Develop into an HR business partner through building organizational understanding

Like any successful journey we must have a destination. Where are we going what is our role? The field of Human Resources has evolved, known initially as the personnel department it was responsible for bringing employees on to payroll and managing the administration side of employment. Along the way the Human Resource functions in some organizations became responsible for ensuring policy compliance and as a result some managers and leaders see the human resources function as a bureaucracy, a roadblock to innovation and improvement. The destination for our journey is a valued and strategic business partner, removing roadblocks and bringing “people” expertise to the table. Our goal as Human Resource Professionals is to maximize the output of one of the organization’s most expensive investments, the employees.

Different organizations will have varied understandings of the Human Resources function’s role. With this in mind you may proceed to the appropriate stage for your organization.

Stage One – Understanding Our Role

In the first stage we need to make sure the HR team understands the role of Human Resources Management. The HR team needs to buy in to the idea that Human Resources is about maximizing the productivity and potential of the human assets of an organization. We need to ensure that we do not set ourselves up as the “HR Police”, only there to police rules and policies, or the “Party Planners”. HR professionals need to add value to an organization and this is accomplished through a proactive approach utilizing strategic planning. We need to transform the soft and fluffy into hard and concrete. As we go through the various stages it is important to constantly reinforce the role of Human Resources with the leaders of the organization.

Stage Two – Organizational Understanding

Before we can move into any type of strategic planning, we must understand our organization. For Human Resource professionals to add value and contribute to their organizations we must understand the mission and strategy of the organization. We need to understand where the organization is heading and how they plan to get there. To gain better understanding of the organization HR professionals need to look at employee surveys, financial statements, annual reports and dialogue with senior leaders. Once we comprehend the mission and strategy, it is now time to look at the nuts and bolts.

We need to converse with front line employees, the employees who deal directly with our clients. Through these conversations we need to understand;
1) What do employees feel their role is?
2) How do they meet and exceed customer expectations?
3) Where do they see opportunity for improvement?
4) What needs to change from their perspective?
They may not have all the answers but if you listen they will provide a ton of valuable information and will strengthen your understanding of the organization. As you interact with these employees you need to read them, understand what they are feeling and interpret what they are “not” saying. Once you have a thorough understanding from the customer interacting employees, you then need to speak with other employees. Ask a lot of the same questions but would add the question, “How do you impact the customer experience?” Once you feel you have a good foundation of knowledge with the employee base, you now need to engage the leadership team. To start off with, set up meetings with some of the front line managers. Ask the front line managers the same questions you asked the employees. With this group focus in on their role and the challenges they face to expose potential opportunities. The next step is to speak with the remainder of the leaders working your way back to the senior leaders.

Stage Three – Setting the Stage

Stage three is vital to building credibility and involves meeting again with the senior leaders. By this time you have gained significant understanding of the business that you need to support from a Human Resources perspective. During your interface with the senior leaders your goal this time is to set HR up as a strategic partner. To do this you want to understand the main challenges that each senior leader faces. During these meetings it is crucial for you to share some of the information you learned from your journey. By sharing information and insight into their challenges you initiate a change in the way senior leaders view Human Resources. The senior leaders will recognize that you understand their business and the challenges that they face. Setting the stage is also about networking and building key relationships with the senior leaders. Network and build relationships with the leaders of the other functions, such as operations, accounting, and workforce planning etc. in order to understand how pieces fit together. Ask them to share reports such as workforce plans and financial results to show your interest in the business and further your understanding. As you network with the senior leaders ask yourself, "How can HR help the business? What can HR influence? Where can HR make a difference?"

This stage may take a few months to master and may involve providing solutions to minor issues facing the senior leaders.

Stage Four – The shift from reactive to proactive and from fluffy to hard

Stage three is critical and prerequisite to stage four. If you have not gained the respect and credibility of the majority of the key leaders, go back to stage three. The initial part of stage four is building platforms to keep your knowledge up to date and provide a mode of communication with the leaders. Work your way into Operation’s and Senior Leader’s meetings. Once you are in the meetings, you have to be constantly thinking, "How can HR help? What can HR do to solve the current challenge? How could HR prevent this from happening again? What could HR do to improve the current situation? By solving problems for the senior leaders, you continue to build credibility and earn their respect. A byproduct is that you will get asked to get involved more and more. Part two of the shift is about planning and representing HR as an important business function. Most of the people issues facing the organization and the senior leaders are the result of poor or no strategic human resources planning. As Human Resource professionals we need to move from being reactive to being proactive. Phase four is about putting into place a strategic plan based on the information gathered during phase two and three. It is now time to prioritize the challenges and opportunities that bubbled up through your investigation of the organization.

As you work through the prioritization process you need to ask yourself, “What can we influence?” Once you have prioritized the issues you need to make them “Hard”. To demonstrate this, let’s assume one of the issues you uncovered was poor customer service caused by a lack of leadership from front line managers. A typical HR goal might be to have meeting with front line managers to clarify their role with a deadline to complete the training. A “Hard” goal would be “Improve customer satisfaction by increasing the leadership ability of front line managers”. In order to make this a “Hard” goal we need to set a measurement. In this case we could look at the employee survey and pull out the management and leadership questions that apply and create an average of those questions and then set an improvement goal. See below for the differences between fluffy and hard goals.

Goal Type
Improve Front Line Leadership
§ Train front line managers on their role.
§ Provide leadership training.
Complete training of managers by June 1, 2009
Improve Customer Satisfaction
§ Analyze the customer satisfaction gap’s created by ineffective leadership.
§ Develop training for current leaders to close gaps.
§ Re-evaluate selection process for front leaders to improve level of leadership entering the organization.
§ Etc.

Increase leadership effectiveness by 15% from 62% to 71.3% as measured by questions 2,6 and 12 from the annual employee survey

The important elements of setting “Hard” goals are;
1) The strategy has to tie to an important business goal.
2) The tactics need to support the strategy and have concrete steps with deadlines and outcomes.
3) The goal has to be measurable. This is where HR falls short at times and to overcome this shortfall, we need to get creative and innovative with our measures and metrics.

In order for Human Resources professional to be seen as true business partners we must speak the language of business leaders. We need to speak in numbers and results.

Stage Five – Marketing

The last stage is a supportive and reinforcing stage. As HR professionals we offer a service to our organizations and as service providers we need our customers to understand the value that we bring to the table. Communication is crucial to our success and adding to our credibility as HR professionals. You have to explain to the business leaders what HR is going to do and how it will impact their business. This may be met with skepticism, but as you provide regular updates with your progress the skepticism will disappear with improving business results. At every opportunity sell what the HR team has accomplished to reinforce the value HR is contributing to the organization and the bottom line.

After moving through the five stages, you will be respected and asked to participate in senior leadership meetings. The HR function will be seen as a valuable contributor that is helping to drive positive business results. This is the point where you have arrived at your destination, a HR business partner, working with the senior leaders, solving problems and improving the business. Enjoy your stay at the table.

Andrew Noel, an Canadian based CHRP designated senior HR professional, can be reached at

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