Helping HR Business Partners Step into Strategic HR

In recent conversations, I’ve been hearing that the function of HR Business Partners has been changing, and often expanding to include more strategic consulting, and even coaching.  In a recent HRLF (HR Leadership Forum) meeting, I facilitated a conversation on this with several HR BPs and a few HR directors and HR consultants.  I asked:

  1. What is your experience of how the role of HR BPs has changed, and how is that going?
  2. What kind of support are HR BPs getting from HR Directors?
  3. HR BPs: How is the organization helping you upgrade your skills to this expanded need?
  4. HR Directors: What kind of support do you need to help your HR BPs expand into this role?

We heard from people at different levels of the organizations that participants represent.  We heard from several HR BPs that they have taken the initiative to have a seat at the table with their business units (BU’s).  Several senior HR people explained that they recognize the need to develop their HR BPs and have supported their development.  In some/several cases, however, it seems that the change in role from tactical to strategic HR support arrives abruptly, with little preparation of the BU’s or the BU leaders.  Therein lies a critical gap that I think needs to be addressed with senior management and HR directors.

Here’s what we heard at the level of the HR BPs:

  1. Several HR BPs recognized the need to take the initiative to gain visibility and to have a seat at the table with their business units (BU’s). They are attending the weekly meetings of the BU’s, whether they’ve been invited or not.   They’re seeking to understand the work of the BU, so that they can determine how they can add value.  Sometimes the BU team members don’t understand the new role of the HR BP, or may be resistant to their attendance, because they think if HR is showing up there must be a problem – which leads to the issue of credibility.
  2. In order to establish credibility, the HR BPs realize that they need to develop business acumen and understand the strategic direction and inner-workings of the BU’s so they can provide value. They realize that they may need to adjust their style and become more strategic as well as assertive in reaching out to the BU’s.
  3. Branding: In the future, in order to establish their value, the BPs need to explain the role of strategic HR in making the business successful, especially in terms of the business goals.  In my analysis, branding is the responsibility of the HR department, which needs to make the case with senior management.  Together with senior management, they need to make the case across the organization.  This is the kind of support that HR BPs need in order to carry out their work.
  4. Contracting: Some BPs have been tasked with coaching the BU or department leader, but it seems that the leader is not aware of their new role.  Participants recommended that the BPs have a contracting conversation with the leader, to explain their role.  They might say:  “I’ve been assigned to help you in your leadership role;  one place I can add value is in giving you feedback.  I want to make sure you’re comfortable with that.”  and, “Are there other ways in which I can be helpful to you?”  Whether the role is coaching or just providing HR support, the BP needs to establish a rapport with leadership and gain their trust.
  5. Using data: Data systems such as Workday can be mined to provide data about the gaps in the workforce, so that HR BPs could step in to help address these gaps.  Workforce data can be used to explain the impact of decisions on the business, which may be valuable to the BU leader.

Further analysis:  Changing the role of HR BPs requires a change management approach, supported and initiated by senior management.  That means:

  1. The organization has to have a strategy to rebrand HR and to explain this new strategic role to the entire organization.
  2. They need a rollout plan. management needs to explain it to BU leaders before the HR BP shows up in their meetings, so there are no surprises.  BU leaders need to explain the role to their teams, so that they’ll be open to the BP showing up at their meetings.
  3. The HR or L&D department needs to provide training to HR BPs on business issues (operations, administration and finance, marketing, etc.) as well as training on consulting and coaching skills.

There’s a clear opportunity here to help HR departments demonstrate their value to the organization.  Hopefully these suggestions are a step in that direction.

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