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Strategic Business Partner

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Research clearly indicates that there is a strong need for the Human Resources (HR) function, and the people in it, to adopt a more strategic and business-linked approach. In one study business executives ranked the HR function as third, after sales and customer service, as a function that makes a very significant contribution to a company's bottom line.

Unfortunately research also indicates that few HR functions have become strategic. Most still operate in a primarily administrative and tactical manner—the very work that is increasingly being outsourced. Clearly there is a gap between what business leaders and employees need from their HR departments and what HR is providing.

HR functions must become more integrated into the business, with some people on the HR team assuming the role of Strategic Business Partner (SBP). Here, Dana and Jim Robinson offer guidance for HR, Organization Development and Learning professionals who aspire to transform themselves into effective Strategic Business Partners. They explain how SBPs build partnerships, based upon credibility and trust, with key organization leaders. These partnerships provide SBPs with opportunities to identify and support projects directly aligned with business goals. The success of these projects deepens the SBPs' credibility, enabling them to be viewed as strategic partners. At this higher level of accountability, SBPs work with business leaders to form long-range business strategies and plans, creating and implementing people initiatives that link into and support the business strategies and plans.

This practical guide offers case studies, exercises, tips, and tools you can use to become a Strategic Business Partner in your organization.

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1. Key Concepts for Partnering Strategically


Chapter 1

Key Concepts for Partnering


“I just learned that I am going to be working in the role of a

Strategic Business Partner. Sounds great, doesn’t it? Unfortunately,

I’m not certain what it is that I will do differently. Guess it means

I will be implementing different solutions than I used to do.”

We have had numerous conversations with people in

Human Resource (HR) and Training and Development functions that resonate with the preceding statement. To be viewed as a business partner, and to do work that is strategic, has high appeal. But, as the old adage indicates, “The devil’s in the details!”

In this book, we plan to answer the question, “What do you as a Strategic Business Partner (SBP) do differently

Monday morning at 8:00 A.M.?” But it is not as simple as providing the top ten proven practices! There will always be situations that have never been encountered before as well as those to be viewed in a different light. You need to draw upon your knowledge of key concepts and accountabilities to determine the practices to use in each unique strategic


2. The SBP Model


Chapter 2

The SBP Model

“Our principles are the springs of our actions.”

Philip Skelton

Individuals who are in the people-functions of an organization wear many hats. Not only do they design and implement various solutions, such as training and team building, but they also manage change initiatives, lead people within the people-function, and deliver services that support strategic business goals. All of these responsibilities are challenging, but the role that is among the most ubiquitous and vague is that of Strategic Business

Partner (SBP). Previously, this role has been described at a conceptual level. In this chapter, we provide specific information about the accountabilities for the SBP role. The model shown in

Figure 2.1 describes the accountabilities of an SBP.

Partnerships that you build with clients are the foundation of your role as an SBP. Partnerships are rooted in credibility and trust. The client partnership enables you to identify strategic projects on which to work. Working on strategic projects can deepen your access, credibility, and trust with your client.


3. Identifying Clients and Developing Access


Chapter 3

Identifying Clients and Developing


“If senior management sees me only when there is a problem, that is how they will think of me.”

Strategic Business Partner

Strategic Business Partners (SBPs) can play an important role in developing and implementing business strategies. But they can not do this by themselves—they are not lone rangers. Rather,

SBPs must have a strong partnering relationship with management, a relationship that is the foundation for strategic work.

Partnering with management is required to gain insight into business needs and the challenges faced by employees who must achieve those business goals. This insight enables SBPs to assist management in translating business goals into performance requirements, removing barriers, and making other needed changes.

In Chapter 1 we described our criteria for identifying clients. We also indicated that there are two categories of clients: sustained and project. In Chapter 2 we indicated that the first accountability of SBPs is to “develop partnerships


4. Gaining Credibility and Trust


Chapter 4

Gaining Credibility and Trust

”My clients refer other members of the executive team to me.”

HR Business Partner

To paraphrase an old expression, “Credibility and trust are gained the old-fashioned way . . . you earn them!” These are not entitlements inherent to your role as a Strategic Business

Partner (SBP). You earn them over time in an iterative manner through a collective set of behaviors and practices. You can lose credibility and trust in the same manner. Generally, a single action will not result in you losing credibility and trust; however, a pattern of inappropriate action can result in their loss. And once you lose credibility and trust, they are most difficult to regain.

Let’s begin by defining how we use these two terms.

Credibility is the confidence that others have in your capability to deliver results in support of the business. Trust is the confidence that others have in your integrity and reliability to achieve results in support of the business. Of these two, trust is


5. The Logic Used to Identify Strategic Opportunities




“What training program will enhance the negotiation skills of people in our purchasing group?”

All of these requests are presented in solution language; in other words, the clients have identified the specific action they would like to see implemented and are calling you to provide it.

We compare these requests to an iceberg. We are learning about the part that is above the water line, while little is known about what lies underneath. By probing to identify both the real need and the desired results, we may uncover a strategic initiative on which to partner. In this way each client request for a solution becomes a situation to be explored. This is what is meant by identifying strategic opportunities in a reactive manner.

A second means of identifying strategic opportunities is to do so proactively. This does not mean advocating a solution or action that the client needs to take. Rather you discuss the client’s business needs and challenges, potentially discovering a need that, but for this discussion, would not have been known this early.


6. Reframe Requests to Identify Strategic Opportunities




embedded within it. That is the approach we will explore in this chapter.

Reframing—What Is It?

The purpose of reframing is to view a problem or issue from a different point of view. You do this when you facilitate a discussion that focuses not on the client’s solution but rather on the results the client is seeking. Let us revisit one of the initial requests we used in Chapter 5 as an example.

“I have two teams who are in continual conflict.

I would like to offer some type of team building.”

Although this client has identified a team-building solution, the client is most likely seeking results that go beyond the team-building activity. Resolving team conflict is probably an ultimate goal, and there could be others. In a reframing discussion you focus not on the solution (team-building activity) but on the desired results (resolving team conflict). Through skillful questioning you help the client gain insight into the situation and to realize that moving ahead with a solution may be premature. Your questions often raise other issues that lead to an agreement to obtain additional information.


7. Proactively Identify Strategic Opportunities


Chapter 7

Proactively Identify Strategic


“Proactive\adj. Creating or controlling a situation by taking the initiative.”

The Oxford Encyclopedic English Dictionary

As a Strategic Business Partner (SBP), you have developed partnerships with key leaders in your organization. You have developed access to these managers who view you with credibility and trust. But relationships are of little value in themselves; you want to leverage those relationships to identify and partner on strategic projects for which the value to the business is evident. As discussed in Chapter

6, you can identify these types of projects in a reactive manner. But there are obvious challenges involved with this approach— including the fact that once a client contacts you with a request, there may be limited time or interest to reframe the need.

Therefore, it is vital that you seek strategic opportunities in a proactive manner. Although there are many techniques used in a reactive approach that can be used in a proactive discussion, there are also some critical differences. Let’s look more deeply into conducting proactive conversations.


8. When the Client Says “Yes”




over the last few months on their own. The best practices developed by Roger were put on the shelf.

The lesson learned is that when given an important project, you must respond quickly. Line managers want and need the information as soon as possible. They will not value information that arrives weeks after it was needed. In Chapter 3 we said, “When given the opportunity to partner on a major initiative, hit the ground running.” When the client says “Yes” to a strategic project, you quickly start implementation by:

Obtaining reliable information required for project success.

Selecting and implementing effective solutions.

Measuring the results obtained by the solutions.

As you begin this chapter, we want to acknowledge that we are providing only an overview of the three SBP activities listed above. Each of these is the focus of numerous books, many of which are included in the “Resources” section of this book. We encourage you to determine your need for additional knowledge and skill as you read this chapter and seek the resources you may require. Let us now take a look at each of these activities.


9. Being at the Table




portion of the organization and are often enterprise-wide.

The view is long term—looking forward as much as three to ten years. The nature of this work means there will be ambiguity for some period of time during which focus is not so much on solutions as it is on correctly identifying the problem or opportunity to be addressed. Once the problem is clarified, large-scale strategies and plans are discussed and established.

Because of the comprehensive nature of this work, there are a myriad of issues to consider. At some point in the work, specific projects and initiatives will be identified. In this manner, the work that is done at the table helps to set an agenda and establish priorities for the HR function. As an SBP you will generally have a role in executing those initiatives that focus on preparing people and the organization to move ahead.

Not every SBP can, or should, be working at this level.

After all, how many people who specialize in the human side of business are required when forming strategic and business plans for an organization? Most organizations need a voice to represent this perspective—not a chorus! In addition, moving to this level is something an SBP earns the right to do. We value


10. Making the SBP Role Real




SBP Example

Good Intentions with Ineffective Execution Yields Limited


In our consulting practice, we began work with an HR function after the group had attempted to transition into a more strategic and business-linked department. They determined that all HR Generalists would become Business

Partners and assigned these individuals to specific functions and groups within the organization. Each of the eight

Business Partners was tasked to grow strong businesslinked partnerships with key leaders in the functions supported, and through these partnerships, identify opportunities for strategic work. A skill-building workshop provided these eight individuals with the capability to fill their new role. Unfortunately, HR management had given little thought to how the transactional and tactical work currently managed by these individuals was to be completed.

As a result, that type of work continued to flow in, limiting time available to work in the new role of Business Partner.








NAME OF CLIENT: ______________________________


BUSINESS UNIT/FUNCTION: ____________________



NOTE TO CONSULTANT: To the degree possible, obtain the following information prior to the conversation. At the beginning of the discussion, affirm the information as appropriate. If the information was not obtained prior to the discussion, obtain it from the manager before beginning with the formal interview process.

Organization Chart for Business Unit/Function

Business Plan

Demographic Information on Employees

- Number of employees for each employee job and group

- Geographical location(s) of employees

Products and Services Produced by Business Unit/Function

Customers and Competitors of the Business Unit/Function

Alliances, Joint Ventures, and/or Acquisitions Involving the Business Unit/Function

Operational Metrics Typically Used to Measure the



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