Developing a strategic plan for elevating the payroll profession

Lessons Learned from Looking to the Past

In 1978, Canadian Payroll Association founder Diana Ferguson’s dream was simple: establish an association for payroll. That mission has long since been accomplished.

As we celebrated the Association’s 40th anniversary with a full year of celebrations in 2019—which included a gala event, unforgettable rock concert, bursary contest, and introduction of the Association's exclusive member discount program—we were awed by how far we’ve come.

Today, we are a growing and engaged community of more than 40,000 professionals, practitioners, stakeholders and leaders. The Association is recognized as the leader in payroll information and education. In 2019 alone, the Payroll InfoLine received over 42,000 inquiries, and almost 16,000 members attended an Association seminar or webinar. Since launching our PCP and CPM certification programs in 2005, the Association has helped more than 14,000 graduates advance their careers. Our volunteers are highly engaged and contributing to payroll in every province and territory.

Forty years on, the Association is recognized as a valuable partner for businesses, working Canadians and governments alike. Our voice and expertise are integral to policy discussions from coast to coast. Pay Yourself First programs are helping to reduce financial stress for workers. Stakeholders, including leading payroll service and software providers, are contributing to the Association and the profession in new and numerous ways. And journalists rely on the Association as a thought leader, calling on us to share our unique perspective on payroll legislation, financial wellness and other business issues.

Having accomplished all of this and more, it would have been easy for the Association Board of Directors and management to maintain the status quo. Change can be fraught with unforeseen challenges with the potential to imperil hard-won progress. Doubling down on proven strategies and tactics could have been seen as the prudent way forward—the perhaps safer course of action.

However, that’s not what the Canadian Payroll Association chose to do. Association leadership recognized that the past is not a guarantee of future success.

“New and emerging tidal forces are radically changing the payroll profession and business in general," explains Association President Peter Tzanetakis. "Not long ago, terms like artificial intelligence, the gig economy and blockchain were meaningless. Today they, along with myriad of other business and regulatory changes, are reshaping business operations, the nature of work and the global economy. To continue elevating the payroll profession, a new plan, designed to transform the challenges of today into tomorrow's opportunities, was necessary. It was clear that now is a time for change.”

In celebrating the Association’s 40th anniversary, it was also clear that embracing change is something that the Association has always done—and central to its consistent growth.

“Payroll hasn’t always been looked at like it is today,” says Wendy Doane, Chair of the Board of Directors. “Instead of accepting that payroll is and always will be just a job, the Association did the opposite. We created the PCP and CPM certifications, which helped to establish payroll as a respected profession. This is just one of the ways that innovation has helped the Association elevate payroll in Canada.”

Planning for the Future: The Strategic Renewal Project

To focus future innovation and thrive in the years to come, the Canadian Payroll Association completed a comprehensive strategic renewal project in 2019.

With input from staff, senior management, the Board of Directors and other stakeholders, the project's goal was to develop a new strategic architecture to clarify purpose and guide the Association.

As with most guiding documents, the development of the Association's strategic architecture began with establishing a demarcation point. For us, that jumping-off point was not a location, but rather, a statement as to why we exist.

"Defining why an organization like the Association exists isn't exactly easy," adds Tzanetakis. "For payroll professionals, we are a source of education, a community, an advocate, a daily support system, a way toward career advancement and so much more. For governments, we are subject matter experts and influencers. And for the payroll service and software providers, we are a partner and marketing channel."

Through an extensive process of discovery and validation, Association leadership considered several options. Nothing seemed to be quite right until they realized that the challenge was a matter of perspective. Why the Association exists cannot be understood merely in terms of functions or services. By taking a step back to consider payroll from a broader cultural perspective, the answer became apparent:

The Canadian Payroll Association exists because accurate and timely payroll is the RIGHT of every employee and essential to the success of every employer and our society.

The COVID-19 pandemic and the impacts of social distancing requirements on both working Canadians and businesses in 2020 have confirmed this statement's truth. Where many businesses and other associations have had to adjust course, the Canadian Payroll Association leaned into this statement to provide timely and needed support, information, resources and leadership.

Having defined our starting point (our “why”), we were ready to construct our new strategic architecture, which takes shape via three distinct levels:

  • A Keystone Strategy: In architecture, the keystone is the wedge-shaped piece at the crown—top and centre—of an arch that locks all other pieces in place. Similarly, a keystone strategy informs and upholds all other Association strategies and tactics. If the "why” statement is the starting point, the keystone strategy is the goal that all other activities are designed to move the Association toward.

Defining the Association's keystone strategy was a complex problem. Through a series of strategic planning exercises, the Board and management team came to understand that it needed to reflect the Association’s many constituents (e.g., payroll professionals, stakeholders, businesses and governments) and many functions (e.g., as a community, champion, expert and resource for the payroll profession). They also knew that the keystone needed effectively differentiate the Association.

Ultimately, the group aligned to the following keystone strategy: To be THE association for the payroll profession in Canada.

Although this seems like a simple statement, it's actually polyvalent. When you consider the word "association" to represent the above-noted functions and the word "profession" as the stand-in for all constituents, its meaning, scope and potential grow exponentially.

  • Foundational Strategies: These strategies provide the basis upon which leverage and keystone strategies can be built. They are required for the optimal performance of all organizations. They are essential but not likely to differentiate the Association.

Through the strategic renewal project, five foundational strategies were identified:

  • Marketing, Communications and Branding
  • Engage Employees
  • Ensure Financial Prudence
  • Ensure Good Governance and Accountability
  • Attract and Retain Members

The good news is that the Association already excels in each of these areas.

  • Leverage Strategies: Leverage strategies are the product of two elements: sources of leverage and uses of leverage. These strategies have the potential to differentiate the Association and advance us towards our goal.

The strategic renewal project revealed four sources of leverage:

  • Undertake research and generate intellectual capital related to payroll;
  • Anticipate, capture and integrate legislative and regulatory changes impacting payroll;
  • Anticipate, capture and integrate emerging industry best practices for payrolls; and
  • Engage stakeholders.

In 2020 and beyond, these sources of leverage will be utilized to:

  • Advocate on behalf of the profession and industry;
  • Deliver professional certification and accreditation;
  • Deliver payroll education and professional development;
  • Deploy tools and resources in support of the Association’s activities;
  • Build brand equity; and
  • Facilitate career development among members.

“In combination, this detailed strategic architecture provides a clear roadmap for the Canadian Payroll Association in the years to come,” explains Doane. “It will directly inform decisions and each project undertaken by Association. It will help the Association transform the challenges ahead into new opportunities.”

Moving Forward: Sequentially Bringing the Plan to Life

Legendary business analyst Peter Drucker famously said, "Plans are only good intentions unless they immediately degenerate into hard work.”

Recognizing the truth in this statement, Association leadership didn’t stop with the creation of the architecture. Instead, they identified a sequence of strategic projects to translate the plan into action.

Beginning in 2020, the first strategic projects will get underway. These include:

  • Developing a comprehensive plan to enhance government advocacy;
  • Conducting research to establish the value and contribution of payroll;
  • Developing an influence marketing strategy to identify and amplify new champions for payroll;
  • Elevating the Canadian Payroll Association brand to increase trust and leadership;
  • Raising the profile and value of certification; and
  • Making the most of the Canadian Payroll Association’s intellectual property and knowledge base.

Each of these projects is likely to take multiple years and will be followed by new projects. The exact sequence of the strategic projects will be determined by external forces and the needs of payroll. For example, where we might have prioritized the development of a new set of payroll resources, a downturn in the economy might change that plan, propelling the Association to focus instead on providing additional career development support to members. Remaining responsive to market forces will increase the immediate and, likely, the long-term value of each project to members. And no matter the order, when all of these projects are added one to the next, they will lead to the Association being THE association for the payroll profession in Canada.

"This is an exciting moment in the history of the Canadian Payroll Association," says Tzanetakis. “The Association and profession have never been stronger. But rather than taking a breath, we once again find ourselves at the start of something new. If we work together as a community—staff, members, the Board and stakeholders—there is no limit to how high or far we can go."

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