How to… become a business partner

Business partners align the HR function to the business goals and strategies
of the organisation. To become one, HR professionals must ensure they have the
right people doing the right jobs to support the company’s business aims.

When sector pundits talk about "HR with attitude", this is what
they mean. To achieve this, the HR professional makes the shift towards
becoming a strategic partner in the business, who makes a valuable – and
tangible – contribution to the bottom line.

Why is it important?

For too long, people management policies have failed to be consigned the
weight or prominence they deserve by members of the board.

Demonstrating that the function has aligned its policies and thinking with
those of the organisation will ensure the HR function is recognised.

The fact that there is also a perceived shortage of individuals with the
relevant skills to fulfil this role presents an exceptional opportunity to
raise your visibility. As much of the function’s transactional tasks are being
automated or outsourced, freeing HR to be more strategic, there is no excuse
for hiding behind the comfort zone of admin.

Where do I start?

Get a handle on your organisation’s commercial activities and business
strategy. This should include familiarising yourself with its range of products
and services, markets, competitors and commercial challenges. If you haven’t
read this year’s financial report and accounts, make sure you do, as you’ll
never be taken seriously if you’re not even aware whether the company has made
a profit or loss in the last year.

Read the Financial Times and/or the business pages of the broadsheets.
"If you have a colleague doing an MBA, see if they have any reading
material that might be of use to you," says Dr Alison Carter, principal
consultant at the Institute for Employment Studies (IES). "Find out what
your CEO reads, and make sure you’re reading that too."

Talk to colleagues in other departments. It is a learning experience in
itself and if you are doing your job well, you should be doing this as a matter
of course. Come up with a hit-list of key individuals, ideally senior managers,
you need to target in finance, operations, marketing and IT and other main

Paul Kennedy, director of HR and associate development at business travel
company Rosenbluth International, makes sure he speaks with someone in a
different part of the business every day to discover what their personal and
professional issues are. He believes this knowledge of shopfloor issues is indispensable
in board meetings where he can confidently discuss the organisation at every

What should I be doing on the job?

Forget the idea that you are merely in a support or advisory role. Organise
a secondment to another part of the business, ideally as a line manager in the
operations division where you are likely to gain insight into managing people.
Stints in marketing and sales may also prove beneficial. Not all companies are
receptive to this idea, but if you can convince the board of the benefits –
that it will make HR more in touch with the business – it might just warm to
the idea.

In addition to commercial understanding, there are several key skills you
will need to develop. Key among them is leadership, diplomacy, negotiation,
advocacy and influence. You will need them all to be able carry the board along
with your vision and direction for the business and for line managers to
champion it.

Obtaining an MBA or other business qualification is also an excellent course
of action. But be warned, it is highly demanding.

Remember, you are still an HR professional

Among the constant struggle to sharpen up your act, develop commercial
awareness and acquire hard-nosed business acumen, it can be easy to lose sight
of some of the other reasons you entered the profession in the first place. So
hold on to those solid HR traits, such as being a good listener and remaining

Where can I get more info?


– Aligning Human Resources and Business Strategy, Linda Holbeche, Butterworth-Heinemann,
£17, ISBN 0750653620

– Exploring Corporate Strategy: Text and Cases by Gerry Johnson and Kevan
Scholes, FT Prentice Hall, £35.99, ISBN 0273651129

– Operations Management by Nigel Slack, Stuart Chamber, Robert Johnson, FT
Prentice Hall, £34.99, ISBN 027364575

– Strategic Human Resources Management: Corporate Rhetoric and Human Reality
by Lynda Gratton, Veronica Hope-Hailey, Philip Stiles, Catherine Truss, Oxford
University Press, £18.99, ISBN 0198782039


– Employee Returns – Linking HR Performance Indicators to Performance
Strategy by Alison Carter and Dilys Robinson, Institute for Employment Studies
(IS Report 365), £19.95, ISBN 1851842950


– How to…talk the language of business

– How to…read an annual report

If you only do five things…

1 Familiarise yourself with your organisation’s
commercial activities and business goals

2 Make friends with senior managers in finance, operations,
marketing and IT

3 Set up secondments to other parts of the business

4 Acquire a serious business qualification

5 Make sure what you do is visible

Expert’s view – Alison carter on
what makes a good business partner

Dr Alison Carter is principal
consultant at the Institute for Employment Studies (IES) and co-author of
Employee Returns – Linking HR Performance Indicators to Performance Strategy.

Do HR professionals make
inherently good business partners?

In many ways they have the potential to, because of their
ability to empathise and communicate. Although some aren’t numbers people, they
have to acquire financial understanding. Establishing a contact in the finance
department will help understand how finance works.

What’s the biggest criticism of HR
practitioners as business partners?

Many line managers I come into contact with say they aren’t as
reactive or responsive to their needs as they ought to be, and this reflects on
their ability to be effective business partners – or at least the line
manager’s perception of them.

What key advice would you offer
potential HR business partners?

It is important to create some time and space for yourself when
immersing yourself in the business to reflect on what you are learning.
Otherwise it is easy to be drawn back into the routine of HR operations. Be
visible – make sure senior managers see what you’re doing.

Three top tips

1 Absorb yourself in your organisation’s business strategy and
be knowledgeable about its aims and results

2 Read the FT and business press. Find out what your CEO reads
and make sure you read it too

3 Remember, you are an HR professional and should preserve
those traits.

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