Interview With a Human Resources Business Partner

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By Cathy Milton.

Many career professionals have a background in Human Resources, or they may simply know a lot about the various roles in HR via their professional networks and through helping clients land jobs.

Among the positions that fall under the HR umbrella,  one is  unique, and that is the Human Resources Business Partner.

Susannah Clements, when she held the Deputy Chief Executive role at CIPD (Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development), put it best when she said, “The business partner role has become popular because you’re looking out into the business, rather than waiting for the business to come to you.”

Not quite 20 years old, the HR Business Partner role continues to evolve, and is being adopted by many forward-thinking companies. In order to learn more about the job and how it might complement the work of career professionals, I documented a chat I had recently with a good friend who just happens to be a Human Resources Business Partner.

For those of us not familiar with the role, can you please describe the primary function performed by a Human Resources Business Partner?

The HR Business Partner provides coaching, support, direction, and consultation to leaders – up-to-and-including the Senior Vice President level – on all matters related to a company’s human capital.

Often referred to as a “trusted advisor,” the HR Business Partner collaborates with team members in other HR functions to customize and deliver solutions to the business units they support. These solutions target specific business needs such as succession management, talent development, organizational change initiatives, performance management, transition management, employee/labour relations, workforce planning, recruitment and selection, change management, and conflict resolution.

The HR Business Partner is a strategic role and considered an integral part of the leadership team. My clients are primarily Vice President- and Director-level leaders, but I also provide reactive tactical support for front-line people managers.

In your opinion, what are the most important qualities and skills of a successful HR Business Partner?

I believe that the best HR Business Partners are those who have been successful people leaders in the past.

The list of essential skills is vast: high emotional intelligence, common sense, financial acumen, an ability to juggle and prioritize many tasks, listening skills, coaching skills, a sense of urgency, and strong customer focus. In roles that have a high requirement to understand Labour Relations, it helps to have some background in that field. Having the common sense to know when to engage legal counsel is vital, too.

We tend to be the kind of people who are not satisfied with the status quo. We possess a strong orientation towards understanding not just the entire spectrum of the HR department, but the inner workings of the business units we support.

As if all that is not enough, possessing superior negotiation skills and courage are also crucial.

Depending on the management level you’re dealing with, you need to have the ability and confidence to lean in and provide advice and counsel at the right time. Doing so at the wrong time can be detrimental to your brand and erode any chance of gaining trust. This ability requires a lot of tact and diplomacy, while sometimes being very direct.

Bringing value and being credible is a must. You have to be able to talk intelligently about the business and demonstrate a level of “relatedness.” What I mean by that is that you should be able to tell relevant stories from your past experience about how you achieved great results by successfully applying a practice or a new process to a challenging situation.

A leader that I supported in the past was asked by my boss to name my greatest attribute. He replied, “It is her ability to understand my business and be my eyes and ears – finding my blind spots and having the courage to call me on them.”

What, for you, is the most satisfying part of your job?

My greatest satisfaction comes when I’m able to deliver a solution to a complex problem. Even better, I’m thrilled when I observe, through my advice and counsel, that a leader comes to a decision on his or her own by simply talking through a complicated situation.

I would say that my forte is business transformation. I am not a policy or procedural HR Business Partner, but instead, I like to roll up my sleeves and provide tangible value to a specific issue. I don’t believe in doing something just for the sake of doing it, though. Any action I take must provide positive results and be relevant to the business leaders I support.

Are there any aspects of the job that you find more challenging (less enjoyable) than others?

It would be a big understatement to say that I am not a fan of organizational restructuring where reductions in people are required. When leaders have to let people go, we often help them to make those difficult decisions. Worse, we are often the witness during the outplacement meeting with the employee.

Maintaining the status quo – rigidly following often outdated policies and procedures – is also not my favourite job. I prefer to deal with loads of change and ambiguity, while delivering fresh approaches and ideas.

Is there a story (an experience) that stands out for you amongst all the experiences you’ve had in this role?

The most rewarding experience that I’ve had was when I initially became an HR Business Partner. I was assigned to support a team that held negative perceptions of the HR practice, in general, and the role of the HR Business Partner, specifically. I was tasked with changing those perceptions.

It was all about watching, listening, and learning in order to determine where I could deliver real value to the team. They were embarking on a major business transformation initiative, and felt that HR would be of absolutely no help to them.

Transformation is my love and after many months of inserting myself into situations and decisions I was able to gain enough trust to permit me to deliver a number of programs that were relevant, timely, and of interest to the leaders I supported. Those programs were hugely successful and, as a result, I achieved my goal of changing the perception of the leaders.

From that time forward, my involvement was considered key to the success of the team. I was invited to all leadership planning sessions and my opinions and guidance were considered an essential component of business transformation decisions.

In fact, although I no longer support this team, members still frequently call upon me for advice and counsel.

For those of us working as career professionals (career coaches, interview coaches, resume writers, employment strategists, etc.), what would you say about why it might be beneficial to us to cultivate relationships with HR Business Partners?

An HR Business Partner has the inside track on the business and on changes that are occurring – or are about to occur. They also have knowledge about the climate and culture of the organization and of roles that are presently available, or may be coming available in the future. As a career professional, it might help to know that impending corporate changes could impact the role that a client is seeking at my firm. With information such as this, the client could be counseled accordingly.

HR Business Partners also have a good sense of the expectations, skills, and capabilities required in a particular industry. For those clients looking to move into a company, the Business Partner might be able to facilitate connections. We typically have extensive networks of contacts and colleagues in a variety of businesses.

Understanding that you’re not involved in actual recruiting (but can be very influential in the process), what advice would you give to job seekers based on what you’ve observed of the corporate hiring process?

Uploading your resume to a job posting on a website is simply not enough! You must find a way to make connections internally in order to get your resume to the top of the pile. Learn as much as you can about the company so that, if given the opportunity of an interview, you’re able to speak intelligently about all aspects of the firm. Interviewees really impress when they’re able to do this, and, I believe, too few job seekers leverage this strategy.

Finding a job is all about marketing yourself. And, contrary to prevailing wisdom, I firmly believe that it shouldn’t always be about what the company wants. Seriously ask yourself what you want from a company and their leadership team. What does the company stand for, what does leadership value, and do these things resonate with you? Talk to people who work there. Use your connections, or work hard to make connections if you don’t already have them.

On a personal note, what kind of job would you like to pursue next? What do you feel would be a fulfilling job progression for you?

My next job will be to move to a role where I can apply my coaching and counselling skills, ideally as a Life/Career or Transition coach. The industries I’ll target will be not-for-profit or health care.

I truly enjoy helping individuals find their passion and/or resolve various challenges they’re facing, whether those challenges are on a personal or professional level.

Any parting words of wisdom for your audience of career professionals?

Find your specific niche – if you are a career professional, what type of client truly speaks to you? Collect those clients and treasure them.

Do work that genuinely brings you joy! That joy will shine through and make you a magnet for future business.


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