To Be a Business Partner, You Must Know the Business

We are business people that just happen to be in HR.

Alex Fernandez, director of HR for Johnson & Johnson, said that at a recent Strategic HR Business Partner seminar I conducted in San Francisco.

I was struck by its similarity to one of the most memorable quotes attributed to Howard Schultz, founder and CEO of Starbucks:

We are not in the coffee business serving people, but in the people business serving coffee.

I particularly liked Mr. Fernandez’ interpretation as the push for the HRBP model begins to take hold. That is the essence of the new role. Business people that just happen to sit in the HR space. There is no other type role within an organization that uses this concept. Reason being it is assumed that folks in marketing or IT, for that matter, are already tuned and synced to the business.

Become a better business person

Sure, there is a lot of blame that can be placed for why HR isn’t thought of that way, but that is for another post. If you are not now perceived as worthy in the business arena, the only way to fix that is to change the dynamic. Your focus should not be on becoming a better HR person, but on becoming a better business person.

A business person understands the dynamics of their business and industry. They should be able to confidently carry on a conversation about the strategic initiatives within their organization. This does not mean that we are the business strategist or futurist. It just means we have a thorough understanding of product offerings, revenue, profit, market share, etc. — just the same as any other business person within an organization.

A human capital focus

This business knowledge, coupled with HR knowledge, will enable the role to partner with a business unit or region, serving as a general consultant, but with a human capital focus. This is the same concept as other functional departments. In this business focused role HR assists the stakeholders in that unit to achieve their departmental/organizational goals, and not just limited to recruitment, employee relations, performance and talent management.

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Here are a few questions you need to be able to answer to increase your effectiveness and stand out from the crowd as a business partner:

  • What is our organization strategy, core business and purpose?
  • Are we on target to reach our strategic goals?
  • What keeps managers and leaders up at night?
  • What are our industry challenges?
  • How do we compete, both now and in the future?
  • Is revenue growing, now and over the last several years?
  • What is the growth rate percentage over the last years?
  • How do these growth percentages compare to the industry?
  • What products and regions are contributing the most revenue growth?
  • Is the company profitable?
  • What is the growth in net income percentage over the last years?
  • How do these growth percentages compare to the industry?
  • What products and regions are contributing the most income growth?

Get to know the innards of your business as this is a must for the new role of HR. Business knowledge and intelligence is the new must-have tool in your portfolio.

You may not be able to use it where you sit at this point, but you must prepare yourself for the future of your career.

Ron Thomas is Managing Director, Strategy Focused Group DWC LLC, based in Dubai. He is also a senior faculty member and representative of the Human Capital Institute covering the MENA/Asia Pacific region.

He was formerly CEO of Great Place to Work-Gulf and former CHRO based in Riyadh. He holds certifications from the Human Capital Institute as Global Human Capital Strategist, Master Human Capital Strategist, and Strategic Workforce Planner.

He's been cited by CIPD as one of the top 5 HR Thinkers in the Middle East. He received the Outstanding Leadership Award for Global HR Excellence at the World Human Resources Development Congress in Mumbai, and was named as one of the 50 Most Talented Global HR Leaders in Asia

Ron's prior roles included senior HR positions with Xerox HR services, IBM, and Martha Stewart Living.

Board memberships include the Harvard Business Review Advisory Council, McKinsey Quarterly's Executive Online Panel, and HCI's Expert Advisory Council on Talent Management Strategy.

His work has been featured in the Wall Street Journal, Inc. Magazine, Workforce Management and numerous international HR magazines covering Africa, India and the Middle East.

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