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  • Writer's pictureLouis Scenti

What Does it Really Mean to be a Strategic HR Business Partner?

Many HR Business Partners (HRBP) don’t start their careers in these roles. Frequently, they have succeeded in one or more of the HR sub-disciplines and have grown, over time, into the HRBP role. This article presumes the HRBP already possesses subject matter expertise in one or more of those sub-disciplines. To be genuinely successful as an HRBP, several additional critical capabilities are required. This post begins a discussion of those capabilities.

Understanding the Business

This does not mean you have to know how to be a salesperson (more on this in later posts) or know how to design a product. It does mean that the HRBP must have a solid understanding of the business. You can translate that vague statement into a series of questions:

  • How does your company make money?

  • What is the organization’s business strategy?

  • Who are your competitors?

  • What risks and opportunities does your organization face in its microenvironment (think of your office, plant, or other business unit)?

  • What are the risks and opportunities in the macro environment (think of your industry and the broader economy)?

  • What capabilities can be deployed against those risks and opportunities?

  • Are critical capabilities missing and if so, how should that gap be mitigated?

The list could go on at some length but you get the idea. Understanding the basics of your business and the environment in which it operates is table stakes for being effective as an HRBP. This is because in most cases, your clients want to partner with someone who “gets it”. Demonstrating a solid understanding of your customer’s business is a key differentiator between a transactional HRBP and a trusted advisor. So, how do you build business knowledge?

Start by listening. Get time with the leaders you support. Ask them to help you build deeper awareness about their part of the business. What keeps them awake at night? Whose opinions do they respect? Understand how decisions are made in the organization. Who gets consulted on what kinds of decisions? Who are the key players on their teams and why? Get time with those people and ask similar questions. Frequently, these key players exercise a great deal of informal influence.

After your initial round of meetings, summarize your new insights in a document. Use whatever format works best for you and how your brain works but it should include at a minimum:

  • Who and official role

  • What are their business objectives?

  • What does a day in their life look like?

  • Who do they talk to and why?

  • What are their challenges and opportunities?

  • Think about their personal style – do you prefer to communicate by email or in live conversations?

You may have noticed that none of this is about the HR function. You will have plenty of opportunity to engage about HR matters. But that is not the starting point to build a relationship with your customers. This inquiry is about them, their parts of the business, and their pain points so those insights can inform your agenda and how you can add value to their world.

For the sake of this post, let’s assume your client is the organization’s CFO. There are some basic things you should be able to do to engage with your client.

  • Can you read the organization’s balance sheet?

  • Is your industry stable or is it vulnerable to disruption?

  • Do you understand the key cost drivers in the business?

  • What are the challenges in attaining the business plan?

  • Are there external influences that represent either costs or risks to the organization – examples could include things like regulatory requirements or multi-state/cross-border employment-related matters.

These are discussion-starters to enable your relationship with the CFO. S/he/they will want to see that you understand the challenges they face on a regular basis and in the context of their job. Successfully executing on this critical first step is what will get you in the door with your client, engendering their trust and leading to them involving you in evermore consequential issues. Next it is time to deliver.

Delivering on Your Commitments

You have established initial credibility with your client. Congratulations. Notice we said initial. All the hard work of listening to and understanding the fundamentals of your business will be for naught unless your client also thinks that s/he/they can depend on you. This is also where you begin to distinguish yourself as a partner instead of an “order-taker”.

Let’s visit that point for a moment. As you will see as the rest of this series develops, we will assert that truly exceptional HRBP’s have established a level of credibility and trust where their perspective is sought out within the organization at all levels. Like most things, there is a continuum. Many people have excellent careers by being superb at delivering what the client wants when and how the client wants it. Our exceptional HRBP does that too – when it is the right thing to do for the business; not sometimes, all the time. Thus, the exceptional HRBP is a business professional who specializes in the human capital dimension of running a business.

In the typical HRBP/COE model, the HRBP is the primary HR point of contact for a business leader. To fulfill their role, the HRBP must establish and nurture partnerships with the COE’s. This is why it can be so valuable for the HRBP to have spent part of their career in one or more COE roles.

In our next entry we will:

  • expand on the importance of delivering and begin an exploration of the HRBP-COE relationship,

  • the conditions that lead a successful HRBP-COE partnership,

  • and some common pitfalls we have observed that can undermine the delivery of effective HR solutions.


About the authors:

Louis Scenti is the Founder and President of Cognoscenti Associates, a consultancy specializing in executive and leadership coaching and organizational consulting. Prior to founding Cognoscenti Associates, Louis worked for more than 30 years as a practitioner of leadership development, organization development and talent management for several premier financial services firms, most recently as the Chief Talent Officer for the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.

He is currently an Adjunct Lecturer at Columbia University's School of Professional Studies in the Human Capital Management Masters Degree program. 

Somers HR Solutions is an independent consultancy dedicated to helping business leaders and their teams diagnose and solve people management challenges.  Managing Partner, Ken Somers, is especially adept at coaching HR Business Partners and business leaders to enhance their organizational impact.  He is passionate about delivering “answers for the real world.”

Ken’s career spans more than 40 years as both an HR practitioner and executive leader.  In addition to his domestic experiences, he has lived and worked in Singapore, Hong Kong, Japan, India, and Malaysia.  Ken completed his most recent assignment as the interim country head for an insurance company’s back office operation in Poland.  Ken’s vast international experience enables him to bring a multicultural and multi-generational perspective to solving client challenges.

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