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Stefania Cappello

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HR business partners: Old habits die hard


It’s all too easy to give HR generalists a new job description and title and expect them to start operating as a Business Partner. What is usually underestimated is how difficult it is for them to move away from old habits that act as a barrier to success in their role.

The move to the HR Business Partner model is not without its challenges. We have worked with many organisations that are well aware of the difficulties that implementing this model brings. Consequently they support their Business Partners in undergoing the necessary preparation for their new role, usually in the form of development and assessment centres and capability training that most commonly has a strong emphasis on how to provide strategic input to the organisation. This preparation gives Business Partners the right tools to gear them up for what they need to start doing to be successful. But what about all the things that they need to STOP doing?

Over the years we’ve spotted a number of habits that Business Partners should let go of to improve their chances of success in the role. The following is a ‘checklist’ that Business Partners can keep in their back pocket and refer to if they find themselves slipping into their old role:

  1. Stop working for individual employees and reduce the effort that is given to meeting individual requests. Business Partners are directly accountable to the business and all the activities carried out need to be focused on this
  2. Stop turning up at meetings and automatically assuming the ‘facilitator’ role. This can give off the impression that the Business Partner is not an equal partner to their customers. Showing confidence and that you deserve your seat at the table will more likely result in your opinions being heard and your ideas bought into
  3. Stop waiting for customers to come to you. Be proactive – get out in the business and make your presence felt
  4. If you find yourself being asked to do something that doesn’t match your priorities or role then you need to learn how to artfully say no. This consists of properly explaining the reasons why the answer is no and suggesting possible alternatives
  5. Don’t automatically nod at decisions made by senior customers. Part of the Business Partner’s role is to be independent and challenge decisions. Be bold and put your view out there even if it is not the view that your customers want to hear
  6. A key ‘don’t’ is don’t carry out transactional tasks. This might sound obvious but it is the one that Business Partners tend to struggle with the most. If customers insist on this, take an educational approach. Educate the line on how to carry out these tasks themselves e.g. by using the portal, or by referring them to the correct place in shared services to deal with their request. Put your foot down on this one, and don’t give in to small requests because customers will start to build the perception that it is easier to come to you than to go to the right source
  7. Don’t neglect data and management information. This will fill in the gaps you loose from the transactional activities you no longer do
  8. Don’t neglect your colleagues in the other parts of HR – gain their input and tap into them to help meet your business priorities.

The journey towards letting go of old habits is not an easy one, and understandably so. For example, the perception is that by doing transactional tasks for the business, Business Partners have the opportunity to build better relationships with their customers and therefore can gain their buy-in to more strategic issues. However, the reality is that by routinely doing transactional tasks, Business Partners are framing themselves as less equal to their customers. Also, transactional tasks give business partners a few quick ‘thank yous’, which is often harder to achieve in a more strategic role where the results aren’t always immediately apparent.

There are a few ways to start to make small, but highly-effective changes. For example, one Business Partner that we have recently worked with carried out the useful exercise of listing her three top objectives and then mapped them against clear activities she should be focusing on. This gave her confidence and clarity on what she should be doing and therefore it was easier to step back and stop doing things that did not add value toward her achieving her objectives.

In the decision to start letting go of old habits, it is not just the Business Partner that needs to notice the change – customers need to know that something has changed too. Giving small visible indications of change can often be an effective tool. This could be dressing more professionally or paying attention and contributing at that business meeting you attend, rather than just piping up during the bits that directly affect HR. Needless to say, comments like ‘Oh I don’t really do numbers’ or ‘I don’t really have to know what the business does for me to be a successful HR professional’ will not get you very far when trying to make this change. One Business Partner shared his choice of discreet little change with us – he stopped carrying around his huge notepad because he realised that none of his customers did this and he wanted to begin to move away from the ‘note taker’ role in the relationship.
Overall, it is a question of mindset: embrace the new role so that the old role doesn’t get in your way. Not doing this will run the risk of running yourself ragged doing two jobs and therefore not being able to succeed in your actual role – that of a strategic Business Partner. 

Stefania Cappello is a consultant at Orion Partners


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