Interview with Sarah Neale, Head of HR at Gazprom Marketing & Trading
This is a tough one. When Ulrich created the HRBP concept, it sounded like a brilliant solution to the reactive cycle that’s so common in HR. Changing HR roles and responsibilities has proved to be only part of the solution. The day-to-day urgency of many demands from line managers can still create a downwards pull towards endless firefighting that feels as powerful as gravity.
It doesn’t have to be like that and I’ve been interviewing HR leaders to understand the true challenges of partnering with the business so that they can be better overcome. Here are the lessons from one such interview.
‘My HRBP meetings are the highlights of my week’
When Sarah Neale, Head of HR with Gazprom Marketing & Trading, heard this from a business leader, she knew it was a critical measure of success. She’d always held a clear vision of that outcome but, just like Ulrich himself, couldn’t have anticipated quite how much courage, persistence and commitment it would take to actually get there.
It’s one thing to redesign roles on an organisation chart; it’s quite another to transform relationships between HR and the business.
At GM&T, the restructure was easily accepted by business leaders as part of a major growth strategy. However, ‘it was one thing having client groups, but it took a while to evolve other aspects of the model.’ Both sides of this new partnership needed time to get used to the idea; ‘generalists who loved the previous scope of responsibilities did miss having the overview of the whole spectrum of HR’, and ‘the business liked having just one person who delivered everything in HR for them.’ Continually reinforcing the vision was key, but of course day-to-day pressures don’t just go away while you’re trying to transform.
An early issue was the opportunity business leaders saw to delegate as much as they could.
‘The HRBP can be a kind of default, miscellaneous area, less clear than the Centres of Excellence.’ This was a central challenge – the push back. Leaders can even ‘see the BP as a handy person to outsource leadership to’. We’ll all recognise that too – leaders can’t be everywhere and they want HR to be a kind of deputy for their people leadership. ‘They get tied up in business issues, but you can’t expect a BP to lead for them.’
Sarah observed a tipping point; ‘I saw the tide turning. I took the opportunity during a period of significant change in the organisation to put a line in the sand with leaders – this is what to expect from HRBPs in the future.’ Success grew from creating ‘lots of exposure with the HRBP so that you can show your credibility. The door might open slowly, but you can take those opportunities, show you understand – the vision, the challenges, how the company makes money’.
Sarah is clear about the dilemma between BPs being seen as helpful and having real impact. ‘The business leader can see the HRBP as a hero if they’re allowed to delegate the difficult stuff to them …. they have to learn to say no, I can’t take it off you but I can help you.’ Sarah clearly supported this process actively herself when it became problematic; ‘I set clear expectations with the leader, and with the HRBP.’ It took around six months; ‘they realised the benefit was more strategic – it got them both to see it and then to be it.’
This recognises the work that has to be put in to get to this stage – becoming the coach rather than the problem-solver; ‘helping a leader resolve a dilemma themselves can consolidate that relationship – coaching forms a basis of trust.’ The line manager comes to value how the HRBP enables them to push back against the short-term dynamic.
This also involves using meeting time well. ‘BPs can limit themselves by being task-focused – they get limited time with leaders. If you go in with a list and try to tick things off, you don’t get to the meaty issues.’ This is a core HR challenge – getting the nitty gritty, tactical work done, while keeping your head up so that you can create opportunities to be more strategic. ‘The real outcome is the quality of the conversation – let it flow. If you create the climate, they open up, you build trust. Humour can work well! It’s serious at senior level so making the time with their HRBP refreshing can really help embed a trusting, appreciative relationship.’ Also, business leaders, more often than not, have hectic schedules and so taking time to both look ahead and to reflect can be a challenge, however ‘the HRBP can use their time with the business leader to do this together, which is an effective way of both making time for it and further deepening the partnering relationship’.
This brings us to how the partnership works with senior colleagues. ‘You must have a seat at the Excom table – it’s a platform for the HR function to operate strategically’. Sarah is clear that thorough commercial understanding is absolutely vital. ‘Do HR really know the business? How they make money? Properly understand it?’ This is critical to HR’s reputation. ‘We’ve got to link HR performance with the numbers, and we get feedback from leaders on the BPs. It’s tough to quantify the impact of HR’.
Partnership with other parts of the HR function must also be a focus, given that ‘the quality of HR business partnering is not just down to the quality of the Business Partner’. HRBPs will never be accepted in the strategic space if people aren’t getting paid correctly. Each part of HR must deliver a good service, but also partner together with each other; ‘partnership is not just a skill reserved for the relationship with the business’.
Businesses are currently facing an arguably unprecedented torrent of change, however at GM&T the HRBPs’ relationships are standing them in good stead. ‘We can’t plan long-term right now, but I hold leaders true to their people strategies. As an HR team, we’re clear; this is what we’re going to focus our efforts on, and resist the cyclical processes taking over.’ Even in this climate ‘the more experienced HRBPs are provoking thought and creating change’.
Sarah is clearly proud of what her team have achieved; ‘for some it was innate in them to work in this new way, and when that comes together the impact is amazing.’
After all, it’s what everyone wants – HR and the business creating high performance together. Sarah’s formula has included a strong vision, empathy for both sides, and a clear understanding of the behavioural skills required as well as the intellectual. All overlaid with a forward-looking lens on the world.
Partnership happens conversation by conversation, and the advice from Sarah is clearly to always be strategic so that you’re seen as a key partner, not the place to dump tricky problems.
Author – Deborah Wilkes