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HR cannot be a business partner until it becomes a business leader

“A seat at the table”; “trusted advisor”; “a true business partner”.

I’m afraid I wince a little when I hear HR use these terms.

While I completely understand the intention, it comes across like they’re uncertain about their value. That they’re uncomfortable stepping outside their traditional position on the hierarchy gradient, even though many CEOs and executive leadership teams are desperate for them to play a more strategic role. That they’re not quite confident enough to lead the charge, even though HR has never been more commercially critical. It just seems a bit……. well…. passive.

Don’t get me wrong. I absolutely believe that HR should be a true partner. I’m a fan of Ulrich and his ideas, which have advanced the discipline and the role that HR plays in organisations. And given that in the digital age, human capital has become “the key factor of production”, there has never been a better time for HR to be a strategic partner.

The problem is that many HR partnership approaches are anything but.

Partnership (noun). The state or condition of being a partner; participation; association; joint interest (source: Occasionally called an alliance, it is an agreement (often enforceable by law) where parties ‘agree to cooperate to advance their mutual interests’ (source: Wikipedia).

Business partnership is defined as a relationship between two or more individuals to carry on a business as co-owners. Profits, liabilities and losses are shared, as is the management of the business. Goals are shared, as are levels of accountability, lines of authority and standards of conduct. 

However, a worryingly large proportion of the HR industry seems to follow a very different definition.

Some reference HR Business Partners (HRBPs) serving ‘internal clients’, acting as an operational resource for others. Core accountabilities include implementing policies, rules and processes while policing compliance. HRBPs ‘support and update their organisation on all employee relations matters’, facilitating management teams to make good talent decisions, while providing guidance and advice to line managers on transactional HR issues.

That doesn’t sound like a partnership.

Not a lot about co-operating to advance joint-interests. Precious little on co-ownership and shared accountability, let alone mutually assured standards of conduct. But quite a lot on supporting ‘the business’, passively reacting to demand while serving (serving!!!) internal clients. In fact, HR partnership often seems to be defined as an extensive list of tasks designed to relieve the ‘real’ business’s frustration with their people responsibilities.

It seems that for many HR functions, their partnership model is still very much defined through the transactional service and support lens of Personnel. That despite the much-vaunted delineation between the role of HRBPs and HR Managers, in reality many of the former are still doing the job of the latter. That despite the undoubted demand for HR to be a proactive, strategic business partner, HR is struggling to break free from its reactive, administrative past. 

This is not meant to denigrate the many talented HR professionals who work tirelessly to transform the fortunes of their business. On the contrary - many do an outstanding job trying to bring the true value of HR to their business in very difficult circumstances.

It’s is an observation that the partnership model that many HR functions deploy does not encourage partnership. Quite the opposite, it encourages subordination. It emphasises transactional tasks, rather than strategic results. It positions HR as a reactive, operational support function, rather than a proactive, strategic, commercial ally.

This raises a fundamental issue with how HR should be positioned with organisations.

HR will never be a true partner if its value is defined through service and support. It cannot design and deliver essential people interventions if its primary focus is on providing functional advice, facilitating conversations or policing compliance. It will never deliver lasting competitive advantage if it only aspires to sit at a table and hope someone listens to its opinions.

HR can only be a true partner when it becomes a leader.

HR cannot be a true partner within a business until it thinks, acts and delivers like a business. It won’t be treated as a trusted peer until it focusses on the powerful forces reshaping their business, rather than their function. It cannot be considered to be a valuable ally until its outputs directly address profit, risk and liabilities.

That means HR must stop serving and start leading. To switch from passively advising to proactively taking charge.

To do this, HR professionals should start to think like investors, identifying areas of value creation and value at risk, designing and delivering the people interventions that optimise the former while mitigating the latter. They should become entrepreneurial, challenging the received wisdom of the past while exploring innovative new ways to give their organisation the edge.

To focus on ‘speed to value’, not speed to service, re-engineering infrastructures, processes and policies to liberate their most precious asset to perform. To get ahead of the demand curve, securing the right people, at the right time, and the right cost, to extract the right value.

Do that, and HR professionals won’t need to keep asking for a seat at the table. They’ll be so much more than ‘advisors’ that other leaders across their business wouldn’t dream of making decisions without involving them. They’ll at last fulfil the role that their businesses need them to play, and in the process, become the real strategic business partners they’ve long aspired to be.

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