boxing-gloves-400x265The Challenger HR Business Partner

We recently reviewed the Challenger research from CEB, and explored how it might complement or replace the Trusted Advisor model for great sales teams (click here for the article).  How does that apply to the HR function?

For years companies have taken the same approach to HR Business Partner development as their sales team’s development: Become trusted advisors; ask good questions; build relationships and give good advice.

Is this now obsolete?  Do we require something different from our HR teams?

Much like our article on the application of this to sales, our take on it is that the bar hasn’t moved, but perhaps our understanding of the bar could do with shifting.

Asking good questions and giving useful advice seems to have been translated into asking nice questions, saying yes and delivering what the business asks for in many cases.  Was that the best thing for the business?  Was it the best outcome for all involved?  Possibly not.

Totem Lollipops

So how do we re-educate our HR functions to better understand their roles alongside the business and find the confidence, skills and most appropriate mind-set to be effective?

Here are some of the classic challenges we have faced when working with client HR, talent and L&D teams, with suggestions on how these can be overcome.  In summary, the challenges we hear most often are:

  • I want to help
  • I can’t say no
  • I don’t know what to say
  • I’m not a business person
  • I’m not given the seat at the table

In his fantastic book, To Sell is Human, Daniel Pink highlights that “1 in 9 people work in sales.  So do the other 8.”  His point is that we all have an aspect of selling or influencing to our roles now – so selling skills are not reserved for those 1 in 9 who have sales in their job titles.  What can we learn from the world of sales, to respond to each of these classic HR challenges?

I want to help & I can’t say no

One common theme that runs through all of the individuals in HR that we speak to is the desire to help others.  To make a difference is the most common reply we hear to the question, “why do you do it?”  So it’s no surprise that HR professionals get stuck in the ‘be nice and help’ cycle.

Quite closely linked to wanting to help is the want to be liked and please people.  Whilst this is not universal with HR professionals, it is a trend and many people find it difficult to say no.

With both of these challenges, the response is the same – “what is the purpose of your role?”  Asking HR professionals to consider the value-add of their role, the difference they want to make and could make in the business, what they want to achieve and what motivates them to do it – all this refocuses the mind.

The idea of a Challenger is not to say no or stop helping – that wouldn’t be great for a sales person either – but the idea is to bring something better to the table than the client may be asking for or thinking of.  If the business asks for a headcount report, is that the best value I can add?  If the business tells me there’s a recruiting need and I have to find three good candidates by next week – is that the best outcome for all involved?

Focusing on the purpose of the HR function, our specific roles and the value we can add, will help us explore different ideas with our business client group.  Rather than waiting for the next request for a report, set of candidates, appraisal training, disciplinary or fire-fighting support, maybe I go to my partner in the business and talk to them about talent.

Maybe I explain the challenges every business out there is facing with finding great talent and keeping hold of it.  Maybe I share some data on where we are bleeding talent in our business and my ideas on how we plug that leak.  Maybe I highlight that if we don’t do something about that, we’ll be struggling to do more with fewer people, no sense of where new people will come from and no time to find and train those people up.

Rather than focusing on saying yes or no – let’s help our HR colleagues focus on the value they can add and bring to the table.  This is the Challenger approach – bringing insight, teaching the business and challenging the business to do something different.

Jelly Bean Diversity

I don’t know what to say

All of that great stuff requires knowing what to say.  What if I don’t know where we’re leaking talent?  Or what if I’m an employment law expert, HR generalist or L&D specialist – what confidence and knowledge will I have to talk about talent, the outside market and the challenges our business is facing?

In the sales world, this is the job of the sales leader: Providing insight and market awareness, and working with the team to build a range of offers or stories to tell the client.  And so it can be the case with HR, that this market insight and challenge can be initiated by the HR leader.

What are the challenges our market is facing?  What’s happening in this business?  What’s our talent strategy for addressing that?  How will our HR team engage their business partners to tell that story, raise concern and gain agreement to do something about it?

The HR leader, like the sales leader, becomes the facilitator of those brainstorming sessions, to come up with the great content that will challenge the business and demonstrate the value-add of the function.

I’m not a business person

Then learn how to talk the talk.  It is not a requirement of HR professionals to know everyone else’s jobs inside out, or be able to do them, but we need to speak the language.  And if we can’t, we need to learn.  Often on development programmes with HR Business Partners, we’ll bring in operators and commercial directors to explain what’s really going on in the business.

But of course outside of that environment, it’s great for HR to be sitting alongside the business, learning the language and seeing the reality of the challenges.  This is an immediate credibility booster in the business – when HR are seen to be taking the time to understand the commercial realities of a wide variety of jobs and situations.

I’m not given a seat at the table

Then you need to earn it – see all the previous points!  It is only by understanding the business and bringing fresh insight, challenge and ideas, that we earn that seat at the table.

What does this all mean for HR teams and HR leaders?

  • Review your spend on skills development

What skills are being developed?  Are you teaching people to develop warm, safe relationships that may not give you the best outcomes?  Has the message of building relationships been misinterpreted to mean that people should just say yes to all requests, be helpful and do as they’re asked?  In addition to the skills development on asking questions and advising effectively, build skills in understanding the business, building market awareness, teaching, tailoring and taking control of the conversation.

  • Build your market knowledge and value-add insight

Whatever your role, how could you offer more insights to your internal customers?  What do you know about the market, industry or typical challenges people face, that you can share with your stakeholders to demonstrate your value-add?  What resources do you have available to you that could be used in growing this insight and sharing it with others?  As a team, how could you work together to build your knowledge and understanding, then translate that into hard-hitting insights that make the business sit up and listen?

The Challenger research may have first been designed for sales, but it has far-reaching implications for any role that influences – which is arguably every role.  HR teams now have a great opportunity to change the perception of the function within the business, connecting with the organisation’s priorities and challenging leaders to pay attention to the value-add possible.

If after all this you want to understand more about what the Trusted Advisor and Challenger research suggests, then look back at our exploration of that applied to sales.

It’s just as applicable to internal sales, or influencing.  And if you’re still hungry for more,  contact us for help in building the HR skills you need from your team.