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The critical importance of the HR business partner

HR business partner

by Neel Gandhi and Sarah Pobereskin

Nearly a decade ago, CEOs surveyed by McKinsey stressed the importance of talent strategy to their organizations. But they also voiced misgivings about HR’s ability to manage the talent process strategically and deliver maximum value to the business.

We recently refreshed that research and found little has changed. Effective talent practices that drive true value remain vital, yet HR continues to struggle to deliver this need.

The disconnect centers on HR Business Partners (HRBPs) – those senior HR individuals who counsel managers on talent issues. Despite decades of trying to focus these HRBPs on strategic issues, many of our clients voice a common refrain that a great HRBP is quite hard to find. And while the value of a great HRBP remains unquestioned, the structure of the HRBP role requires reengineering.

In fact, we even urge changing the name to Talent Value Leader and giving them a different set of responsibilities and accountabilities. Here are several key features of this reimagined role:

  • Remove operational responsibilities of Talent Value Leaders and make it a purely strategic role. Today, no matter how strategic their mandate, HRBPs get dragged into transactional and operational issues. In large measure, this occurs because most HRBPs retain some operational role, whether as an overseer of generalists or as the “customer service liaison” to the execution side of HR.
  • Empower Talent Value Leaders to influence and drive talent initiatives that generate real business value. Many business leaders today do not look to HRBPs as drivers of value via pulling talent levers; they continue to see them as personnel managers. This must change. Just as a business unit CFO doesn’t have control over spending decisions but influences the entire profit and loss center, a Talent Value Leader must possess the credibility and authority to drive important talent decisions. And just as a CFO is accountable for the profit and loss, a Talent Value Leader should be measured against and held responsible for talent outcomes and the value they drive.
  • Establish a pipeline of Talent Value Leaders who blend talent, business and financial experience to be able to identify which talent levers can yield the most business value. Traditionally, HRBPs have assumed HR generalist roles that considers great customer service the best measure of success. A Talent Value Leader wouldn’t play that service role but would be a business leader who says “no” occasionally, pushes a difficult perspective and influences other managers and executives.

Some companies are moving in this direction. A global beverage company, for example, fills some HR roles with people with engineering, technology or process-oriented backgrounds. Leaders at the soft-drink giant say engaging the business with data proves critical to expanding HR’s strategic role.

At the same time, leaders elsewhere are moving between HR and line roles more frequently. The CEO of a major automotive company was previously the firm’s HR vice president before joining the company’s global product development leadership.

The transition to Talent Value Leaders requires a rigorous effort to shift mindsets and capabilities among both HR leaders and the business leaders that HR supports. But, the potential benefits promise to be enormous by entrusting an organization’s most capable leaders with the mission to maximize the value of its talent assets.