Why Don’t GBS Leaders Last Very Long? | Blog

Earlier this month, I was asked by my friend Niklas Oldiges why GBS leaders seem to be moving jobs at a higher than usual rate. And as a sucker for a good provocation, I took the bait, pondering why some of the industry’s best and brightest don’t seem to be able to hold onto a job. Is it the nature of the beast—does GBS as a model attract more than its share of job hoppers? Is the model so fragile that short tenures are de rigueur (see Another One Bites the Dust: Why GBS Organizations Are Pulled Apart )? So, I sat down to parse out the root cause.

Based on some research, I’ve come up with the observation that any GBS leader who celebrates a four-year anniversary—or more—is indeed a rare bird. While some are turfed out and others decide to leave of their own volition, the fact remains: the majority either get the model up and running then go where they think the grass is greener or fall prey to a business context that doesn’t “get” the model.

Don’t believe me? Well, one day I was surfing LinkedIn and notching the tenure of a sampling of GBS leaders. Seems to me that, based on that sample, only 20% change jobs each year. And other studies—some of my own and those of search consultants—confirm the fact.

Now before you think I am dissing GBS careers, please know that nothing could be further from the truth. I can’t think of too many leadership opportunities with the scope to make an indelible imprint on the enterprise, with so many (solvable) challenges and a myriad of tactics to deploy. Add a global stage and purview across the enterprise, and what’s not to like?! So, consider this in the spirit it was intended—does the beast of running a GBS drive mobility, or do GBS leaders shoot themselves in the proverbial foot?

Let’s unpack this, first looking at the model. Does the revolving door result from:

  • The nature of the beast? Continual evolution of the model requires different leaders at different stages. Enterprises tend to go to market with an “I want one of those” (rockstars from a company they want to emulate). What they don’t get is the continual evolution of the model means that the right leader persona at the helm at the right time makes all the difference. Some are good fixers, some are good orchestrators, some are experts at driving change. Want to know which persona is right when? Take a gander at (What’s your GBS and Shared Services management persona?).
  • Churn, churn, churn? Revolving executive sponsorship strongly impacts the GBS thesis. How many GBS leaders have endured three or more CXOs in a short span of years, being forced to change direction because the next dude at the top of the house has a different view of GBS’s value or is imposing a new mandate? The ultimate in agile models, GBS—and its leader—has to adapt or risk deconstruction. And sometimes it’s nigh on impossible for the incumbent leader to do so, forcing them to exit stage right.
  • Knives out? Since GBS represents for many enterprise leaders a loss of control or the building of new empires (because they don’t know how or refuse to work collaboratively or virtually) it can be the focus of high-stakes political games. As a target that’s not hard-wired into the enterprise’s fabric, GBS models and their leaders can become collateral damage.
  • GBS positioned as a (not so blunt) instrument? GBS models are imposed to transform the way the business works; therefore, they and their leaders become the symbols of often unwelcome or misunderstood change.
  • No way up? Moving to another enterprise leadership role is often not in the cards for GBS leaders. Enterprises often “forget” that a GBS leader has the capability to go into the business or become a COO or similar role. As a result, the only way to advance is to leave.
  • Throw-away mentality? Is the GBS model synonymous with fungibility in the enterprise? Some enterprises see the role as temporal—get centers and capabilities up and running, then turn the operations over to their respective client functions or the business.

And how do leaders screw up?

  • Tone deafness? Leaders, especially those brought in from the outside, sometimes don’t pace change at a rate that the enterprise can absorb. Rather, they may read the mandate as “make change in a hurry” as opposed to listening intently to their stakeholders and customers and moving accordingly. When tissue rejection occurs, said leaders find themselves escorted out the door.
  • Grass is always greener? Some GBS leaders are always on the hunt for new roles, comparing themselves against their peers. And when they see a company where the brand is believed to be better, the scale and scope are larger, and the pay packet is amazing, their heads can be easily turned. But in the search for fame and glory, many candidates are too dazzled to ask the right questions, and do not bother to assess the “fit” with the enterprise’s vision for GBS, its tolerance for change, or its ways of working. It can be a vicious cycle.
  • Inability to master the secret handshake? Some leaders, usually those bought in, find it difficult to form critical networks and integrate into the culture quickly enough. By comparison, those brought in from a function or the business have a leg up when it comes to assimilation.
  • Boredom? GBS runs in cycles—transform/run/transform/run. Some leaders are good at making change in the business; others run the business. Transformers seem to have shorter attention spans and may not like silent running. So when the change is nearing completion, they move on.
  • Perpetual motion? When GBS leaders start to hop from role to role, they tend to keep hopping (trust me, I see it all the time).

So, what does all of this suggest about GBS leader tenure?

  • Role mirrors model. GBS models are by their very nature designed for ephemeraThey form, they change, they deconstruct, they rise again from the ashes. This puts pressure on the leader’s longevity.
  • Lack of enterprise career paths forces folks out. When the leader’s ambition is to master new roles and deal with new challenges, and their enterprise looks at their role as separate and apart, orphaned and not on stated succession plans, it makes it difficult to stay.
  • Corporate fortunes have a high impact on the role. Enterprises acquire or spin-off businesses, impacting scale, which in turn drives value creation. GBS requires investment at various stages in its lifecycle, often.
  • Enterprises like shiny new toys and don’t always hire the right leader. Brands often play a big role in hiring; it’s easy to look to an admired company and snatch the person at the GBS helm only to find out that the culture and context are so very different, resulting in a mismatch.
  • Few GBS leaders are transformers/operators. GBS value creation is a long game, requiring a leader to have both change and run skills. Yet those with both capabilities can be rarer than unicorns, causing high levels of mobility at certain junctures in the GBS lifecycle.
  • When the going gets tough, those that are not tough get going. GBS leadership roles are not for the faint of heart. With new formations and short tenures the norm, a flattering call from a headhunter on a bad day can prompt a move.

Now you have it—my take on why new GBS role announcements have become almost a daily occurrence. Some mobility is driven by the enterprise, but just as often, leaders don’t do their homework and end up in the wrong environment, or like to hop, hop, hop. Will we see greater longevity? Don’t count on it.

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