You already know why effective HR-business partnerships are important.
You’ve read the research that shows how HR provides greater value to organizations by leaning into collaborations with senior leaders and people managers. But you also know that wanting successful HR-business partnerships is different from having them.
It often takes time, tools, and expertise to build and sustain the processes that make these relationships work well. In some organizations, the barriers to these partnerships have outlasted most attempts to rise above them. So why now, in the middle of break-neck social and economic change, should you make the effort to reset your HR-business partnerships? Because organizations that invest in these partnerships are better able to respond to today’s rapidly changing conditions while maintaining strategic vision.
By actively aligning the needs of the business with those of its people, HR and business leaders can pivot workers more readily from office-based to remote work, transition teams from roles in one part of the business to another, create and enforce safety plans. At the same time, they can also advance diversity and inclusion initiatives, target training and development efforts to address future needs, maintain engagement and communication, and sustain productivity.
The surprising agility of some organizations throughout the toughest days of the pandemic has brought renewed attention to the importance of strong HR capabilities, and high-value HR-business partnerships. But even if these partnerships are still struggling at your organization, it’s not too late to improve them.
We sat down with three HR practitioners to get their take on what works for building trust, strengthening relationships with the business, and creating impact. The takeaway? Begin by building your strategic HR knowledge, skills, and abilities.
But where should you start? It can be hard to find opportunities for professional development even in the best of times. Lapses in certain skills, however, can create a crisis of trust and accountability that undermines credibility and limits the ability of HR and business leaders to effectively communicate. Dan Reece, Director of Workforce Planning and Analytics at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development put it this way: “There are still credibility issues within some HR departments. What’s the root cause for that? Unfortunately, we have either not been honest with ourselves with the fact that we have a knowledge gap, or, we’ve made a decision not to address it.”
So, which knowledge, skills, and abilities are needed most to restore credibility?
Know the business
Michelle Shelton, Chief Human Resource Officer for Marion County Oregon states, “whether you work in the public or private sector, it all starts with developing an understanding of the business you’re partnering with. What is their mission? What are their needs going to be? And, how will you need to pivot to be sure you’re supporting them correctly?”
You’ll need to ask questions of the business leaders with whom you work, and you’ll need to be honest about what you don’t know. This helps your organization to bring you into the details of the business. Making this effort, expressing sincere interest in how the business functions, allows your organization to offer you the information you need to understand how decisions get made, and where HR can provide the most support. According to Reece, “Once you understand the business as a human capital or human resource professional, you'll have a much better understanding of how to translate a business need through an HR lens and identify what you can do to help that business line be successful in meeting their goals.”
But Shelton offers that while on a certain level “it’s up to the organization to help develop your understanding of the ways they conduct business, it’s on you to ensure you know basic concepts.” This includes financial and business acumen.
Improve your financial acumen
Kasey Stevenson, Director of Talent Management at Masergy Communications told us, “If you don’t understand finance, that’s a pretty important hurdle. You need to take it upon yourself to recognize when you have a skills gap there, because when you’re speaking to business leaders, you need to be able to talk to them about their budget, about their operating constraints, so that you can work within those parameters.”
Shelton backed this up saying, “In our jobs we’re looking at a lot of financial data. Compensation, benefits, staffing, workforce plans, etc. All of that comes down to numbers, right? So, for that reason, it’s really important to have strong financial acumen in HR.”
Understanding the business and its finances lets you communicate more clearly with senior leaders and people managers using a lexicon they recognize and respect. But getting heard often takes more than that. You may need to work on your empathy for the decisions the business is facing.
Develop your emotional intelligence and your collaboration skills
Reece reminds us that a grasp of basic concepts is a good foundation for HR-business partnerships, but it can’t stand on its own. “It’s very difficult for an HR professional to be an effective partner if you don’t have emotional intelligence or empathy. If you don’t have the ability to be flexible and to accommodate the varied conversational or interactive styles of the individuals you’re working with, then you’re in the wrong line of work,” Reece warned.
Stevenson agreed, “You have to build rapport and credibility with people managers so that when it comes time for difficult conversations, not only to they already know that you understand what the constraints are, what their budget is, but they also know that you recognize what they are up against and how they need to work in this business and in today’s market.”
Shelton urges us to bring together our expertise in HR with our sensitivity and understanding of people to act as better advisors in our collaborations with the business: "Our job in HR is to coach, council, and advise. We need to let managers know that we're here to assist them. We don't want to take over their jobs, we're here to help them leverage their employees' abilities, to help them meet their financial goals, minimize grievances, improve team communication. We are here as a resource to assist them in their efforts."
Use data effectively
Building your business and financial acumen and strengthening your ability to collaborate are fundamental to the integrity of HR-business relationships, but they can’t be based on hypotheticals. You need to have data to drive these conversations and evidence that your proposals can work.
HR is already sitting on a wealth of data in their people solutions and platforms. Whether this includes performance metrics, scheduling and timesheet data, or skills inventories and certifications, HR can provide rich insights to help managers support their people decisions. But it’s important to bring the right data to these conversations.
“HR should do their homework before outreach begins with a business client and their management team. You want to be aware of any issues both good and bad and then set up an intake meeting to talk about the solutions HR can offer using language the business understands…And quite frankly, that’s where data is going to come in as well,” Reece said.
Shelton confirmed that using data effectively can be crucial to establishing buy-in with business partners, "Don't complain about needing a seat at the table. Go and earn it. Demonstrate how you add value to the organization by showing how you reduce costs and support revenue generation. Then, back that up with facts and data."
And what should you do if data is your team's weakest link in sustaining productive HR-business partnerships? Take Stevenson's lead: “Challenge your team to learn and understand data. Get them familiar with the tools they need to do that.”
There’s more to this story. Find out what the research says about the steps you can take right now to reset HR-business partnerships at your organization. Click here for more information and to register for our upcoming free webcast.