A recent report from the National Payroll Institute (NPI) shows that on average, 60% of payroll activities are largely administrative, while only 10% are focused on strategic initiatives like payroll projects, operational excellence, and data analysis (Source). There’s no denying that payroll plays a critical administrative role—like ensuring employees are paid accurately and on time—but there’s also huge potential for payroll to become a strategic cornerstone within their organization.

As we discussed in our post on advancing your payroll career, there isn’t one path to success for payroll professionals. Though the road is varied, here are several ways you can level up your skills to become a more strategic payroll leader.

Embrace new tools & technology

Technology undoubtedly plays a huge role in our lives, both personally and professionally, so it stands to reason that anyone in payroll looking to become a leader should be at the forefront of embracing digital transformation within their organization. Payroll software not only reduces errors but also frees up valuable time so you can focus less on tedious manual tasks and more on strategic initiatives. Better reporting and automated workflows enhance the accuracy of payroll processing so you can easily forecast workforce trends and provide valuable insights to your leadership team.

Practice cross-functional collaboration

Payroll doesn’t exist in a silo. Long gone are the days of payroll leaders working in separate systems or on isolated projects. Collaboration with other departments, such as HR, finance, and legal, is essential for ensuring accuracy, compliance, and alignment with broader business goals. By working closely with internal stakeholders like HR, you can proactively address potential issues and adapt your strategies to changing organizational needs.

Prioritize compliance & risk management

Navigating the labyrinth of tax regulations, labour laws, and compliance requirements is a core responsibility of any payroll leader. To be strategic, you must not only stay up-to-date with the latest regulations but also anticipate potential changes and their impact on payroll operations. Implementing risk management practices like regular audits, integrated pay and time software, and establishing detailed and comprehensive payroll schedules ensures that your organization avoids costly penalties and maintains its reputation.

Focus on data-driven insights

Strategic decision-making means you need easy access to reliable, accurate data. Payroll leaders should be regularly running reports and analyzing data to gain insights into workforce costs, budgets, and employee trends. This data-driven approach enables leaders to align payroll strategies with broader business objectives, such as optimizing labour costs, identifying training needs, and predicting turnover rates.

Continuous learning & professional development

The payroll landscape is in a constant state of change and flux, with new technologies, regulations, and best practices coming from vendors, organizations like the NPI, and federal and provincial governments. To go from payroll manager to payroll leader, you need to commit to ongoing learning and skill development. Attending training and education sessions, industry conferences, and obtaining relevant certifications not only enhances your expertise but also positions you as a credible source of guidance within your organization.

Maintain an employee-centric payroll approach

A strategic payroll leader recognizes that employees are at the heart of all payroll operations. By focusing on employee experience and engagement, you can help boost morale and productivity. How often do you respond to one-off requests from employees about their vacation entitlements or pay stubs? Probably a few times a week. Implementing employee self-service tools helps improve access to information and transparency. It empowers employees to manage their own payroll-related inquiries and builds trust with you and your team.

Align payroll with business goals

Payroll isn't just about numbers; it's about contributing to the overarching business strategy. A strategic payroll leader understands the company's goals and aligns payroll processes accordingly. As an example, payroll should be able to handle new employee onboarding and compliance requirements easily during acquisitions, mergers, or periods of high growth. Having the right systems and processes in place, and establishing clear payroll KPIs, helps ensure your goals are aligned with the business.

Forecasting & planning

A big part of being a strategic payroll leader involves anticipating future challenges and opportunities. By analyzing historical payroll data and keeping a close eye on market trends and upcoming legislative changes, you can forecast labour costs, anticipate workforce fluctuations, and come up with contingency plans. Being proactive ensures that your organization is prepared to adapt processes and policies accordingly and take advantage of new opportunities, without sacrificing compliance.

Level up your communication skills

Clear and effective communication is the cornerstone of any successful leadership role. Payroll leaders must communicate complex payroll information to various stakeholders, including employees, executives, and external partners. Whether it's explaining changes in benefits, updating the workforce on legislative changes that will impact payroll, or discussing cost-saving initiatives, the ability to convey information concisely and accurately is critical.

Lead by example

A strategic payroll leader embodies the organization's values and sets the tone for the entire team. Demonstrating a strong work ethic, professionalism, and a commitment to continuous improvement inspires team members to strive for excellence. When you lead by example, you’re building a culture of accountability and dedication within your team.


By embracing technology, fostering collaboration, prioritizing compliance, and aligning payroll with business goals, payroll leaders can become catalysts for organizational success. Through continuous learning, effective communication, and a focus on employee well-being, payroll leaders can expand their expertise and become indispensable assets within the business.

With technology like payroll software freeing up time and resources for payroll managers and executives turning to their payroll teams for data-driven insights, payroll is increasingly becoming a strategic imperative. More than ever, it emphasizes the important role payroll plays within an organization and the opportunity payroll professionals have to take on leadership roles.

Additional Reading Links

  1. 5 ways to advance your payroll career
  2. How to measure payroll performance with KPIs
  3. 10 Great Books That Every Leader Should Read

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