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.


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.


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.

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