5 Simple Concepts for Becoming a Better HR Business Partner

By Allan Freed, Dave Ulrich | September 29, 2021

Key Takeaways:

  • Using insight from research and practical experience to back the right data makes HR business partners highly impactful. 
  • Simplifying your goals and messages while focusing on the correct capabilities for the organization increases credibility and efficiency while adding value to the business.
  • Teams outperform superstars and have better sustainability. 

A good leader who wants to become better will be more effective. Likewise, in HR, continuing to identify and implement new skills is key to effectiveness. The RBL Group, in partnership with the University of Michigan Ross Executive Education and 19 HR associations, has just completed the 8th round of the HR Competency Study (HRCS) where 29,000 respondents allowed us to identify the HR competencies that deliver results.  

While the research results are informative and compelling, translating those results into action requires offering tips that are specific to HR professionals with the goal of moving from good to better. This article will coach you as an HR professional and help you unpack what the research means in practical terms.  

1. If your mindset is wrong, your skillset hardly matters.   

Let’s illustrate the point using a simplified example: Imagine you and a close friend are teachers in a high school and you’re both keen to maximise your impact. You believe that your job is to disseminate information and as a result you spend years concentrating on developing your presentation skillset and crafting content. Your close friend believes that their job is to facilitate learning and as a result spends years understanding what learning involves for students in a high school setting and embodying practices that enhance their experience. Both you and your close friend are finding solutions for the same problem but these approaches reflect a fundamental difference in mindset. Many HR Business Partners approach their job with a fundamentally flawed mindset. Like the teacher who thinks their job is to disseminate information, they mistakenly believe that their purpose is about advancing an HR agenda. It isn’t. The best HR Business Partners realise that HR isn’t about HR – it’s about contributing to business success.  

This is the first simple concept we learned from the most recent HR competency research. The most impactful HR Business Partners have a comprehensive understanding of the needs of external stakeholders and shape advice and practices to ensure promises made to them are consistently delivered.  

Key Messages for Business Partners 

  • Take time to develop a deep appreciation for external trends that shape your customers’ needs and desires. 
  • Develop literacy in the language of your business. Understanding the financials isn’t a skill that is nice to have - it’s table stakes.   
  • Supporting the execution of the business strategy is your day job. Comprehensively understanding that strategy, how you influence it and how you measure your influence on it is as important for you as it is for every other function that claims to influence value creation. 

2. Never confuse the means for the ends.  

Organizations that sustain value creation over time develop one or two defining capabilities that customers appreciate. Capabilities represent what the organization is known for and good at doing (e.g., innovation, strategic clarity, agility, culture). These organization capabilities become a critical component of a coherent brand. They are the outputs of HR initiatives in talent and leadership.  

Let’s consider some examples: 

  • PlusNet is known for lowering the cost of home broadband connectivity for its UK customer base. Efficiency is synonymous with their brand and requires constant focus and energy from the entire leadership team. 
  • Dyson is known for innovation. They push boundaries and over-index on research and development. Maintaining this capability requires intense focus and significant investment.  
  • Unilever is known for its deep customer insight and ability to craft and manage brilliant brands. This capability isn’t an accident – it’s the result of decades of intentional activity and investment.  

Building one or two defining capabilities to a world-class standard in the mind of your customers requires intense focus and long-term dedication. Impactful HR Business Partners understand that the main outcome of the work they do in developing talent and building leadership revolves around the few critical capabilities that matter most to external customers. If you work as a business partner at PlusNet, your job is to build talent capable of reinforcing the capability of efficiency because that’s the capability that customers love. At Dyson you’d be responsible for ensuring that your talent initiatives and investments result in increased innovation because that’s what customers admire and appreciate.  

Imagine the mayhem and cultural white noise created by well-intended business partners who feel the need to build many capabilities equally. They’re never able to customise their HR practices, systems and processes because they are unsure what capabilities these are designed to reinforce. They find solace in benchmarks that justify investment costs but do little to enhance business performance. HR activity ceases to be a means to an end and becomes an end, in and of itself – detached from the value creating needs of the business.  

Key Messages for Business Partners 

  • Capabilities that customers value are the strategic output of HR investments in talent and leadership. Ensure that these few capabilities are identified and crystal clear to each member of the leadership team you support.  
  • HR systems, processes and activities are inputs. The few capabilities that customers experience and admire are the outputs.  
  • As business leaders recognise your ability to build and reinforce the few capabilities that matter to customers your perceived value as a business partner increases.  

3. Data is everywhere. Insight is hard to find. 

For many of us, sports have been a refuge throughout the summer – a welcome distraction from the pandemic. I loved watching the European Football Championship. The televised coverage inevitably included pundits dissecting masses of facts and data. There was also information about possession analysis, individual player heat maps, pass completion percentages – the list goes on. Data is everywhere. It’s the same inside organizations. Huge sums of money have been spent on data management software applications. Acquiring data is not the problem. Translating that data into actionable insight is much more challenging.   

Impactful business partners recognise that their ability to generate insight from data shapes and improves business performance and adds the most value. The football coach doesn’t need heat map data from individual players, they need to know when a player is nearing exhaustion and should be substituted. Shots on target data are less impactful than encouragement to change formation when the data indicates that we should. Data without insight is interesting. Insight reinforced by data is impactful.  

Key Messages for Business Partners 

  • Focus on the business insight rather than on the data. What decision is the data encouraging the business leader to make that will improve performance? 
  • When analysing data look for connections to external stakeholders and business results. Employee engagement data is interesting. Understanding the impact of employee engagement on customer behaviour is impactful.   

4. Teams outperform individual superstars. 

The latest HR competency research reaffirms the value of teamwork. The results of cohesive, well-led teams show up to eight times the effectiveness of individual talents. The job of the impactful HR business partner is to make the whole greater than the sum of the parts. They foster a culture of collaboration. They break down silos and build bridges between teams, functions and business units. Collaboration speeds decision making, improves agility and ensures that important insights get shared broadly. Collaboration requires trust and being trustworthy continues, unsurprisingly, to be a critical characteristic of highly impactful HR business partners.   

Key Messages for Business Partners 

  • The degree to which you are considered credible and trustworthy directly influences your ability to foster collaboration. 
  • To have high impact, the HR function must present as a unified and focused team. Build brilliant relationships with COE and Shared Service colleagues. There’s no room for a win/lose dynamic within the function. Team success trumps individual success. 
  • Responding to a fast-changing external environment and to evolving customer needs requires speed and agility. Functions and business units that work well together will outperform siloed organizations that spend energy competing internally.  

5. Keep it simple. 

The world is more complex than ever before and yet the things we crave and appreciate most in life often remain relatively simple. How many ads have you been exposed to in the last few months? You’re surrounded by them – thousands of voices attempting to influence your decision making on a daily basis. Which ads do you remember? Which ads stand out from the crowd? Odds are that they convey a simple message that resonates with a relatively simple need.   

In the workplace, employees and business leaders are surrounded by voices and messages. Distilling complex projects, ideas and initiatives into their simplest form allows others to better understand and contribute to them. Impactful business partners remember that simplicity is the ultimate sophistication and a terrific way to reinforce inclusion.  

Key Messages for Business Partners 

  • Attack conceptual complexity. Communicate clear, powerful and simple messages that can be translated into activities that create value.   
  • Avoid jargon and the use of HR specific terms and phrases that have little meaning in a broader business context.  

These insights are derived from the eighth round of research into HR Competencies. The research is sponsored by The University of Michigan, The RBL Group and nineteen HR associations and shows how HR competencies deliver personal effectiveness, stakeholder value and business results.  

Allan joined The RBL Group after successfully leading a division of a fast-paced multi-national company as the General Manager of their Australia/New Zealand region. His key professional achievements are in identifying and aligning organizational behaviors and employee attributes to desired business outcomes, and the development of teams and leaders capable of delivering strategic objectives. He has a proven track record of growing a business and engaging employees.

About the author

Dave has published over 30 books on leadership, organization, and human resources. These ideas have shaped how people and organizations deliver value to customers, investors, and communities. He has consulted and done research with over half of the Fortune 200 and worked in over 80 countries.  He has received numerous public recognitions and lifetime awards for his work. 

About the author
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