Trade secrets: Making it as an HR business partner

According to the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, the term ‘business partner’ is used loosely to cover a range of jobs from administrative, through strategic, to consultancy. At its most strategic, an HR business partner works closely with other business leaders influencing strategy and steering its implementation, and making the best use of the organisation’s people.

The role of the business partner is more important than ever, now that there are more demands on HR to add value. And more business managers are realising that by making better use of their people, they can make a real difference to the profitability of the business.

In addition, more of the transactional work is being outsourced, so HR is not only able to focus much more on the strategic side of the business, but is also being pushed to make a strategic contribution and come up with people strategies that clearly add value to bottom-line results. This is where the role of the HR business partner comes in.

The value of the HR business partner

It was management guru David Ulrich who coined the term ‘HR business partner’ in 1996. According to Ulrich, HR must assume more strategic roles within organisations so can implement programmes that support the goals of the business.

Of course, that is not to say operations should take a back seat – it is just as important to the success of the HR function as the strategic role. To use an analogy, if HR operations are the engine that keeps the car running smoothly, business partners are the satellite navigation system that helps to guide the vehicle and determine its direction, so that it reaches its destination by the best possible route.

But you can’t just go from being traditional HR to HR business partner overnight. Being a good HR business partner requires completely different attitudes, beliefs and skills.

What makes a good HR business partner?

  • Understand the business as well as the senior management team. This means knowing the business in depth – not just the figures. You need to understand who makes the money and how. What are the business goals? And what levers need to be pulled to help the organisation achieve them? What are the strengths and weaknesses of the business compared to the competition? Most importantly, you need to know how the dynamics of the business work, and how a change in one area will affect other areas.

  • Be an expert in your field. A good HR business partner knows their stuff – not just the law and compensation, but how change happens and how to engage people. Most importantly, they can determine how an intervention will work in that business. This is a dynamic process and the most successful HR business partners keep themselves up to date and renew their skills.

  • Be flexible and open to change. If you are going to persuade others to take on new ideas and ways of doing things, you need to be flexible too.

  • Step back and take an objective view. Be involved with the business, but never lose the ability to view it objectively. This will enable you to challenge ideas and take a longer-term view.

  • Communicate ideas clearly. It is no use having great ideas if you can’t sell them.

  • Take charge and challenge decisions. A big part of the job is thinking up innovative ways of doing things and having the guts to question traditional systems.

  • Believe in the impact of HR on the business, along with your people and influencing skills. If a business is going to reach its targets, everyone in that business needs to believe they can make a difference – and that starts with HR. You need to believe in yourself and the impact you can have.

  • Measure HR initiatives using the results in the business. HR has traditionally measured itself by the activity it manages – for example, the number of training courses run, and the reduction in the pay bill. HR business partners need to use business measures – for example, what was the change in the efficiency of the people who attended the training, and how did this affect the bottom line?

Making yourself heard

There has been a structural and philosophical change in the role of HR experts, from what they do to what they know – and how they use that knowledge. Ten years ago, HR was considered an extra – the department that was nice to have because it made life easier for everyone else. Now it is essential. It is really beginning to sink in that businesses are missing a great opportunity if they do not adopt the new HR business partner approach, irrespective of the title.

But there are still those who have adopted or inherited the business partner title without fulfilling the real role that goes with it. So it is hardly surprising that there is confusion about what exactly HR business partners do and how they add value.

If you want people to recognise that ‘HR business partner’ is not just a buzzword, you must demonstrate that in your work. With the right skills and attitudes, the benefits you can bring to a business are limitless.

Top 5 qualities of a good HR business partner

  1. They build deep, trusting relationships

  2. They remain independent and can challenge authority

  3. They know the business as well as the line managers

  4. They have a strong belief in their work and the difference HR can make

  5. They are technical experts in their own field

HR business partners: myths and facts

Myth: Being an HR business partner is about using hard numbers to gauge success

Fact: Both qualitative and quantitative measures are relevant in determining success. It is more about the impactor outcome of the HR activity than the activity itself.

Myth: An HR business partner is purely a consultant

Fact: Consulting is part of an HR business partner role, but it is not the whole story. The consulting model does not take account of the HR business calendar. The things that need to happen on a regular basis throughout the year require project and service management. HR business partners are also coaches, advisers and experts.

Myth: The strategic side of the role is more important than the operational side

Fact: The strategic and the operational sides are equally important – and they are interdependent.

Myth: A good HR business partner must have worked in the same business for a long time to know how to make a difference

Fact: The most important thing is the HR business partner’s attitude. If they are flexible and quick to learn, they will be able to adapt their HR expertise to another type of business.

Our expert

Jan Hills set up the The Hills Consultancy – which advises organisations on HR, customer relations and sales – after 20 years working in the City. She has been global head of HR for several different companies, and a European chief operating officer. She is also an NLP-certified coach, with training in psychometric instruments.

Tell us some trade secrets

If you would like to share your wisdom on HR issues, e-mail


If you are looking for a Human Resources job please see our HR job section or visit our partner for Human Resources, Payroll and Training vacancies

Comments are closed.