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Coffee with Mike Schoelles from Bright Horizons

Mike Schoelles is Director of Payroll for North America at Bright Horizons, a U.S.-based childcare provider. In his 35 years in payroll, it’s safe to say he’s seen it all. We recently sat down with Mike to get his perspective where the payroll industry is heading, his advice for up-and-coming professionals, his dream job, and much more.

Walk us through your role.

Sure. My department manages payments to almost 26,000 employees across the U.S. and Canada. I’m always examining our day-to-day operations and looking for ways to make them more efficient. For example, I’ve recently been working day in and day out on a pay card program and selling it to our senior management. Last year, I did the same with garnishment outsourcing, which removed a big burden on us. And likewise, I set up the partnership with (CIC Plus), and that’s made a huge difference, since we don’t have to worry about keeping up with all the changes to W-4s and state tax information anymore.

What’s the biggest challenge in your role?

Getting buy-in from management. We report up through Finance and also work with Operations, so we have to communicate the purpose of what we do to a lot of people. Take the pay card program as an example. There, Finance wants to know how it’s going to alleviate the complexity of cutting 1,400 live paychecks, and also be convinced it’s not just a nice-to-have. Then with Operations, we must convey the scope of our spending on sending paychecks to facilities bi-weekly, and how the pay card is a money-saver. But even then, they might interpret the move as a key responsibility being taken away from them, as fixing something that isn’t broken. It’s up to me to sell them on why it’s an improvement.

Even with those challenges, what keeps you coming back for more?

Every day brings something different. It could be anything from needing to figure out how the California wildfires have affected our sites, to how do we flag repeated offenders in timesheet submissions, or simply how we manage 800 locations across 48 states. There’s always something to do in keeping payroll working like it should. Too many people assume it’s magic, when in reality there’s immense effort required, all the time. With our sites being so spread out, there are so many tax situations to deal with and that’s tough, but we’re prepared for it.

Branching off that: How do you measure success in your role?

Being a good leader to my team and fighting for them and their causes. I never want them to feel overlooked and underappreciated, since they’re working so hard to ensure people are paid correctly every time. In Payroll, it’s just a fact that you’re remembered for the last mistake; people just expect the money to be there. So being a leader, a lot of it is about setting up your team for success, helping them navigate those obstacles that might cause trouble down the line.

What, in your mind, makes you an effective leader?

I keep my door open, so that anybody can come in and talk to me about their challenges without having to work their way up the chain of command (Mike has a team of 14). I want them to be able to tell me what’s going on and not feel like they’re doing anything wrong. Plus, I aim to treat everyone the same way: I respond to my CEO just like I respond to the person cleaning the office each night. That’s important to the company culture, and I think it’s something people should try.

Along similar lines, if you could share one piece of advice for payroll professionals, what would it be?

Don’t be afraid to admit when something didn’t go as planned. Too many times, we all get hyper-focused on the end result and it feels like it has to be perfect. Well, if it goes wrong it’s OK to stop, reassess, and decide if a change is merited or if it’s better to just start over.

Let’s say you’re starting your career over. What would you tell yourself, knowing what you do now?

Don’t assume everyone knows what you’re talking about. It’s easy to get wrapped up in industry jargon. Know your audience and adjust accordingly. For example, I’m a big Six Sigma fan and I had to give a talk to an HR group once, and it required me to change up my approach, with less focus on statistics and more on what Six Sigma means on a personal level.

Looking back at the last five years, what do you think have been the biggest changes in the industry and where do you see it heading in the near future?

We’re getting more automated, with manual data entry going away. There’s also more outsourcing whether that’s for printing checks or W-2s. This outsourcing means we don’t have to be experts in so many different areas and can instead focus elsewhere. As far as looking ahead, AI and predictive analytics are big: What if we could systematically recognize patterns in clock punches, discrepancies in pay, and so on?

What brought you into payroll?

As I like to say: No one starts in payroll! I had been working in movie theaters as an assistant manager, dropping off payroll at a local department every week. Eventually I asked if they had openings, they did, and I began as a payroll clerk and worked my way up to payroll director.

What’s the secret of your success? How did you become a leader responsible for managing payroll for 26,000 employees?

I was always focused on efficiency, even in the days of calculating taxes on manual checks in Lotus 1-2-3. In the late 1990s, I got into leadership just as point-in-time was becoming big. Leadership Isn’t for everyone, though, and that’s OK. It takes knowing how to understand and resolve all kinds of issues.

Do you have a New Year’s resolution for 2020?

A year ago, I made a resolution to never make another resolution. But in all seriousness, I am resolved to get our pay card program squared away this year.

If you had to pick a job outside of what you currently do, what would it be?

If I were independently wealthy, I’d do travel and photography. My wife got me one of those super-long lenses and I like using it to photograph birds near Plum Island, where we get a lot of hawks, bald eagles and snowy owls. If I had to work for a living, I’d want to do so for the Walt Disney Company. It’s always fascinated me, and it’s a unique organization (It’s good for Mike that APA Congress is in Orlando this year!).

Last question as we wrap up: If you were to have dinner with three people who would you pick?

My grandparents, since I wish I had gotten to know them better. My grandfather was a chemist at DuPont and held a lot of patents, and my grandmother was a school teacher. Third person I’d choose would be one of my mentors in payroll. They helped me get into the American Payroll Association, where I still co-chair the best practices subcommittee and am part of the emerging technologies subcommittee. I was on the board of advisers for a couple years, too. I’d like to get into more APA functions going forward.

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