How to make sure that business leaders value their HR Business Partner

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

“Perhaps we should outsource the HR function.” Heresy or just a fact of corporate life?

Would business leaders fight for your HR function?

It’s the Board meeting at your organisation, and a Director says; ‘the company next door has cut the budget for HR by 30% by outsourcing the entire department – we could do that.’  What would happen next?  A riot of objection, or a thoughtful pause while it’s considered? 

How do companies decide what their own HR function is worth? 

If business leaders aren’t shocked at the thought of losing their HR partner, ie. the person who they feel supports them, your case is lost.  If HR hasn’t already established a great reputation, it’s too late now.  This scene demonstrates the importance of political savvy – being continuously well positioned, so that you can ride out crucial moments like these.  Whether the Head of HR is in the room or not (and that’s a subject for another time), you’d like this idea to be rejected, fast.  You’d like them to feel attached to you.

If your organisation starts to talk about outsourcing HR, it could be your political strategy that’s falling short, not your professional competence or even your effectiveness.  It’s one thing adding real value; it’s another getting the credit for it.  In order to do this, recognition has to be built into every conversation, whether in the board room or on the factory floor. 

How do you feel about consciously building your reputation?  HR people tend to have an uncomfortable relationship with organisational politics.  It often seems best to avoid or ignore it, rather than get into an unseemly squabble or, worse, be seen as ‘political’.  If that’s the case, then in fact you have selected your political strategy – passive.  

It isn’t enough to be good; HR has to be seen to be good.

Let’s get back to the question – why not outsource your HR function?  The answer needs to come to your mind – and out of your mouth – pretty quickly.   One answer came during my recent interview with a Head of HR*, who knew her HRBPs were hitting the spot when a business leader said;  ‘My HRBP meetings are the highlights of my week’.  Digging deeper into this, she learned that the HRBP was enabling them to think long-term, and to hold true to their people strategy; to ‘push back against the short-term dynamic.’  The value of this to a leader, and to the business, is immeasurable.

Yes, there are decisions to be made about the best model to deliver HR, especially when it’s predicted that 60% of HR activities will be automated.  Maybe those are ripe for outsourcing.  However, leaders will always stand by HR people who add wisdom and insight, and ask great questions that help them to think, and to succeed.   

However, if you can’t rely on leaders in your business to stand up for you and the value you add, you’d better brush up on your TUPE.

*Read the complete interview with Sarah Neale, Head of HR for Gazprom Marketing & Trading

Building credibility of HR as Business Leaders

Leadership is critical in all organisations and, in the current workplace instability, HR leaders need to stand out as business leaders too.  HR is a complex function, and leaders in HR face demands and opportunities that could transform the function – if the depth of their understanding of the business can shine through.

Why is leadership in Human Resources more important than ever before?

Let’s look first at the nature of the seismic changes that are predicted in the world of work; AI, flexibility, agility, globalisation – it will be a challenge for every organisation to think through what it will all mean.  The level of complexity is mind-boggling, and it’s pan-organisational as well as global.  Bersin’s 2018 Predictions Report* is called ‘Embracing Radical Transparency’ – we have to be able to see the whole landscape, in order to understand and then build ways of working that can leverage technology:

‘HR leaders can’t create processes that are capable of supporting and nurturing the workforce in this new reality until they help their organizations reach a new, operational understanding of what work is and who is going to do it.

HR is the only function that has visibility and reach across the whole organisation.

The quote from Bersin’s Report reveals two levels of HR engagement.  What will be the balance for you between:

  1. Re-engineering your own HR processes, and
  2. Enabling the whole organisation to redesign itself?

Which comes first, 1. or 2.?  At which level are you operating as a leader in HR?

That depends on how strategic your HR function is – or is seen to be.

“The link between business and HR is defining the future of HCM, as 71 percent of organizations believe that the most critical skill of HR leaders is the ability to connect initiatives to the strategy of the business.” Aberdeen Group, from article by Oracle*.  Our experience shows that HR leaders often do have sound business understanding, but can miss opportunities to demonstrate this.  They know it, but they don’t always show it.

There are some key performances in our working lives – some we are fully conscious of and put real effort into, and others we may let pass, unaware of their impact.  We’ll come back to looking at those critical moments, and how to optimise them.  Before that, let’s look at the research to see what colleagues want to see, and then the steps we can take to make more of opportunities to get our business strength across.

What’s the evidence that HR leaders aren’t seen to be focused on, and led by, business strategy?

In a HBR article*, Zenger and Folkman distilled (from some extensive 360 research on leaders in different functions, using ’16 Key Leadership Skills for great outcomes’) the areas that make great HR leaders stand out.  Here they’ve highlighted 4 competencies where leaders saw the greatest gaps between the average, and the best:

There are many areas of leadership that we will look at in future posts; we did substantial research to build our 7 HR Enablers.  However, let’s start with these four because this perception is borne out in other articles and reports that we’ve read.  Looking more analytically at them, they are a complex combination of what HR leaders know – their organisational, strategic, and technical insights, as well as how they get this across.

In order to look at how HR leaders could tackle this, let’s break down the above capabilities into those two component parts – intellectual competencies, and behavioural:

I’d like to put to one side, for now, the intellectual processes that we use in order to gain the insight in the left-hand column – although you can read more about this within our Perspective Enabler.  Our purpose here is to focus on the human interactions that provide the opportunities to establish the HR leader as a business leader too.  We probably do most preparation for planned, high profile events such as presentations.  However, even for the occasions that may be routine and even a bit dull, we are still on parade.  We can still make conscious choices about how we come across and represent HR as well as ourselves.  This is also supported by our own sense of purpose, and we’ll come back to that later.

As leaders we are always being watched.

WHEN do the critical opportunities for leadership present themselves?
  • Some opportunities we can PREDICT.  There are some that occur automatically, that we may currently squander because we do not realise their significance – simply because they are so regular and routine – such as management meetings, budget meetings and other sessions on our organisation’s planning cycle.  They may be group meetings, or meetings with one stakeholder, or with our team or individual team members.
  • Others happen without our planning them – but we can plan for them if we choose.  Chance meetings in the corridor or cafe, or by the water cooler, enable you to RESPOND TO the opportunity presented.  We know that this is going to happen, sometime, so we can prepare for it.
  • Finally, HR leaders can CREATE opportunities to demonstrate their business understanding, share their vision, engage others, solve knotty problems, build their reputation.  We don’t have to wait for others to invite us to make a presentation or for a one-to-one, to explain HR’s role more fully, or to learn from them about how they see the business and its challenges and opportunities.

In this infographic*, we also explore the communication that can support the key interaction – engaging the HR team and key stakeholders in preparing the HR position and questions, and following up afterwards to reinforce leadership.  We love the technique of Advocacy and Inquiry – more on this in a future article.  The point is, nothing happens in isolation, and a planned ‘pincer movement’ can work well to ensure that the interaction that you see as the critical opportunity will produce your desired outcomes.

WHAT do you want to get across, and to ask?

This is about planning the content of your interaction, and this is your opportunity to be strategic; to go in at a high level – eg talking about the major business challenges or opportunities – and stay there as long as possible.  It’s useful to have a key phrase that is also repeated by your team members, whenever appropriate, so that it starts to stick in the heads of your stakeholders, eg. ‘we’re here to support you in driving success for your part of the business’, or whatever phrase sounds right in your culture.

HOW will you deploy your skills and behaviours to get the best result?

The key to this is to get the balance between stating and explaining your own position, and ensuring that you understand theirs.  Curiosity and generous listening are key attributes that will drive a productive conversation that’s received as being supportive.  The most common criticism of HR is that they drive their own agenda rather than respond to the real needs at the front line. 

The irony is that HR’s ‘own agenda’ is going to be good for the business, and thus we can get frustrated by the lack of enthusiasm.  However, HR can have the knack of seeming to come from some superior place rather than the real world.  Hence, an intervention that’s built on best practice, even within the right sector, can seem to come from another planet.

Our 7 Enablers tackle this challenge from different directions, including how we gather and deploy data, and build relationships so that our reputation grows. While a powerful formal effort such as a strategic presentation will do wonders to help you to get rapid traction, lasting credibility as leaders of the business will happen conversation by conversation.  It’s because of the need for steady, consistent, iterative and even repetitive messages that it’s so important to get our own sense of purpose in place.  This gives us the energy and authenticity to demonstrate that we genuinely do want to explore how HR can support the organisation’s performance.

WHY?  What is YOUR purpose?

This is the foundation of how we come across, all the time.  Beliefs underpin behaviours – if we don’t believe it, we can’t BE it.  We do need to BE truly interested in how the organisation works, and how humans drive performance.  Neuroscience proves that our ability to see through the surface to someone’s true beliefs has been underestimated, but is real and deep.  Our intuition tells us when someone’s true commitment is in place.  The popularity of ‘authentic leadership’ is evidence of this – we release the power within us when we believe what we’re saying.  This has been a key shift during my 20+ years of working with leaders – we now help leaders to access, and sometimes realign, their true motivations and desires and work with those, rather than put on a mask or emulate someone else’s idea of what great leadership looks like.  The book’ From Good to Great’ by Jim Collins is a good read on the importance of sincere and humble qualities.  Only when we are truly ourselves can we fully access our inner resources.

What is the purpose of great HR?

For the power of your own behaviours to be released, the answer to this question has to be your own.  Simon Sinek’s popular Ted Talk* on the WHY might help you to re-engage with yours. 

This image, from an exhibition in Radstock Museum about the history of the Somerset Collieries, reminds us how far we’ve come.  At that time, in 1926, the owners were HR: the ultimate conflict of interests.  This tells a story about which we don’t know the details, but it speaks of a dispute the employers appear to have won.  Interests are more fairly balanced now, but therein lies the complexity.  However, if we’re clear about what we stand for, it emboldens us.

Human Resources is important – to individuals and to the world.  As HR leaders and professionals, you affect the lives of every single working person across the globe.  You set standards of how people should be treated, you stand up for what’s right, and you push back against what’s wrong.  We’ve come so far and we face another revolution in the world of work.  Disruption of all kinds is destabilising many organisations: check out my article on AI and HR.

Helping our organisations become even more successful in terms of profit and sustainability is the best way to empower positive human energy at work.  Some powerful examples are emerging of organisations releasing old concepts of structure and containment, and their employees are loving the freedom.  Our challenge is that, whatever our ambitions and vision, we don’t deliver them on our own – we achieve success through others.  Without business credibility, we restrict ourselves to the sidelines.

I hope we’ve given you some ideas on how to leverage your own business insight and build your stature.  Please contact me with your comments; I’d love to hear from you about your own challenges, and successes.

We’ve worked with leaders and managers in all functions for over 20 years so we understand the challenge of building productive relationships that deliver results.  There are some powerful techniques that we can help you to apply to your own challenges.  Call us if you’d like to discuss further.  Alternatively, go straight to our Self-evaluation Tool.  This can also be used as a 360-degree Feedback Tool for use by stakeholders.  Our Team Workshops bring your HR Team together to re-align and re-focus.

*Here are the links for the sources that have helped in my research, and don’t forget our Resources page for more HR articles.

Bersin Predictions 2018 Report

HBR 2015 What Separates Great HR Leaders from The Rest?

Deloitte Insights Report Artificial Intelligence and the Future of Work

CIPD Strategic HRM Factsheet

enable-hr infographic – Leverage HR Opportunities

Simon Sinek Ted Talk on YouTube ‘How Great Leaders Inspire Action’

AI and HR

Technological change has been evolving for decades, and work has evolved continuously.  Artificial Intelligence, however, suddenly seems like a revolution.  The workplace could, or even should, change dramatically.  If you’re in HR you have a choice – play a leading role, or play catch up.  Before I researched this, I thought AI was being hyped up and would take time to feed through to the workplace and therefore to HR.  I was wrong.  This is the biggest opportunity for HR for decades, and we need to get on the bus, at the front.

I want to share what I’ve learned about AI, the nature of the challenge, and the potential for HR:

  1. What is Artificial Intelligence?
  2. Why is it such a big thing right now?
  3. Why are people saying that it will change the nature of work itself?
  4. How could HR approach the challenge?

1.  What is AI?

People are using the term very broadly, and this is because AI itself evolves.  My thanks to *Jules Trocchi, Security Direction International for explaining the potential progression in his excellent presentation on AI:

  • AI ‘mimics simple human intelligence’, in logical steps, eg. ‘if that, then this’ rules, building into decision trees that simulate what humans would do (without the human cognitive bias that’s particularly tricky in HR)
  • ‘Machine learning’ enables computers to improve results by learning from experience; (eg. ‘my user does x when y happens, and this is a pattern I can follow’. I’ve recently heard the term ‘cobot’ – a worker’s computer gradually becomes their intelligent assistant.)
  • ‘Deep learning’ mimics the deep, multi-layered neural pathways of the human brain to process all types of data at the speed of light.

2.  Why is it such a big thing right now?

‘Big data + processing power = new age for AI’. *Jules Trocchi.
Data has hit critical mass.  So much data is stored in ‘the cloud’ that organisations have had to work out new ways of retrieving, structuring, analysing and using it.  The trend has been gathering pace for decades, however.  Some of us remember when a computer beat world chess champion Garry Kasparov; he responded very positively by writing a book ‘Where machine intelligence ends and human creativity begins.’  The potential has been around for a while, but the need and the technology have now coincided.  21st Century challenges of globalisation, customer interface, security challenges, etc., are now bringing to the fore the need for massive processing capabilities.  Clever organisations are also aware that this could enable human creativity to reach new heights, and leverage profitability and their competitive edge.

3.  Why are people saying that it will change the nature of work itself?

First, let’s understand the nature of the change and why it’s so dramatic.

A basic principle driving the first industrial revolution was turning work into a process.  This involved breaking it into component parts; discrete activities that someone could learn, speed up, maintain a set standard, and then automate.  So, the principle here is linearity – work as a process.  Many of our traditional HR activities reflect this – job design, work flow, organisation structure, ‘line’ management.

That’s the nub of the current work revolution.  It’s about centring work around the problem, and bringing to bear the relevant strengths of human and computer in their optimum ways.  In their *2017 report on AI, Deloitte pose the question: ‘What if work becomes ‘a collaborative problem-solving effort where humans define the problems, machines help find the solutions, and humans verify the acceptability of those solutions’?…..‘Might AI enable work itself to be reconstructed?’  Reconstructing work is clearly the remit of HR.  Every element of work design has complex implications, from legal to welfare.  Robert Bolton of KPMG raised the question of data ethics in a recent PM webinar – we’re gathering unimagined data on individual productivity, but how should we use it?

4.  How could HR approach the challenge?

AI is – rapidly, or slowly, depending on your sector – going to change the nature of work itself.  That’s clearly a call for HR to take the lead.  But, where do we start?  How do we work out what it means for our organisation?  How do we position HR so that we take this unique opportunity to be out in front?  Most organisations are focusing on HR systems and processes – but I believe this is just the first of 4 levels, or work streams:

It’s exciting for HR that the implications of this are, at the same time, both organisational and individual.  Only HR have the reach to lead this evolution.

AI will demand a new kind of conversation at every level.  If we continue to have the same kind of conversation, we continue to have the same outcomes.


a.  REDESIGN HR – Leverage new technologies and reimagine roles

A key theme here is becoming more customer-centric, extending the use of HR apps; from giving employees control of, and even responsibility for, their own data; through to being a hub for services such as health support and continuous feedback and assessment.  IT suppliers and global organisations are developing and trialling new approaches, and for this reason this seems to be one area where HR can get its own act together; still reaching out to key internal stakeholders, especially IT and senior leaders, but retaining relative control.  It’s likely that some elements of HR will be ripe for automation, and this gives HR the opportunity to raise our game and invest more time in building the kind of relationships between HR and the business that drive productivity improvements.  This could be our best ever opportunity to leave behind the work that drives us into the reactive cycle.

b.  ENABLE INNOVATION – Facilitate new ways of working in discrete areas

Here we shift our focus to outside our own function; ‘We’re moving from engagement to productivity’.  *Barry Flack, HR Tech expert.  This is the area that holds the maximum potential for adding value to the bottom line.  The outcome we want is to leverage the best contribution from human and machine, and only the people doing the work can truly work this out, with support.

How about starting with a pilot?   Pick one client group, or even one team.  This way you can work through the opportunities, challenges and HR implications together with the line manager.  Then you can consolidate and share learning from that pilot, and move forward.  Start with one area of your organisation where you can see  a) potential for leveraging AI;  b) one of your best relationships;  c) strong sponsorship from the senior leader.  How could you collaborate with them to work out operational improvements while engaging employees?  Areas being talked about include knowledge transfer, and agile working with employees self-scheduling; but who knows what else could be imagined?  We need to get cleverer around the questions needed’.*Barry Flack.  Another post on this is coming soon.

c.  LEAD CULTURE EVOLUTION – AI will accelerate cultural change

HR must play a leading role in directing positive energies, and safeguarding values

What kind of conversations are HR having with senior leaders about AI?  HR can be the enablers of the most dramatic shift in ways of working for decades.  Our role is to create the conditions for high performance.  Agility and flexibility are key themes here, as well as empowerment – enabling individuals and teams to make the most of technology locally.  This will demand new levels of courage, curiosity, ambition, and also tolerance and inclusion.  I’m sure strategic consultants will try to map out a target culture and a plan to achieve it; however, because of our inability to foresee where AI could take us, we may need to learn to trust our sense of direction rather than the satnav.

d.  WATCH OUT – Help the organisation to manage the inevitable risks of exploring unknown territory

It’s a jungle out there in cyber space, and our cautionary agenda will need to embrace the whole global world of technology, commerce and human behaviour.  Some commentators are predicting a downside of AI; opportunities to abuse and misuse, and employ for criminal purposes.  Their warnings remind me of trying to get the toothpaste back into the tube.   Arxiv* ask a fundamental question about the relative power of those exploiting AI: ‘What will be the equilibrium between attackers and defenders? ‘

It is impossible to foresee where AI will lead.    We cannot anticipate the implications of AI, see how much will be good or bad, or control it.  One of HR’s most valued and profound responsibilities is to protect employees, as well as the business and its reputation.  HR needs to build into this evolution some kind of check points or risk appraisals to protect people and values.  Arxiv recommend that, in order to maintain some oversight, we  ‘actively seek to expand the range of stakeholders and domain experts involved in this challenge’.

Only HR have the reach to lead this evolution

In closing this summary piece, I repeat this key belief.  As always, the quality of the interaction between HR and the business will define the contribution HR can make.  This is our passion at enable-hr.

Please share your thoughts on this, and your organisation’s perspective.  Have you started to tackle this yet?  Contact me so that I can collate the views of HR professionals, and share them with you all.  In the spirit of gathering trends for HR professionals we’re also offering individual practitioners the chance to complete the enable-hr Tool free of charge – I can send you a free link for that.

We’ve worked with leaders and managers in all functions for over 20 years so we understand the complexity of challenges such as AI across the organisation.  There are some powerful techniques that we can help you to apply to your own challenges.  Call us if you’d like to discuss further.  Alternatively, go straight to our Self-evaluation Tool.  This can also be used as a 360-degree Feedback Tool for use by stakeholders.  Our Team Workshops bring your HR Team together to re-align and re-focus.

*Here are the links for the sources that have helped in my research, and don’t forget our Resources page for more HR articles.

Jules Trocchi, CEO Security Direction International

Deloitte 2017 report – Artificial Intelligence and the Future of Work

Arxiv report on Malicious Use of AI

KPMG 2017 report The Industry 4.0 Revolution is here

Deloitte report on Digital Maturity

Barry Flack, HR Tech expert

Michael Alf takes a more personal view of High Performance in a Digital Age