Winning ways

As HR moves away from being an operational function to becoming a strategic business partner, so HR professionals are having to change the way they work. But this can be a difficult transition to make and HR professionals can struggle to make their mark. Research into what makes a successful business partner for the book, HR The Business Partner – Shaping a New Direction, indicates that a number of different behaviours are needed for HR professionals to work in a transactional style. In particular, five key competencies have emerged as critical in carrying out the role effectively. These are:

  • Delivering to the business
  • Working alongside managers in the
  • Self-awareness and impact
  • Creating and leading change
  • Maintaining a business focus.

But what are the specific behaviours within each of these competencies that enable business partners to play the significant role they are seeking in their organisations?

Delivering to the business

Working as a business partner, rather than in a transactional HR role, requires a much deeper and broader understanding of the business issues. In particular, partners need to have a holistic overview of the business, keep a long-term perspective on their work and juggle potentially conflicting roles effectively. They also need to ensure that they don’t get bogged down in the operational side of HR and delegate such tasks appropriately.

Business partners need to understand the bigger organisational context and the future vision and strategy of the company. To add value to the organisation, they will also need to continually demonstrate this knowledge. This may mean encouraging discussions to move the organisation forward and investigating ways to overcome potential blocks. However, this does not mean that having an internal focus is enough, as they will also need to draw on knowledge and trends both inside and outside their sector, which may have business implications.

In adding value to the organisation, business partners will also need to draw on the expertise of others and use specialists where appropriate. Their ability to form effective relationships with other experts and even outside consultants is critical to their success.

Working alongside managers in the business

Business partners need to form excellent relationships with managers in the business. Key components of this competency are concerned with being people orientated, collaborating and empowering others, and focusing on the needs and expectations of different parties.

Strategic business partners will build and maintain strong networks, both within their area of the business and outside it. They will engage key stakeholders and sponsors and actively involve people in the decision-making process, identifying and working with the strengths of those around them. They share knowledge and information with others and act with political sensitivity in what can often be challenging situations.

With their key clients, or managers, they are able to quickly build rapport and trust by carefully managing both the content of what they are delivering as well as the process side of the relationship. Steps will be taken to make sure that the boundaries and expectations of their role are clear to their client to prevent misunderstandings. They will also ensure that contracts are in place for specific areas of work which meet the needs of the client and the business and will monitor progress against what has been agreed.

Self-awareness and impact

Being aware of business needs and working well with managers is unlikely to be effective if the business partner does not have the characteristics or capability to make an impact. Being both approachable and visible and bringing energy and drive to the role is critical to making business partnership a success. Often, this behaviour stems from a heightened self-awareness and focus on learning and development.

Business partners who rate highly in this competency are likely to demonstrate a good awareness of their own strengths and areas for development and use this as a basis for future development. They will seek opportunities to move out of their comfort zone and will share their learning about the organisation and business issues with others.

In addition, they will express themselves well and present information in a confident and clear way which meets the needs of the audience. Credibility will come from demonstrating an understanding of the business and the range of issues facing managers. They will then be regarded as someone who ‘walks the talk’ and acts as a role model for others in the organisation.

Creating and leading change

The value of working in a business partnership role often comes from creating and leading change in the organisation. However, to do this well requires a new set of skills and competencies from traditional operational HR roles.

Critically, business partners need to be more proactive and prevent blockages within the organisation, as well as being more creative and willing to operate in situations of uncertainty.

Successful ones will proactively seek opportunities within the business to support strategy and will anticipate likely obstacles to implementing business change. They will need to have a knowledge and understanding of change theory to implement changes successfully and use this to strike an appropriate balance between achieving business goals and managing emotional reactions to change.

Dealing effectively with change also requires business partners to be able to cope with ambiguity and complexity and work at the edge of their own comfort zones. They need to continually look for solutions beyond the obvious and find creative ways to work with managers to achieve business improvement.

Chevron Texaco is a good example of this. The organisation found that although the role of the supervisor in performance management and the link between measurement and pay was clear, the level of understanding among employees was very limited and there was an overall mistrust of the performance management system. The company took the initiative to design and roll out a series of workshops to all employees to help them understand the process and remove any mystery that may have existed. Workshops also took place to ensure that supervisors understood and supported the process.

HR manager, Howard Kewney, says: “The intervention was not primarily intended to change management attitudes and behaviours, but the process did encourage employees to influence upwards which in turn influenced supervisor behaviour.”

Maintaining a business focus

It is possible for business partners to work very closely with their managers and deliver on targets without adding any value to the business overall. This competency includes behaviours which ensure that the work being undertaken is focused on the overall business goals. This includes prioritising and using feedback and evaluation to demonstrate just how effective
the work is.

To be effective, business partners will need to set appropriate measures at the start of any project and ensure they get buy-in to the evaluation process from the business. This will enable them to place the right priority on business needs in the light of long-term goals and, more importantly, will enable them to challenge appropriately and say ‘no’ when necessary. Having completed a piece of work, they will take the time to review and evaluate the project and use the data to demonstrate the impact on the business strategy.

Often, business partners can be guilty of carrying on with a project because it makes them look good, or they want to be seen to be helpful, rather than because they are continuing to add value. A key competency of a successful partnership is recognising the difference between ‘urgent’ and ‘important’ and the need to withdraw from a piece of work and move on when necessary. Judging this point is often down to the way business partners use feedback. Ideally, they will be actively seeking and reviewing feedback and continually be looking for ways to improve the service they provide. They will not be afraid to hold frank and open discussions with their managers and will seek to enhance relationships and actions by thorough questioning during reviews.

Developing competencies

Being aware of what’s required is only the first stage in becoming an effective business partner. Each individual needs to focus their learning and development on the competencies required and seize opportunities that will allow them to gain experience in the relevant areas.

Jane Yarnall is director of Skills Evolution, a firm specialising in management, HR business partnering and organisational development

HR – The Business Partner: shaping a new direction, by Jane Yarnall and Barbara Kenton is available from
ISBN: 0750664541

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