Strategic HR Business Partnering – Beyond Organizational Structure

In our most recent post, we began discussing Galbraith’s Star Model of Organizational Design.  We concluded with our view that HR departments have generally overstated the importance of Structure as a critical organizational design feature.  According to research published by Gartner in 2019, less than half (42%) of organizational redesigns are successful and more than a third (37%) take longer than expected.  Our view is these statistics reflect a lack of holistic organizational design planning.   All the various components of Galbraith’s model need to be considered and they must, in the end, be aligned among and between themselves to increase the odds of success.  Therefore, in this post, we will briefly explore three other dimensions of Galbraith’s model as a means to understand, beyond structure and role design, how HR can better evolve to the status of strategic business partner.  The remaining dimensions are Strategy, People Practices, and Rewards & Metrics.  Our approach will be to:

  • Define the design feature and its importance in the bigger picture
  • Discuss some of the design criteria
  • Explain the importance of its linkage to the other elements of the model

Strategy

Strategy, in its simplest terms, is the identification of the goals, priorities, success factors, and critical capabilities the organization needs to attain success.  Strategy then, is what an organization does – and in many cases chooses not to do – to win its designated markets. Design criteria for strategy includes the observable/measurable operating features and the outcome indicators of success.  By articulating these design criterion, the organization will benefit from increased focus.  With that focus, the organization is guided through conflicting needs and will be able to objectively evaluate alternative design approaches.  At the end of the day, all other dimensions of the Star Model need to be aligned with strategy.  Without a coherent strategy, the deployment of the Star Model will be suboptimized, at best.

For HR practitioners this means starting with the business strategy, not with the HR programs. For example, if a business is trying to better serve and engage customers, a key strategy implication for HR may be shifting the focus from process to customer. HR programs that would support these outcomes may take the form of aligning rewards with customer satisfaction, training for line employees in interpersonal customer relations or developing selection programs that attract people with a high need for affiliation and service.

Some questions practitioners should ask include:

  • What is the clear business strategy?
  • What new capabilities are required?
  • What does success look like?
  • Are there key geographies, products/services, customers, or technologies that need to be considered?
  • Do we keep all processes in house or subcontract some or all?
  • Are there aspects of the strategy that require some form of differentiation or variation across our business?
  • What are the people and organizational implications of the answer to these questions?
  • How does HR align programs, practices and policies that enable individuals and teams to deliver the strategy?

People Practices

Strategy is implemented through and by the organization’s people. People practices consist of identifying what competencies are needed for your business model in your industry.  Supporting the required competencies are the creation of processes to assure the organization has those competencies in the right places and at the right times.  Similarly, people practices need to anticipate the need for meaningful professional and career development opportunities for the people who are implementing strategy.  Finally, but certainly not least, people practices must include the roadmap to enable effective leadership at all levels of the organization. 

With COVID, there has been (and will be) an evolution of design criteria for People Practices.  We suggest that some new and important criteria now include consideration of both where and how work is done.  From a leadership perspective, what new, changed, or enhanced capabilities are needed – by both people managers and staff – in a world when a manager regularly sees her/his people only through a video connection.  

Some questions for practitioners include:

  • What new or changed competencies are needed to realize the strategy?
  • Can we build those competencies, or do we need to buy them, i.e., do we need to change our staffing model?
  • What is the framework of the employment relationship?  Think of values, expectations, obligations.  Said another way, does the organizational redesign impact our culture?  If so, how and what should be done about it.
  • How to build engagement and manage the change(s)

Rewards

This area of the Star Model deals with the tools and processes used to motivate behaviors and acknowledge successes at the individual, team, and organizational unit levels. 

Representative questions for practitioners include:

  • Does the performance assessment process provide the kind and quality of feedback our people need to achieve their and the organization’s objectives?
  • Does the reward system deliver the differentiation needed to motivate “above and beyond?” behavior in our key contributors?
  • Is the reward system relevant?  Think about your demographics.  How have they changed and what is the trajectory of the changes you are almost certainly experiencing?
  • Are there valuable, non-financial ways of recognizing success?

Metrics

Business Intelligence (BI) as a discipline within the HR world is still very much in an emergent state but deployments are expanding rapidly.   Opportunities to leverage existing stores of unrelated data abound.  Some of the challenges HR Business Partners need to overcome in using BI techniques include:

  • Is the available raw data “clean”?  Is it accurate and up to date?
  • In a world that is increasingly focused on protection of data privacy, how do I access and manipulate only the data I need.  This principle of “Data Minimization” is a key feature of the European Union’s GDPR regulations and is an often-overlooked risk that HR teams need to manage.
  • How to define the relationships between bits of discrete data to make analysis easier and more accurate
  •  What tool(s) to use analyze and represent the findings of our analyses?  Our experience is that simple is frequently better. 
  • How to integrate analytics into the HRBP’s interactions with her client base

Conclusions

To establish oneself as a genuinely strategic HR Business Partner, the practitioner needs to have a command of how the various elements of Ulrich’s model interact.  Think of your high school biology classes.  When you pushed against a wall of an amoeba, it tended to pop out opposite the pressure point.  The same is true of using Ulrich’s model.  If you overbalance one dimension at the expense of another, your solution will be suboptimal.  All the components of the strategy need to be in harmony with one another. Ideally, they are mutual reinforcing.

In our next post we will return to an exploration of how we can use the dynamics of these models to harmonize the individual and collective goals of HRBPs, COEs and Service Centers to deliver on the promise of strategic business partnering.

About the authors:

Louis Scenti is the Founder and President of Cognoscenti Associates, a consultancy specializing in executive and leadership coaching and organizational consulting. Prior to founding Cognoscenti Associates, Louis worked for more than 30 years as a practitioner of leadership development, organization development and talent management for several premier financial services firms, most recently as the Chief Talent Officer for the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.

He is currently an Adjunct Lecturer at Columbia University’s School of Professional Studies in the Human Capital Management Masters Degree program. 

Somers HR Solutions  is an independent consultancy dedicated to helping business leaders and their teams diagnose and solve people management challenges.  Managing Partner, Ken Somers, is especially adept at coaching HR Business Partners and business leaders to enhance their organizational impact.  He is passionate about delivering “answers for the real world.”

Ken’s career spans more than 40 years as both an HR practitioner and executive leader.  In addition to his domestic experiences, he has lived and worked in Singapore, Hong Kong, Japan, India, and Malaysia.  Ken completed his most recent assignment as the interim country head for an insurance company’s back office operation in Poland.  Ken’s vast international experience enables him to bring a multicultural and multi-generational perspective to solving client challenges.

We hope you have found this series on Strategic HR Business Partners useful.  We invite your feedback.  And If you can use some help in addressing a people leadership challenge, contact us at:

Ken@somershrsolutions.com +1 508-507-1207

How Do I: Onboard a Remote New Colleague?

A former colleague recently asked me for some advice on this topic.  There are literally millions of answers out there on the web.  In fact, a simple Google search yielded more than 18 million hits – and that was with a properly formatted Boolean search!  The rest of this post will reflect my own personal experience and suggestions based a combination of both successes and failures in onboarding a remote employee.  I am intentionally ignoring the Orientation process which is typically managed and delivered by the HR organization.  Orientation is most commonly about the organization’s rules.  Rules are certainly part of a company’s culture but there is a lot more.

Culture:

In many ways, this is the most important factor when thinking about how to onboard a newly hired remote person.  There are as many different company cultures as there are companies.  Every company has a culture – whether they recognize it as such or not.   And many teams within the company have their own particular manifestation of the company culture.  There is no way to address every permutation of culture in this post but at the team or department level you can boil the thought process down into a few critical questions:

  • What do we care about?
  • What do we measure and why?
  • What does success look like for this job?
  • How do we respond when people make mistakes?
  • What is more important – the what or the how (I reject the notion that both are equally important – one always trumps the other in a pinch)?

Once you’ve answered those questions about the broader company culture, ask the same questions about your department or team.  Lastly, ask the same questions of yourself as the manager.  Hopefully, the answers will largely align.  If they do not you probably have a different and bigger problem than onboarding a remote employee.  But that’s a subject for another day.  

The Work:

Clearly, one of the most important elements of a successful onboarding plan for any new hire is for her ability to learn her job so she can successfully meet the objective performance criteria.  Based on your experience leading the team, what is the best way for someone to learn the job?  Consider reflecting on other new hires in the relatively recent past.  What experiences differentiated successful new hires from those who may have struggled?  Do any patterns emerge?  What can you learn from those experiences that will help this new person ramp up quickly?

A Buddy:

I’m a big fan of assigning a buddy to every new hire.  This can be especially important during our COVID times when the new hire does not have the benefit of the informal mentoring that happens when we are all together in a traditional workplace.  During normal times, mountains of behavioral information is accumulated just by being in an office and witnessing how others behave under different circumstances.  It is a mentoring experience because the new hire is being taught.  It’s informal because typically, it’s not a planned process.  We just expect people to figure it out – until they don’t.

That’s where the buddy comes in.  The buddy is there to:

  • Help teach the new hire how to do the job
  • Answer routine questions about how to get stuff done
  • To identify subject matter experts the new hire may need to tap into
  • Help the new hire navigate all the stuff that is not written down anyplace
  • Explain and orient the new hire to the behaviors and work habits that will yield success

Selecting a Buddy:

Once you’ve answered the questions posed at the beginning of this post – at all 3 levels, you should be well positioned to select a buddy for your new hire.  Here are some considerations and suggestions for making that decision.

  • Pick someone who aspires to be a people manager.  Being a buddy is a wonderful development opportunity for someone who wants to be a people manager.  After all, what is a manager?  In my view, a manager is one who gets work accomplished through the efforts of others.  (And yes – I am drawing a big distinction between manager and leader).
  • If you do not have the luxury of having a non-manager available or ready, choose an existing manager who will benefit from the experience.
  • Be clear with the buddy about what you expect him/her to accomplish with the new hire
  • Agree on a new hire work plan with the buddy.  What should the new hire learn and by when?  Is the new hire new to your industry?  Does she need to learn the vocabulary of your business?  Does your company live and breathe acronyms all day?  Is your company one that loves to have lots of meetings?  How should the new hire behave in all those meetings?  Are they expected to contribute or just listen?  I could enumerate many more examples, but I think you get the idea.  Your buddy needs to be the new hire’s guide to figuring it all out in a way that will make that new hire successful as quickly as possible. 
  • How will the two of you assess the new hire’s success at some key milestones?  If it was not already established as part of the new hire selection process, have the buddy work with the new hire to identify how the new person learns best.  The work plan should be adjusted as much as possible to accommodate the new person’s learning style.
  • Agree with the buddy on how you will evaluate her success as a buddy?  If you’re using the assignment of a buddy as that development opportunity, what do you want the buddy to learn?
  • This is a big deal!  Do not assign a buddy to be your spy!  I once worked for a company who typically used the new hire buddy system to great effect.  However, my own buddy (when I was a new hire) felt compelled to share every adjustment concern or complaint I had with our shared manager.  I don’t think you’ll have too much trouble figuring out how that felt and the avoidable complexity it created once I learned what was happening.  That does not mean the buddy should be silent if there is a problem.  Quite to the contrary, if the new hire is struggling, early intervention can save the day.  Bottom line on this point – select a buddy who has the maturity to know when there is a problem that needs attention as distinct from someone who uses the buddy program  to advance their own interests at the possible expense of the new hire.

Onboarding During COVID Times

All the above applies. Being remote does not eliminate or change any of the above recommendations.  What does need to change is your behavior as a manager. A key outcome from a successful onboarding is the establishment of trust.  Trust between the new hire and his/her teammates and trust between you as the manager and the new hire.   It’s pretty common for a team manager to check in with new hires fairly frequently.  After all, you want the new teammate to be successful.  It’s almost always more efficient and cheaper to invest in a new person’s success than it is to experience a failure in hiring.  Selection and the consequences of failing to hire the right people is a topic for another day.

But during these COVID times, it’s important for the manager to reach out more frequently – at least until the new hire is settled and that mutual trust is established.   You’ll each have your own criteria for what settled means.  I urge managers of new hires to:

  • Use video connections – who doesn’t have access to ZOOM or TEAMS or some other video conferencing capabilities these days?
  • Make sure key onboarding milestones are achieved.  Examples include:
    • New hire orientation
    • Any required legal or regulatory training
    • Review and acknowledgement of company policies/confidentiality agreements
    • IT security rules (more important than ever as more and more of us work remotely for extended periods)
    • Etc.

I’m emphasizing these routine items because they ARE important.  But more particularly, I consider the absence of or tardiness in completing them as a yellow flag.  Something is not quite right if the new hire either does not or cannot satisfactorily complete these standard procedures.  The buddy can help but the manager is accountable.  Observing body language in a video call works both ways.  It will help you identify nonverbal queues in the new hire.  And if the new hire can more easily see you too, it makes it easier for her to identify when something is troubling you.  Video connections will support the creation and cultivation of shared trust.

Feedback and Final Thoughts

Constructive, honest, timely, and accurate feedback is absolutely critical to successful onboarding.  Use your video check ins with your new hire to provide these nutrients of success.  I like to frame feedback in the form of 4 bullet discussion points per item:

  • What happened or how things are going (good or not so good)
  • Why it’s important I’m providing feedback on this item – how the situation impacts work or others (or both)
  • Use one or two specific examples to illustrate the why
  • Specify what you want the new hire to differently (or to keep doing) and (if appropriate) when you want the change to be effective

Effective new hire onboarding is critical to the new person’s success.  Done well, it can accelerate a person’s impact and contributions. At its worst, a failed onboarding costs you time, money, and aggravation.  It’s worth the investment of time to do it right.

If you found this post useful and/or if you can use some help in addressing a people leadership challenge, contact me at:

+1 508-507-1207

ken@somershrsolutions.com

How Do I: Launch a New Project?

This is the latest in my “How Do I” series of blogs. Readers are encouraged to provide feedback and suggest additional topics for this series.  See my contact information at the end of this post.

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Recently, a former colleague reached out to talk about how to handle a new assignment.  He has never led a team before because he’s always been a “technical guy”.  This is a technical project but for the first time, he has been thrust into a leadership position. 

What makes it even more challenging is that his team will be comprised of volunteers from other functions in the organization.  These volunteers have (or will have) negotiated with their managers to be released for a certain number of hours per week or month to participate in the project.  Their motivation is to get involved in something different that will deliver valuable results for the various areas of the office.  In some cases, they also see this as an opportunity to build some new technical muscle.

As a last piece of context for you, the project is intended to deliver quick automation solutions to enhance efficiency and quality in various business processes.  The members of the team and others will submit suggestions for processes to be enhanced by the team.

This post is not intended as a comprehensive discussion of Project Management.  That is way out scope!  But the following are the thoughts and suggestions I am sharing with him:

  • Get crystal clear about a few things:
    • What are the objectives – in other words, what will success look like?
    • Who is the executive sponsor for the project?  If there is no executive sponsor – get one!  It is almost a certainty that at some point there will be a resource and timing conflict.  The executive sponsor can help resolve those kinds of challenges.
    • What is the lifespan of the project?  When is it expected to begin, deliver results, and ultimately end?  Projects should have a “sunset” clause.  Projects should not go on indefinitely.
  • Build a common purpose for the team
    • Create a simple statement that describes who the team is, what they will do, how they will do it and the expected outcomes.  This common purpose (or mission statement if you prefer) will be the project’s North Star.  If things get muddled – as they often do in the real world – this set of words will help to bring things back into focus.  Sailors used to navigate by the North Star.  The team can navigate more easily if it has a common purpose.
    • Have a kickoff meeting for the team.  Share the common purpose and invite feedback from the members.  The objective here is to get buy-in to the overall objectives.  It will be perfectly fine if the common purpose statement gets modified.  If the group achieves agreement, you will have a stronger chance of ultimate success because everyone will “get it” from the beginning. 
    • Facilitating the kickoff meeting is not in scope for this post. But it is important that each team member be able to have the opportunity to express their thoughts and share why they are volunteering for this project.  My friend will learn a lot about the individual members and the “chemistry” of the team with a well-run kickoff meeting.
  • Create a simple process to define priorities.  If the team members and others in the office can submit ideas, the team will need a way to evaluate the ideas and assign team resources. I’m suggesting some easy criterion
    • How much effort will the idea take?
    • What is the expected savings – either in people hours or costs?
    • How urgent is the problem the idea is trying to solve?

There are always trade-offs in assigning priorities.  But these few bits of objective data will help to evaluate the return on investment opportunities.

  • Check in with your team members
    • Have regularly scheduled team meetings to review shared progress
    • This creates an opportunity for team members to consult with each other as may needed
    • Be sure to make time for one on one check ins with individual team members.  This will give them the chance to discuss matters they may not want to share in a more public forum.  Of course, the degree of need for the one on ones will vary from culture to culture.
  • Measure your progress and be transparent about reporting out
    • The things you got crystal clear on can probably be transformed into a set of objectives metrics
    • Review the proposed metrics with the executive sponsor and be sure to get her buy-in
    • One metric I’m suggesting is to track how accurate the team is at estimating the effort required to deploy a solution they have created.  I think it will help them refine their estimation skills.  Over time, that will help them manage their customers’ expectations.
    • Ask for help when you need it.
      • This is one big reason why you need an executive sponsor.
      • Many, if not most, projects hit speed bumps.  It’s normal.  I want my friend to understand that it is not a failure to get help when its needed.  Rather, it’s a symbol of maturity.

If you found this post useful, please share your feedback.  I welcome your thoughts.  If you need help addressing a people management challenge, please contact me at:

ken@somershrsolutions.com

+1 508-507-1207 

Strategic HR is Not Only Organizational Structure

Introduction:

Our previous post in this series promised to explore some common pitfalls we have observed that undermine the delivery of effective HR solutions. This post is intended to set the stage for subsequent blog entries that will delve into individual Centers of Excellence and how they and HR Business Partners interact.  Those posts will discuss some of the challenges and opportunities and will present solutions for practitioners to consider.

Ulrich redux:

We return to Dave Ulrich and his framework to enable a more strategic and less administrative approach to HR. In brief, he envisioned that HR would operate as small teams or individuals working collaboratively with managers of the organizations in carrying out strategic management and key initiatives. Accompanying that was the need to set up structures to segment administrative and operational work from that of the work that created business value.

At no time did the framework prescribe a specific organizational structure or service delivery model. That was left to practitioners. With the benefit of hindsight we now know that many organizations took Ulrich’s framework and applied it primarily by changing organizational structures.  In the process, other drivers of organizational effectiveness were frequently underweighted.  We forgot that structure is not strategy.

Organizational theorist Jay Galbraith’s Star ModelTM1  illustrates the need to go beyond structure as a determinant of organizational effectiveness. He identifies four additional dimensions, Strategy, People, Rewards and Processes, as critical to bring about a holistic approach to creating an effective organization. Put simply, in the rush to “be strategic” many HR departments changed the structure and neglected or gave short shrift to the other dimensions of organizational effectiveness.

Today we see an almost ubiquitous HR organizational structure and attendant service delivery model embodying three core HR disciplines:

  • The HR Business Partner (HRBP) e.g., an individual or small team facing off to a line of business as its central point of contact for all things HR;
  • The Centers of Expertise (COE), e.g., total rewards, talent acquisition talent development, organization development); and,
  • The Operational/Administrative Service Center, e.g., call centers designed to field, address and/or escalate administrative questions and problems that arise from the employee population.

As noted in an earlier post, HR leadership at the time of Ulrich’s call to action, many of whom came of age during the administrative and transactional era of HR, assumed that the role formerly known as “HR Generalist” would, through the alchemy of a new name, transform  to embody the full range of capabilities and responsibilities associated with “being strategic.”

Learning how a business works, being fluent in other functional areas of HR, applying well-developed consultative and diagnostic skills and possessing the confidence to be the orchestrator instead of the heroic doer is not addressed solely by changing organizational structure. While HR Generalists were transforming into HRBP’s, areas of HR that had developed solutions for compensation, benefits, training, recruitment, were configured into small teams of subject matter experts who would develop products and services to be deployed to the organization.

Finally, teams were developed to respond to the vast array of administrative issues that exist in all organizations ranging from, employment verification to background checking to migrating employees and managers to self-service tasks such as address and phone number changes.

Focusing on structure and underweighting integrating mechanisms, upskilling, role clarity and internal service level agreements has spawned an HR model that frequently highlights the worst in the three core functional HR areas.   Rather than harvesting the synergy across them, practitioners have often created competing fiefdoms. Consider, for a moment, the most pejorative stereotype associated with each of the core HR areas:

  • HRBP – Territorial gate keepers of the client relationship and hoarders of information
  • Centers of Expertise – Out of touch purveyors of rigid and one-size-fits-all programs and solutions
  • Operational Service Centers – Error-prone backroom clerks creating bottlenecks and delays

While we dramatize a bit for impact, the current model in many organizations falls short of delivering strategic business value.  We believe this delivery model has become overly specialized and each functional area, in its own way, has become insular and self-serving.

While there is no doubt that some organizations have developed strong, strategic HR departments they are exceptions. Ed Lawler and John Boudreau’s “Human Resource Excellence,” (2018)2 covering a longitudinal study dating back more than 20 years concludes that HR has failed to move from service and administration provider to strategic contributor. Among other things they found:

  • HR has not significantly changed how it allocates its time since the first application of their research study in 1995;
  • HR executives consistently report that they spend more time providing strategic services than they did five to seven years ago, but the longitudinal data do not support that conclusion; and,
  • In all of the reporting countries, HR spends a majority of its time on services, controlling and record keeping.

The activities that differentiate HR as a strategic partner, for example, Strategic Workforce Planning, Integrated Talent Management, Organization Development and Design, to name three, remain situated in COEs and are commonly subordinated to the day-to-day, short cycle and reactive work often demanded of and by HRBPs.  HRBPs, in turn, remain mired in transactions and compliance.  Many HRBP’s struggle, through inability or lack of will, to fully leverage the COE capability to deliver genuine business value.

Conclusion:

Boudreau, Lawler and others have made clear that HR has not risen to the occasion. What Ulrich envisioned has not, in the main, been realized in many organizations. When we revisit Ulrich’s Principles:

  • Operate as small teams or individuals,
  • Work collaboratively with managers of the organizations in carrying out strategic management and key initiatives, and
  • Set up structures to segment administrative and operational work from that of the work that creates business value,

many would argue that HR departments have indeed applied those Principles and use them to guide action.

When viewed from an organizational structure perspective, that is largely true.  However we believe that HR organizations need to fully explore the other elements of Galbraith’s model – Strategy, People, Rewards and Processes – as ways to optimize the Business Partnership concept and more fully realize the goal of delivering strategic HR aligned to business strategy.

What’s next?

Our next blog will address how HRBP’s can better partner with and leverage the expertise that resides in the Compensation COE. 

About the authors:

Louis Scenti is the Founder and President of Cognoscenti Associates, a consultancy specializing in executive and leadership coaching and organizational consulting. Prior to founding Cognoscenti Associates, Louis worked for more than 30 years as a practitioner of leadership development, organization development and talent management for several premier financial services firms, most recently as the Chief Talent Officer for the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.

He is currently an Adjunct Lecturer at Columbia University’s School of Professional Studies in the Human Capital Management Masters Degree program. 

Somers HR Solutions  is an independent consultancy dedicated to helping business leaders and their teams diagnose and solve people management challenges.  Managing Partner, Ken Somers, is especially adept at coaching HR Business Partners and business leaders to enhance their organizational impact.  He is passionate about delivering “answers for the real world.”

Ken’s career spans more than 40 years as both an HR practitioner and executive leader.  In addition to his domestic experiences, he has lived and worked in Singapore, Hong Kong, Japan, India, and Malaysia.  Ken completed his most recent assignment as the interim country head for an insurance company’s back office operation in Poland.  Ken’s vast international experience enables him to bring a multicultural and multi-generational perspective to solving client challenges.

  1. Jay Galbraith, The Star Model, jaygalbraith.com
  2. Human Resource Excellence: An Assessment of Strategies and Trends, Edward E. Lawler III an John W. Boudreau, Stanford Business Books, 2018

What Does it Really Mean to be a Strategic HR Business Partner? Part 2

Our prior post introduced the need for HR Business Partners (HRBP’s) to understand the business they support.  And we closed with the beginning of a discussion on delivering on commitments.  We’ll expand on that point here by talking about some of the key capabilities we’ve seen the most successful HRBP’s deploy.


Brief Recap

We have argued that to be successful as an HRBP you need to:

  • Understand the business(es) you support
  • Establish the foundation of trusted relationship with your client(s)
  • Do both of these things in the context of the client’s world – not the HR world

Now that the foundation of your relationship is in place, its time to build on it.

Delivering on Your Commitments, continued

To be viewed as a genuinely strategic partner, you need several critical capabilities.  Among these and in no particular order are:

  • Ability to listen actively
  • Confidence to influence and negotiate successfully
  • Capacity for navigating in the gray areas
  • Flexibility to adapt to evolving business needs and externalities
  • Time and calendar management

While this is not an exhaustive list, it represents some of the most commonly – and frequently – used capabilities an HRBP needs to deliver on commitments and achieve success.  In other words, let’s talk briefly about the tools the HRBP needs to be outcomes oriented.

Active Listening

Active Listening means fully paying attention to the other person speaking.  Many refer to the “3 A’s” of active listening:

  • Attitude – that your mind is open to hearing and absorbing what the speaker has to say without pre-judging that content
  • Attention – your concentration is on absorbing what the other person is saying, understanding the content and frequently, the context of that content
  • Adjustment – we live in a short attention span world. Sometimes, the other person will take you down a verbal rabbit hole before getting to the “good stuff”.  Adjusting your style to control impatience and hearing the other person out is a key component of successful active listening

There are other dimensions to quality active listening such as paying attention to body language and other nonverbal cues. Since this is intended as a brief explanation of the critical HRBP capabilities, we won’t go further other than to say that another critical dimension of active listening involves posing follow up questions to clarify your understanding.

Influence and Negotiation

Your client has a need.  Because you’ve been listening actively, you have a solid grasp of that need, when it has to be satisfied, and some idea of what it will take to achieve the desired outcome.  With no pejorative intent, it’s probably safe to say that most business leaders are eager to get stuff done and to move on to the next challenge.  How are you going to respond?

A good HRBP will understand what’s needed – and be clear headed enough to separate that from what’s wanted –  and place it in the context of the business environment, the client’s pressure points (the stuff that keeps her awake at night), and his/her own capacity, access to resources, and dependencies on others – perhaps one of the COE’s.  Discussing the when and the how of delivering on the client’s expressed need is a de facto negotiation.

Some questions to consider include:

  • Does the outcome need to be delivered in a “big bang” or can it be broken into phases?
  • What subject matter expertise is needed to fully diagnose the issue(s) and develop a solution?
  • Don’t forget to consider resources from the business unit – you may need time and expertise from one or more members of the client’s team
  • Do one or more HR COE’s need to be involved?  How and when to pull them in (more on this in upcoming posts on the HRBP/COE relationship)?  Are those upon whom you are dependent able to respond in a timely manner?
  • Is this really the most important thing to do now for the business?  Are other priorities more urgent or impactful in what they will deliver?  Will those initiatives be compromised if you dedicate resource to this need at this time?
  • If the client has predetermined a less viable solution, are there alternative ways to address the issue that will yield an equally satisfactory outcome?

It’s probably obvious this is not a comprehensive list of questions to ponder. However, the answers to these and other relevant questions frame how you should respond and negotiate the deliverables of the business need.  Unless the business need is obvious and simple to address, we recommend buying yourself a bit of time to think through the conversation, develop answers to the sample reflection questions, and present a thoughtful response to your client.  In our experience, clients generally respect the need to think through complexity and value being presented with a well thought out response.  Remember, once you commit, your credibility is on the line.

Navigating the Gray

At times, neither you nor your client will have all the information needed to arrive at a succinct problem statement, let alone a solution.  Genuinely strategic HRBP’s usually relish these situations because the absence of clarity can present a playing field where creative answers may be possible. Our advice is to embrace the muddle.

These circumstances present an opportunity to thought partner with your client or their designee(s) to define and address the business matter.  A variety of techniques are available but a discussion of them is beyond the scope of this piece. The key takeaway from this point is not to let a lack of clarity create angst or frustration.  Rather, view it as an opportunity to dissect a problem and demonstrate your partnership in developing a solution.

Flexibility to address an evolving situation

How many times did you develop an answer to a problem only to have the client postpone a discussion because some more urgent need has emerged? We know – you spent a jillion hours figuring out an elegant solution to some really fuzzy problem and you’re excited to show off your brilliance.  Get over it.  The likelihood is that the original problem has not gone away.  Something that is temporarily more important came up.  You’ll have the chance to address the original matter another time.

But your ability to shift your focus (remember some of the active listening tips) to your client’s pressing matter demonstrates your alignment with her and your ability to maturely adapt to the needs of the business. The chances are that she wants a solution to the original problem just as much as you do.  Gratification will just have to be delayed. We believe this ability to flexibly adapt is an emerging hallmark of genuine strategic success.  Think about how hard or easy it has been for you, your team, and your business to adapt to the current COVID situation.  We’re sure every organization has lessons-learned from the current environment.  What are yours and what do they say about how you and your organization’s need to adapt going forward?

Time & Calendar Management

The message here is simple.  Control your calendar and the time in it – or it will control you.  Very few of us have total control over this and it’s a lesson some of us (the authors included) learned the hard way.  There is a vast array of tools and techniques available to help you.  But for most of us, the allure of fancy planners and apps that take more time to learn than use are not needed.  We suggest answering the following questions:

  • What are the priorities that matter the most to my key stakeholders?
  • What do you need to do?
  • When are the various things due?
  • How much time will they each require?
  • How much time do I spend each day messing around on the web?
  • Who needs to sign off before I can present an answer? And how much time do they need to respond?
  • How complex is each item?
  • What is the business impact of each?
  • What dependencies do I have for each item?

Once you have the answers to these and other questions that are important to you, it should be a simple matter to prioritize your action plan.  Just remember to allow yourself that messing around time.  Temporarily taking yourself away from a pressing matter can actually help spark answers.

Conclusion

There are many dimensions to achieving a genuinely strategic HRBP relationship with your clients.  We believe that if you master the capabilities discussed in this post, you will be well on your way to demonstrating your value to your client and the broader organization.

Next

Our next post will actually take a step back and we will revisit Dave Ulrich’s model.  We’re doing that to set the stage for the exploration of how HRBP’s can best interact and partner with COE’s.

About the authors:

Louis Scenti is the Founder and President of Cognoscenti Associates, a consultancy specializing in executive and leadership coaching and organizational consulting. Prior to founding Cognoscenti Associates, Louis worked for more than 30 years as a practitioner of leadership development, organization development and talent management for several premier financial services firms, most recently as the Chief Talent Officer for the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.

He is currently an Adjunct Lecturer at Columbia University’s School of Professional Studies in the Human Capital Management Masters Degree program. 

Somers HR Solutions  is an independent consultancy dedicated to helping business leaders and their teams diagnose and solve people management challenges.  Managing Partner, Ken Somers, is especially adept at coaching HR Business Partners and business leaders to enhance their organizational impact.  He is passionate about delivering “answers for the real world.”

Ken’s career spans more than 40 years as both an HR practitioner and executive leader.  In addition to his domestic experiences, he has lived and worked in Singapore, Hong Kong, Japan, India, and Malaysia.  Ken completed his most recent assignment as the interim country head for an insurance company’s back office operation in Poland.  Ken’s vast international experience enables him to bring a multicultural and multi-generational perspective to solving client challenges.