What does it take to be a Business Partner?

QUESTION:  What does it take to be a Business Partner?

ANSWER:  The business world is filled with jargon and fads. A phrase heard frequently these days is: “You need to be a business partner!” Although one can quickly dismiss a fad, each contains a grain of enduring truth. For example, Management by Objectives (MBO) was a big deal some years ago. One doesn’t hear too much about it now, but the “grain of truth” for MBO still endures in goal setting which is based in the maxim: “Think of the big picture and what you want to accomplish before you get into the details.” The ancient Egyptians didn’t have thousands of huge stones dragged onto the Plain of Giza before someone asked, “What should we build now that we have these stones?”

What is the “grain of truth” about the business partner? In plain language: “In the areas of my professional competence, I want to be treated as a person who, like line people, is seen as contributing to the success of our business unit and organization. I don’t want to be treated like an ‘order taker,’ I want to have my ideas and contribution valued around here.” As in our pyramid example, this yearning is ancient and will endure. Professionals will always want to be treated as reasonable equals when it comes to issues within their professional area and competence. We have worked with every professional group one can think of in organizations big and small, for-profit and not-for-profit, etc.—the need to be valued and credible is pervasive.

Here we will present some basics of business partnering, many of which we will subsequently flesh out in detail in other Q&A’s. Let’s start with two basics:

• You need to take responsibility for how you are treated by line managers. In our skill development workshops we ask the question “How many managers and users of your expertise have ever taken a workshop or read an article entitled ‘How to make good use of professional expertise?” Of course the answer is usually zero. Our maxim is: “You not only need to be an expert in what you do, you need to be an expert in how you deliver your expertise.”

• To become a business partner you need to make explicit the business need. By nature, most managers present solutions or fixes, not the problem. For example, “Find us a business partnering workshop,” or “Prepare a brochure,” or “Recruit two more scientists for our R&D group.” By training and disposition, most professionals are solution seekers, looking for the more comfortable HR deliverable, rather than problem seekers, seeking to understand the often more challenging business need. In our skill development workshops, we ask each participant to prepare a “business challenge” for the session. It is fair to say over 90 percent of these “business challenges” are professional HR deliverables. For example, “Prepare a succession plan” is expressed as an HR deliverable, not the business need. How can one be a business partner when the HR professional uses “HR talk” instead of “business talk?”

These are but two of the basic skills of an HR business partner. There are more!

Why Start with the Business Need, not the HR Deliverable?

Managers are busy people. One recent study states that the average American manager spends about three minutes on the average issue. One characteristic of busy people is the need to “get to the point.” Most HR people know the frustration of a manager who asks an HR professional to “Find a team-building workshop for us” rather than deal with the more challenging “Help me improve our team’s performance.”

Strangely enough, focussing on the solution/action, not the need, also is comforting for many HR professionals. It is much easier to start a search for a “team-building workshop” than to help the manager understand and diagnose the often all-too-messy human issues of team performance, often including the dysfunctional behaviour of the manager. Of course, the low-risk route of finding a team-building workshop is also low reward, and certainly not the route to being seen as a business partner who is willing or able to get below the expressed solution to the underlying need.

As we stated in an earlier Q&A, you can’t become a business partner if you can’t ferret out the underlying business need. The benefits of getting at the business need are:
• Business managers “own” the business need, not necessarily the professional HR deliverable.
• A statement of the business need is also a statement of value-add.
• An explicit statement of the business need sets up any change as part of running a successful business rather than imposing a professional process.
• Managers will tend to see you more as “part of the team,”— a business partner— and less as a staff person.
• Business partners are valued, while staff are “overhead” or “G&A” or considered for outsourcing.

In our workshops, many participants find it difficult to search for the business need and summarizing it before stating the HR deliverable. Most participants, like their client managers, implicitly want to jump to action. If you want to be a business partner, lead with the need!