So, You Want to be Promoted to GBS Leader | Blog

A man looks up at a series of ladders that lead him to the next level, eventually reaching the top.

Ever notice how few folks within a global business services (GBS) operation are promoted to leader when the top dog goes onto other pastures? Wonder why there’s a glass or concrete ceiling for incumbents who know the business, have mastered GBS management concepts, and have proved their loyalty to the cause? The recent promotion of a second-level incumbent executive to the top role got me thinking: with the increasing operational complexity of this thing we call global business services, a greater appreciation for the value of understanding business context and what we call stakeholder engagement and the dearth of really good talent, why aren’t more number 2s being asked to take over the GBS helm?

Look around you: the top GBS jobs are either going to the few experts who move from GBS to GBS, or to what I call “loyalists” —controllers/general managers in the business who are being asked to take on the role. It’s a puzzlement—with so much capability now being built up in the GBS leadership ranks, why are so few promoted to the captain of the GBS ship? Can you name leaders you’ve seen dance on industry podiums whose resumes include long careers climbing the GBS ladder in one company? To be fair, perhaps there are a few, but it’s a bit of a headscratcher to produce more than a handful of names.

After pondering the question over several sleepless nights, I came up with a few blockers:

  • GBS is a model, not a function with defined hierarchies that are based on mastery of certain types of work. Defined career paths with expected time in grade do not exist as they do in finance, procurement, or even operations. Therefore, when looking for new leadership, the enterprise is unable to evaluate what it needs and the talent it has in its own GBS. As a result, it often looks to the market, saying, “I want one of those,” usually a leader in the same sector because their track record is easier to understand.
  • When an enterprise wants change and chucks out a leader, GBS incumbents are naturally tarred with the same brush. Taking out a broom for a GBS clean sweep is the lazy enterprise’s way out. Why do they believe that the only talent is in the top seat, and if that talent leaves or is deposed, no one else can step effectively into their shoes?
  • Top GBS posts are increasingly seen as an attractive development rotation for high-potential management talent in the business. When there is an opening at the top, it’s convenient to appoint someone who knows the business and has a strong reputation. Where else in the enterprise can a leader gain a purview across the business, manage globally, and harness the power of existing relationships to move the dial? And there are usually few slots for such talent; the GBS leader role is one of very few.
  • The enterprise doesn’t know what capabilities make a good GBS leader. Dare I say it, but few enterprises—or indeed the industry—have decoded what it takes to be a great GBS leader. It’s hard to recognize GBS leadership capability when you’ve never defined it.
  • Bought-in leaders are less likely to care about legacy. With a fair number of dare-i-say-it “itinerant” leaders who flit in and out of GBS roles on three-to-six-year rotations, building a talent legacy is often not front and center. All of their energy is focused on making fast, visible change; building bench strength is rarely a top goal.
  • Succession planning is not a priority. Shame on GBS organizations and their HR departments; GBS organizations are, in the main, terrible at thoughtful succession planning. Because GBS organizations do not have an institutionalized hierarchy (think finance supervisor/manager/director and so forth) and its career paths can be wild and wonderful, it takes some focus to create succession plans that deliver for both the enterprise and GBS professional.
  • Internal GBS talent is buried under a rock. Mature leaders know that it’s all about the team. Yet, all too often, bought-in leaders have savior syndrome; only he or she, riding in on a white horse, can salvage or move GBS to the next level. This “career narcissism” hurts talent that only needs a bit of sunlight to shine. But they aren’t allowed it when the ego of the leader gets in the way.
  • Career pathing is often inadequate. We tend to create fairly orthodox, siloed career pathways, even in GBS models. Operators are usually tracked into larger, more global operating roles. Transition managers go from leading projects to managing teams. Change managers might get a bigger role. But all too often in the GBS world, we don’t take the opportunity to help our talent build the capabilities that usher them into roles that help them attain the top job through cross-training and challenge roles.
  • The enterprise brings in a search or HR consultant who “benchmarks” internal team members against market experts, ignoring the power of context. Since GBS models are highly contextual—each enterprise’s challenges are different—assuming that there is such thing as a market concept candidate is naïve. These search and HR folks don’t live and breathe GBS, so when they categorically declare that a background such as Mr. X is the profile to aspire to, internal talent can be given short shrift in the evaluation process.
  • Global operating experience is usually table stakes. Transformation and strategy roles are critical to success, but enterprises look for operating track records with P&L responsibility in their GBS leaders—“run the business.” That’s not to say a transformer cannot attain the top role; it just throws up another barrier for leaders who are good at “changing the business.”

However, some markers suggest that there is some route for internal talent to attain the top job. Looking around, I found that there are a few instances where enterprises are more likely to promote from within its GBS ranks:

  • When there is a recognized succession plan with an underlying development program: When the organization plans for GBS leader retirement or has programs to promote them into other enterprise roles, succession planning tends to be more formal. Likely, there is a conscientious effort to groom high-performing GBS leaders into position to take the top role.
  • If there is a crisis and someone senior in the team needs to step in quickly: If an internal GBS leader gets a field promotion to lead upon the sudden departure of the head, or some other change in the business, and they are well-prepared, odds increase that a temporary role might become permanent.
  • When the head aggressively positions their key team members as leaders and deploys them as their proxy in the business: When a leader has full confidence in their team, it’s easy to create opportunities for the exposure necessary to position their leaders as successors. And there is an added advantage; leadership becomes interoperable, so the GBS brand extends beyond the top role.

Granted, there are challenges to internal promotion into top GBS  roles. But, as in any career progression, responsibility also falls to the aspiring leader. What can talented number 2s do to position themselves for GBS leadership?

  • Take charge of your career. Don’t expect that a rising tide will raise all ships. Ultimately, you—and only you—must take responsibility for career orchestration. Actively recognize and seek opportunities for development and exposure, and position yourself for promotion. And, if it’s not in the cards, be brave enough to seek advancement elsewhere at the right time.
  • Develop a strong personal internal brand. From experience, most internal appointments accrue to those who understand and can actively navigate the culture and its values. Make sure that when someone hears your name or meets you, your (good) reputation precedes you.
  • Demand job rotations outside of GBS. Not only do rotations give the aspiring leader exposure to more stakeholders, but they also provide an opportunity to learn the business. You will not only become more valuable to the GBS, but you will also be seen as a leader with a more versatile skillset.
  • Get close to key stakeholders. Read the tea leaves, identify stakeholders who are staunch supporters of GBS and likely to influence its future. Reach out to them for advice, for mentoring, and seek to understand their challenges.
  • Take on GBS stretch roles. Move out of your comfort zone into GBS roles that will require you to attain new skills and build new capabilities. If you are a transformer, take on an operator role. If you are an operator, assume some strategic responsibility. Enterprises need well-rounded leaders, especially those who know how to manage a P&L and lead people. Make sure your resume reflects that of a top leader, not an expert in process, transformation, or solutioning.

Last, here’s a sobering thought for our GBS leaders and the bosses they serve to think about. Too many leaders think they—and they alone—are the brand of GBS. They don’t have building a legacy on their agendas, or building a sustainable organization by nurturing viable internal successors. And the enterprise is guilty of not making the development of internal successors a priority. When they approach leadership by going out to the market every 3-6 years, are they throwing up GBS strategy to see what sticks rather than promulgating a sustainable business model?

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