How to become an HR business partner

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How to be a business partner | PT JobsAs the popularity of the HR business partner role continues to grow, are candidates finding their current role working against them? Jo Faragher looks at how easy it is to become an HR business partner and whether or not you might unwittingly be one already.

If you are in your first or second role in human resources, becoming an HR business partner probably looms large in your career aspirations. In theory, it should offer you the chance to roll up your sleeves and get involved in real business problems, gaining the sort of exposure that could ultimately propel you into an HR director (HRD) role.

"When you start off in HR, the entry-level roles are all internally focused on HR processes," explains Susannah Clements, who recently joined the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development as deputy chief executive and who has spent a number of years in HRD roles. "The business partner role has become popular because you're looking out into the business, rather than waiting for the business to come to you."

But while the business partner role, first popularised in the 1990s by US academic Dave Ulrich, seems an attractive career prospect, how easy is it to get into? Can it be career limiting if your organisation does not offer it?

Many organisations are reconsidering their HR structures with a view to making processes more efficient and ensuring HR adds value to the business - and the business partner model usually features highly in their plans.

Emergence of new models

A survey in 2013 by consulting company Towers Watson found that 49% of businesses globally are moving towards Ulrich’s "three-legged" model of shared services, HR centres of excellence and a team of HR business partners. "This model is far and away the most prevalent of the available options," says the report.

One of the issues clouding the situation, however, is that where the role is in place, it differs hugely depending on company size, sector and culture. Where the role is not in place, many HR managers are influencing the business anyway, they just don't have the HR business partner job title.

"It is not a model, it is a mindset," says Guy Ellis, co-founder of consulting company Courageous HR: "Lots of companies have a business partner model, but the partner is the same as an HR generalist; at the same time, there are lots of organisations that have good generalist HR managers who understand the business and are aligned with its goals."

Norman Pickavance, former HR director of supermarket chain Morrisons and now working as an adviser to A Blueprint for Better Business, agrees: "It can be a strategic role in its purest sense, working alongside the business and crafting solutions to the problems the business is facing.

“But in many organisations, it is just a new badge on an old car. The HR business partner is not providing strategic input, they are just delivering operational, day-to-day support."

Strategic approach

Marking that divide between operational HR processes and offering strategic support on more business-critical issues is what makes a "pure" HR business partner live up to that job title. At nuclear decommissioning company Magnox, which put a classic, three-legged HR structure in place in 2011, its new team of business partners at its 10 sites are on a learning curve - with some embracing the strategic partnership role and others finding it a challenge to leave the world of HR processes and transactions behind.

"The HR business partner model suits Magnox because we are in a constant process of reduction. The business partner teams will gradually shrink and close, but we will still have small central teams of expertise and shared services," says Karen Walkden, head of Centres of Expertise for the company, which includes sites in various stages of being shut down.

Encouraging HR staff who had been used to line managers coming to them for transactional requests such as payroll or holiday to step up to supporting the business on more strategic issues has been difficult.

"Our challenge now is to push the business partners to challenge the business and stop 'handholding', encouraging line managers to push HR queries out to shared services or our centres of expertise," says Walkden. The new business partners have attended a course on business partnering at business school Roffey Park, and in November 2013 will come together to discuss and benchmark their experiences, and work out ways they can improve.

Jennifer Gaster, director of recruitment company HR Heads, says there is often an "experience gap" between operational and business partner roles, especially for those working in HR adviser roles that have been focused on business processes: "It is hard for advisers to get into business partner roles because they are not getting enough strategic exposure. The step up is massive, and there is no mentoring because so many organisations have made the business partner level so lean."

If the business partner structure is not in place in your business, it does not mean you cannot gain the exposure and influence to fill that experience gap or that you have to leave your current employer to find one where you can become a business partner.

Cross-functional initiatives

Clements advises junior HR professionals to volunteer for cross-functional initiatives - for example, a major IT roll-out: "Do a calculation. How much time do you spend in HR and how much in the business? If you’re spending 50% or more of your time out in the business, with people delivering to the front line, you are in a business partner role whatever your job title."

Pickavance warns against neglecting specialist expertise in the pursuit of becoming a business partner. He says that because the business partner role has become an "aspirational aiming point", where many of the skills are those of an HR generalist, specialist functions such as resourcing, learning and development or reward are often perceived as less attractive career paths.

"Acquire specialist experience either formally or in your spare time, so you can apply some science to the art of being close to the business," he says.

He adds that it is important to be clear about what you are learning in your HR role, and be prepared to challenge the business as well as support it: "Don’t just be an implementer, try to acquire diagnostic skills. There are too many business partners who don't want to jeopardise that partnership, so will go along with what the line manager wants. They don't want to fall out with the business, so they rubber stamp things they shouldn't." 

Finding that balance between supporting the business and occasionally pushing it out of its comfort zone isn’t something that can be taught - it is about gaining experience and exposure. Whatever your job title or career aspirations, immersing yourself in situations where HR adds value and your activities have a clear link to the success of the business will help you progress.

Sian Downey, a senior business partner at Magnox, feels that moving into this role has been a positive career move for her. She had previously worked in an HR manager role and also as a specialist. She says: "Personally, you reach the point where you don't want to be in the detail anymore. That was a light-bulb moment for me. The experience you gain, being able to work alongside the senior team as a partner and having a voice, that's really important."

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