thompson: I don’t think there’s any one thing or… I guess the things that we talk about a lot when I’m talking to clients about who this superstar person is going to be or what they’re going to do, the things that often come up in conversation are the things that aren’t on the job spec. So we’re looking at cultural alignment with the business in terms of their values, we’re looking at communication ability, the ability to engage stakeholders and deliver complex issues, and perhaps a more simple way, talking about training staff.
Andy Thompson: So these are more soft skills or professional skills that people need to bring to the modern payroll profession outside of the technical payroll skills, which are almost a given at that stage, right? So if we’re talking about leaders and people that run and make key decisions around payroll, it’s almost a given that they’ve got the level of technical expertise. That’s something that’s very measurable. What isn’t so measurable are some of those additional skills that I’ve just mentioned, and that’s what stands out in a great payroll performer.
Tracy Angwin: So, employers are looking for those soft skills and those advisory skills perhaps to the business and on payroll matters?
Andy Thompson: Correct. So it’s more the things that they can do in addition to running the day-to-day payroll operation. So they need to be able to present some of the technical data to perhaps a CFO or a Head of Shared Services in a larger environment. So perhaps business leaders identify opportunities that may not be so obvious to someone that’s not privy to that sort of information all the time. And not only being able to identify those opportunities, but also present them in a way that adds real value.
Andy Thompson: And that’s where we see the most successful payroll leaders and the best payroll leaders stepping to the fore. They’re very comfortable in being able to do that, along with some of the things around training and mentoring staff and offering their own staff career development opportunities, those are the things that they’re looking for. Whereas if we go back 10 or 15 years, a great payroll manager was someone that was just accurate and can deliver the payroll on time with a high level of accuracy. And that’s still true, but there’s a lot of these other things that are now making the true leaders in the industry stand out.
Tracy Angwin: Accurate, timely payrolls are just a ticket to the game now, right?
Andy Thompson: Absolutely.
Tracy Angwin: So if you are talking to someone who’s fairly new to payroll, who is serious about a payroll career, what would be the most important three things perhaps for them to focus on, in terms of developing their payroll career?
Andy Thompson: We take the first one as a given and that is that they’re strong technically in payroll, and there’s obviously lots of training and things that can be done around that. Obviously our courses and qualifications can be used and that’s very measurable. I think the other things I’d talk to them about are doing things like presentation skills and around communication, anything that could help them develop their communication to a point of being able to present data and engage people is a really big one because that is a shift away from what the traditional payroll person was. The other things I think around, just being across legislation and where, that probably crosses into the technical aspect, but just being able to strategize around where the payroll sector is going, that’s a big identifier. So understanding what the trends are within the broader industry and if I’m briefing someone to go into a high level job interview, I’d be talking to them about things that are not necessarily the expected questions, because that’s what people see real value in. Where you seem to be adding additional value above and beyond just the technical component.
Tracy Angwin: Yeah, great advice. In terms of the people that are recruiting or the payroll leaders, do you have any tips for them on what it takes to build the A team when it comes to payroll?
Andy Thompson: I think diversity is always…people talk about diversity and inclusion. It’s almost become a bit of a cliche now, but I think if you’re building a payroll team or a payroll function that really does service people, and people use client services as a throwaway term, but if you’re really going to service a group of people or an organization or a group of clients effectively, you need to have a multilayered strategy. You’ve got to have some fundamental things in terms of consistency in how you deliver messages and how you service particular aspects of what you’re trying to achieve when it comes to payroll. But I think also to be able to include a few different approaches is also very good and a diversity in backgrounds. So, if we’re talking about building a payroll practice within a given sector, introducing some people that have come from different sectors is sometimes a good thing. To challenge the norm and to just put a different angle and a different set of eyes on how things have been done traditionally. So challenging perhaps some of those traditional processes. So my general advice would be variety is key.
Tracy Angwin: Okay. I hear you talk a lot to clients about culture and cultural fit in the pay office, which to a lot of people I think might sound counterintuitive because you think it’s just a process. Have you got any examples of where there’s been really great cultural alignment with the payroll team and the business or perhaps the other end of the spectrum where culture has just gone wrong for someone who’s joined a payroll team?
Andy Thompson: You go right back to the start there and it’s a really important issue. If you’re looking at cultural alignment, it’s a bit of a throwaway term, but it goes back right to the start when you’re researching a company in terms of what they stand for and company values and things like that. And obviously those things need to resound and people need to identify with those. And that often comes out in a standard interview process. The issues when culture goes wrong is in my mind a lack of research from one party or another. It’s been a total misfire on what a company stands for and what they’re all about. And sometimes when people are in a hurry, they overlook that step.
Andy Thompson: But it’s really important, especially if you’re looking for longevity. I’ve seen lots of examples of it going wrong. And it typically comes back to where people have made a rushed decision and that overlooked cultural alignment. And we spend a lot of time doing it, or whether it’s been misrepresented. And that’s another big one. Where companies are saying they’re all for X, Y and Z, but actually they’re for A, B and C once people get in there and understand. And that’s a really bad thing. And misrepresentation can happen both ways.
Tracy Angwin: That’s it. And particularly in an area where payroll’s managing arguably the largest or one of the largest costs to a business, you just can’t get that culture match wrong.
Andy Thompson: That’s critical. It’s critical to the success of any payroll function over the longer term, right? So the short term wins are very attainable and that can happen quite quickly and quite easily. Culture comes in when you’re looking for longevity or for consistency where people need to be able to relate to various stakeholders at all levels and send a consistent message out about the business and the organization both internally and externally. And that’s really important. And like I say, it’s one of the things that’s most often overlooked.
Tracy Angwin: You talked about when culture goes wrong and it can be a poor experience, both for the employer and the new recruit. At what point should a business looking for someone in a senior payroll position contact you then?
Andy Thompson: Well I think it ultimately shows up in people’s performance and motivation, and as soon as that happens it needs to be addressed quickly. That’s the key to it, I think. How long is the piece of string some people are prepared to work with? And I think you need to give anyone who’s underperforming a fair amount of time to address the issue, communication strategy needs to be clear around deliverables and things like that. So people need to be given a chance to correct their ways or mend their ways or improve. But at the same time, if there’s a misalignment in culture, that’s something that’s not going to change quickly or in the medium term. So, that’s a longer term view and that needs to be addressed straight away. And if there is a real mismatch there, I think companies need to be upfront and prepared to have those sorts of conversations because it can have a big impact not only on the person’s role but on the greater team. And we all know what happens when staff motivation and toxic culture start developing, things need to be addressed quickly or it spirals out of control.
Tracy Angwin: So just on that, payroll is such a critical business function, not one that we can risk getting wrong. Sometimes our clients have situations where they know that they’ve got the wrong person and they need to do something about that, perhaps move that person on for whatever reason. But they can’t advertise it can they? I just want you to talk me through that clandestine recruitment strategy that you have. You’re quite different to most recruiters, or all recruiters that I’ve ever met in payroll or otherwise in the way that you actually source candidates for clients. And it’s particularly useful when there is that very sensitive sort of payroll issue where they need to literally take someone from the pay office one day and have someone new the next. Can you talk me through how you do that?
Andy Thompson: Yeah, absolutely. And it’s a key point you raise there. And a big difference in what we do is that in terms of the recruitment service we provide, it’s all done off the radar. And that’s very deliberate. Well firstly, in those sensitive situations, it’s great for that because there are situations as you rightly point out where those roles can’t be advertised publicly. And it’s a real advantage to be able to go through a process off the radar and then get a great strong solution and move swiftly to that without upsetting anyone or suffering any brand damage. And that leads to another point that’s behind all this. The follow up process for a lot of our clients when they need someone or they think they need someone, if it is able to be advertised. So perhaps the sensitivity isn’t such an issue. So if someone’s resigned or moved on, the default position is to go to a job board and throw it on Seek.
Andy Thompson: Now as I mentioned earlier, that Seek audience isn’t necessarily the best in the payroll world anyway. And a lot of those people, not all, but a large percentage of those people are looking for their next opportunity. And it’s a time driven process rather than a quality driven process. So by remaining off the radar, we’re appealing more to a passive candidate who doesn’t necessarily need their new job tomorrow. They’re looking for a career move that offers new challenges and real opportunities for advancement and that doesn’t necessarily have to happen in the next 10 minutes or the next three weeks, there’s no timeline on there.
Andy Thompson: But going back to where companies also perhaps are a little naive to the process in that traditional sense is that they don’t understand the brand damage. And then there’s an example of an organization I was dealing with, quite a high profile tier one organization in the market that were advertising on Seek for, it was a very specific skill set they were looking for, but they were on Seek and some of these other job boards for a good long six months before they ultimately reached out. And what they didn’t understand, what I had to educate them on is the amount of brand damage that is done during that period. Because rightly or wrongly, it’s perceived by the external audience that there’s something wrong with that job. The people that [inaudible 00:16:49] I went to call some people about it who were well qualified to look at it. And the first thing they came back to me with was, I saw that advertised six months ago, what’s wrong with it? So whether there is actually anything wrong with the job or not, that’s what the perception is. And there’s brand damage that goes with doing that over a prolonged period. So by doing things off the radar, it addresses that, and it’s a real differentiator for us and something that a lot of places aren’t able to provide.
Tracy Angwin: I suppose if you do that brand damage, you’re making what is already a difficult process to find great payroll people even more difficult.
Andy Thompson: Absolutely. And it goes further than that to the existing team that is sitting there thinking, what are we doing here when they can’t find us a new manager or whatever it’s going to be, or our company’s unable to attract the right level of expertise that we need. It has a knock on effect in a lot of different directions. Yeah.
Tracy Angwin: So what’s the longest time that a client’s been looking for a payroll manager before they got you involved?
Andy Thompson: That was right up there, that six months. Like I say, because we operate slightly differently, a lot of companies do want to do things themselves first and they have an in house function or direct function and I totally understand that and I’d probably do the same thing, but I think they need to be pretty swift to act if they’re not getting an immediate response. It’s a pretty competitive world out there in a lot of different areas and increasingly in payroll, especially for the top 10%, they were talking about that everyone wants. So I suggest if you’re going to do your own thing either get us involved at the outset, which is my preference on an exclusive period to start with, or else if you’re going to have a go at it yourself, make it a concise process that’s not prolonged and dragged out that’s going to potentially cause their brand damage that we just mentioned. So, a week or two is fine if you want to test the market yourself.
Tracy Angwin: So you’re saying you never advertise on Seek or other job boards?
Andy Thompson: No, no. And that’s the beauty of being who we are. Obviously as the Association we’re seen as trusted advisors and experts in our field, which we are. So we’ve got a huge captive audience and a network that we can tap into much more readily then, and these are people that aren’t generally available to anyone on a job board or a public site where you’re one of a huge number. And a lot of those people are also being mismanaged in terms of their job search by agencies that perhaps aren’t quite as ethical or across what we want to achieve.
Tracy Angwin: Right. I was going to ask how do you do it? But you’re saying it’s purely relationship-driven.
Andy Thompson: Absolutely. It’s word of mouth, it’s referrals, it’s networks. And that’s been established by APA over many years and they’re people that trust us for a variety of reasons, including career advice.
Tracy Angwin: I couldn’t agree more, Andy. I think that’s been really, really helpful. I watch you work. I watch what you do and I know that you’ve got, and I know we can’t talk about a lot of them, but you’ve got so many clients that you’ve helped who’ve really been in a bind, or have tried to find someone for a very long time. And then I remember one client calling me saying that they were working with you and they said the biggest problem that we had is that Andy gave us two candidates that he’d shortlisted for us. And our biggest problem is they were both perfect and we couldn’t choose. This is after weeks of advertising themselves.
Andy Thompson: Well, that’s a great example. I wish they were all like that Tracy.
Tracy Angwin: So one last thing, and if we’ve got employers listening to this, or potential people in payroll careers already who are looking for the next role, what’s the best way that they get in touch with you?
Andy Thompson: Well, I’m on LinkedIn. My email address is on our website, my direct phone number is on our website. And I love the fact that people contact us through that. That’s my advertising for want of a better word. I’m not chasing people. If people genuinely want assistance, I think our contact details are fine and they can email and call me at anytime. But I just love networking and I love the community that we’ve got within the association and how that can be leveraged into different areas. So referral is absolutely our number one. So, yeah, don’t hesitate to call me. I guess the other thing that I didn’t mention earlier that we can help with is salary data and surveys. And clients do use us for that. We’re in a great position to offer accurate and up to date advice around the market and payroll job market data is very readily available if people want to contact me.