The Future Is Now: Sheri Sullivan of Ernst & Young On How Their Technological Innovation Will Shake Up The Tech Scene

An Interview With Fotis Georgiadis

Focus on supporting and building a great team. This is one of the most important things you can do. I’ve learned that you can be much more powerful when you help others succeed by encouraging initiatives and removing boundaries.

As part of our series about cutting edge technological breakthroughs, I had the pleasure of interviewing Sheri Sullivan, Global Payroll Operate Leader, Ernst & Young, LLP.

Sheri Sullivan is a global payroll pioneer and has over 20 years of experience. She leads EY Global Payroll Operate, which provides companies with global workforce supply chain solutions facilitating accuracy, timeliness, agility, visibility, proactive data insights and regulatory compliance in a secure way that leverages the latest technologies.

Sheri’s background includes competency building, leading global advisory, and delivery, e.g., business process outsourcing (BPO) like people and payroll services and managing employees in every geographic territory. This is the third global managed service team she has run.

Sheri holds an Executive MBA from the State University of New York at Buffalo — School of Management. She has worked and lived in over 67 countries around the globe.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

Payroll is key to any business and interfaces with employees more than any other function — and while I never thought I would explore the intricacies of payroll as a defined career path, I am so happy that I did. I entered the field in December 2000 as part of Paychex’s effort to build out international and secondary markets (US). I joined their corporate team and during the first year went through the PAYX payroll learning academy to learn more about payroll (and even how to hand calculate it). Joining a mature, process and client-focused company specializing in payroll was a great way to learn about leading practices and the industry. I spent over seven years at Paychex setting up and running their international businesses and helping the company expand into secondary markets. Prior to 2000, global payroll had predominately been managed by in-house local teams or by local accounting groups as a managed service solution. Yet, these solutions and the technology infrastructure behind each, have remained mostly static with only small improvements since then. The field has been ripe for disruption for quite some time and the growing importance of visibility, harmonization of processes and control for business leaders has allowed for true innovation. Looking back, as someone who loves to solve difficult problems and add value, payroll truly was the perfect niche for me.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?

I have had many interesting experiences in my career with most centered around client service and managing complex projects with diverse teams. When I served as the CEO of Intercomp’s Global Services, I had the opportunity to lead a team through a difficult situation where individuals, including myself, were personally threatened.

Intercomp provided multi-national clients payroll, bookkeeping, legal and HR services in over 76 countries. On Thanksgiving morning several government workers showed up at one of Intercomp’s offices and tried to bribe our team. Intercomp’s fully managed payroll service provided treasury services for clients to help with timely payments due to regulatory agencies, third parties and employees. During a nine-month period, our team was threatened with bodily harm and injury, the company was threatened with regulatory labor inspection shutdowns and subject to governmental audits.

Eventually all claims were dismissed by a high court because there was no wrongdoing and we did not lose any clients. During this stressful time, I really learned how to step up in a leadership role and develop a high performing team that was ultimately able to triumph in an extreme adversarial condition.

Can you tell us about the cutting-edge technological breakthroughs that you are working on? How do you think that will help people?

When I joined EY in 2017 as a direct admit Partner, I was helping clients develop and execute Time to Pay end- to-end future service delivery models. Shortly after, I was tasked with leading EY’s Global Payroll Operate solution. Having spent the last two decades of my career in this field, I’ve witnessed first-hand how vendors have not kept pace with providing the solutions and technology needed to help clients transform their business. So, I knew that to be successful, we would need to build and partner with other companies to create the solutions and tools that were lacking in the market.

As a managed service offering, EY Global Payroll Operate has been working on the following technology breakthroughs:

  1. EY Payroll Operate’s new technology, EY Interact, is a global mobile app that provides pay slips, tax documents, personalized reports, and an AI chatbot to help answer questions in over 49 languages. EY Interact, allows organizations to access real-time reporting, analytics, and payroll controls to check each production, run, review discrepancies and anomalies, and even use the data to add organizational value such as attrition prediction, gender reporting and equality. The app also includes the specific regulatory required features for specific countries, helping to take employee communication and unique user experiences to the next level.
  2. EY Payroll Command Center is a one-stop payroll “administrator cockpit” that manages end-to-end workflow processes and tasks. It connects clients with the EY country subject matter regulatory experts and payroll processing teams, automates service level agreements and performance metrics, provides regulatory law updates, and leverages the EY one global data model and data tools (DigiPay) to provide company insights and more.
  3. EY has developed a gross to net payroll engine called PEYtal, currently servicing 15 countries and leveraging the latest cloud infrastructures and technologies. This system is configured to set up payroll specifics quickly and easily by employees and therefore able to handle complex working schemes and “the future of work.”

New innovations that we are releasing are detailed below:

1. EY’s source to gross “Shoebox tool”:

  • Allows “shoebox” unstructured input transformation, ingestion, and automated missing data imputation.
  • Organize data and provide traceable, auditable data lineage.
  • Identifies potential mistakes and missing data at the source.

2. Reverse engineering:

  • Transforms current onboarding approach and implementation activities from client’s prior vendor or in-house system.
  • Uses historical payroll reports to recreate payroll engine configurations.
  • Provides assurance on payroll engine setup and identify non compliant taxation treatments.
  • Identifies prior compliance issues that need to be rectified.

3. Automated control totals:

  • Expands EY’s current control totals to add fraud and anomaly detection. Proactively highlights potential error patterns for investigation and remediation.
  • Leverages AI and Machine Learning to continuously improve error detection.
  • Monitors data flow from inputs to payroll preview and verifies everything at payroll finalization.

How do you think this might change the world?

These innovations will disrupt the market by the following:

  1. Reduce cost and time to implement/change the current payroll state helping clients move more quickly to their future service delivery model.
  2. Increases the accuracy and timeliness of source to gross collection and therefore, the overall payroll.
  3. Moves payroll toward a one touch (approval only) format where control totals are not only automated but were the machine provides the suggested solution or fixes to any errors as well.
  4. All the solutions will end manual efforts. The transition to a fully automated payroll will allow companies to have greater controls and compliance while reducing risk. Finally, we anticipate there will be an increase in positive overall employee user experience and trust around payroll.

Keeping “Black Mirror” in mind can you see any potential drawbacks about this technology that people should think more deeply about?

New technology means that the responsibilities of payroll teams will change. Payroll teams will transition to being problem solvers and data technicians — working end-to-end process improvement and stakeholder management. Ultimately, these “new and improved” teams will play a key role in utilizing the rich data contained within payroll to help with analysis, trends, and overall business decisions.

Another area of discussion centers around the future of employee personal data. We think the employee will eventually hold all their data within their own smart phones. Yet, there are ethical conversations to be had around what systems or companies should hold this information and how to prevent data from being harnessed for the wrong reasons. In all, the goal is to bring balance to any potential situations.

Was there a “tipping point” that led you to this breakthrough? Can you tell us that story?

There was really no tipping point for these developments — it was a accumulation of a lot of listening and understanding the needs and frustrations of clients from the last 20 years. When we took a step back, it was obvious what products and services were needed to help address these client needs and provide them with the benefits they desired. Fortunately, EY has the regulatory expertise and the breadth of connected services to be in the perfect position to connect the dots and prescribe this roadmap.

What do you need to lead this technology to widespread adoption?

The EY Payroll Operate business has grown over 57% CAGR and is now a major player in the market, but still relatively unknown as a global payroll managed services player. We are currently working to increase market awareness of the technology and our offering.

What have you been doing to publicize this idea? Have you been using any innovative marketing strategies?

If you talk with any of our clients, they will tell you that we’ve been in “stealth” mode over the last three years. In that time, our focus has been on developing and refining our technology solutions to best suit business needs.

In May, we officially launched to market with a global analyst briefing/event. Our marketing strategy includes developing thought leadership and contributing to articles, such as this one, around the globe.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

I have been blessed with incredible mentors throughout my career and personal life. Certainly, my family and spouse have played a large part too. As my support system, it’s nice to know my family is on the sidelines cheering me on.

It’s also so important to recognize my amazing team members who have not only worked with me for years, but they’ve grown with me too.

There are really so many people that have been part of my journey and supported me along the way. However, If I must pick one (or a couple), I must thank Tom Golisano, founder of Paychex, who not only brought me into the payroll world, but taught me how to run a true client-centric payroll managed services organization that can scale and grow. Finally, the EY senior tax leadership and specifically Kate Barton, EY Global Vice Chair, Tax and Jim Hunter, EY Global Compliance and Reporting Leader for all their support, guidance, direction, and challenges.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

As a woman leader, I have become more aware of the inequalities around diversity and inclusion within organizations. For most of my career, I have held a global leadership role and I have placed an emphasis on what I can do to build a better working world.

I’ve sponsored women to help with their career progression. I became a founding member of SheCAN!, a not-for-profit dedicated to empowering women through personal and professional development, health and wellness and positive mindset. I’ve spoken as a keynote speaker to provide other business leaders with the tools and understanding to help move toward equality. I served on many not-for-profit boards including the WEDI Buffalo board, which supports entrepreneurship, capital funding and business mentorship for displaced immigrants as they work toward re-establishing their business concepts in America. I’ve also worked as an adjunct professor for several universities including Webster University in Austria, teaching business entrepreneurship.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why.

Do we have all day? (Kidding!) A few things I wish someone told me before I started:

  1. Don’t take yourself too seriously. Be your authentic self and find your purpose early on. I was a leader at a young age and guarded around my personal life instead of embracing and showing my vulnerabilities (which I know now, is a good quality to have as a leader). I’ve always moved at a very fast pace both personally and professionally. At the beginning of my career, I felt like I was judged because of this. Many years ago, I read the book, Orbiting the Giant Hairball, by Gordon MacKenzie which helped me to identify how to bring my authentic self to work and still add value to the organization. This inspired me to be less guarded, more open, and an overall better leader.
  2. Question everything. Every question you ask could be the drop that starts a ripple of action, innovation, and fresh thinking. Those drops can change the world! EY’s purpose of Building a Better Working World and constantly asking better questions truly resonates with me because I am very intellectually curious.
  3. Focus on supporting and building a great team. This is one of the most important things you can do. I’ve learned that you can be much more powerful when you help others succeed by encouraging initiatives and removing boundaries.
  4. Focus on listening to clients and bring them along on your journey. I’ve found that you need to listen when you are working with your clients, since you are ultimately building a partnership with them.
  5. Have fun on your journey! I love what I do — and I am grateful that I’ve never been in a professional situation where I didn’t love what I was doing. In about 99% of my working career, I’ve had fun and I think this is very important. Clients want to work with someone who is fun and passionate. Your teams want to work with someone who’s enthusiastic. Focus on having fun every day!

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I find that a movement usually starts with one brave soul and a small act. I love the pay it forward concept — sometimes it’s the smallest kindness and gesture that makes a difference in someone’s life. I’d want to start a larger movement around paying it forward — then, build a global community focused on doing kind, graceful acts. With an act of kindness, you do it without expecting anything in return. Just knowing your gracious act is helping someone in need is the reward.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

I have two quotes. The first quote is from Mahatma Gandhi: “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” You have the power to make change and it’s all about how your actions benefit others.

The second quote is from Friederike Fabritius, a neuroscientist who says, “In order to be in top performance, you need the right amount of fear, focus and fun, and everyone has a different quotient.”

For me, I know this works since I need the balance of all three to be at my peak performance. For one, I thrive in a crisis and can think on my feet. I also love what I do (hence the fun part), and I focus rather intently on solving problems. When I have all three, I am at the top of my game.

Some very well-known VCs read this column. If you had 60 seconds to make a pitch to a VC, what would you say? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂

The next evolution of employment and types of workforce supply chain is going to be driven by employees and not employers. Therefore, to embrace and harness this future, there are many innovations that are needed (i.e. employees will eventually hold all their data within their own smart phones and plug into employers). Let’s work on some innovations to facilitate this future together.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

Please connect with me on LinkedIn here.

Thank you so much for joining us. This was very inspirational.

Thank you for the opportunity to speak to you and the wonderful questions.

The Future Is Now: Sheri Sullivan of Ernst & Young On How Their Technological Innovation Will Shake… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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