What does it take to be an incredible Business Partner?


The role of Business Partner was first brought into usage over 20 years ago by Dave Ulrich, initially within the Human Resources function, but has also been introduced to a number of other functional areas since then.

The model was a response to increasing business leader’s expectations of functional areas due to economic pressures for lean and cost effective business support areas and diversifying the capability of scarce resources to deliver results.

Simply, there are three parts to the model within each function:

  • Business Partners – often standalone leaders who Diagnose and Determine the business issues and represent their business’ interests;
  • Centres of Excellence – comprised of thought leaders and specialists with deep knowledge and experience in Designing solutions required by the business; and
  • Shared Services – who Deliver the bulk of the solutions that have been designed.

Whilst it is great in theory, unfortunately, in many people’s experience it hasn’t always been well implemented leading to frustrations both for the members of the business support function itself and equally their clients ie. The business leaders and employees. Even 20 years later, there often remains challenges for successful implementation such as poor scoping of roles and responsibilities, lack of investment in technical solutions to automate tactical activities, political power plays, lack of accountability, under-resourcing the team (headcount and depth of experience) in the desire to save costs and poor career development opportunities due to the new structure. However, the main issue is usually a lack of investment in building capability or not putting people with the right aptitude for the new roles in place (rather than just retitling the current team).

In particular, given business partners are an expensive but valuable senior resource; if they don’t have the capability in terms of knowledge, skills and attributes, then as the ‘face of the function’ to business leaders, this undermines the effectiveness of the model and the whole function receives a poor reputation.

To that end, we recently hosted a panel event for over 50 leaders across multiple functions who currently operate as business partners to discuss the capabilities required for success in modern workplaces – and offered some predictions of where the role was going in the (very near!) future.

We were fortunate to have a truly high calibre panel comprised of two leaders who operate in business partner roles – Steve Reid, HR Director at oOh! Media and Peter Knott, Finance Director at BAI Communications. In addition, we had two former business partners who are now in operations roles and are business partnered themselves – Karen Bozic, GM Retail at Caltex and Anne Jackson, Head of Grocery at Goodman Fielder.

Overwhelmingly, the advice from the panel was that it is increasingly less about what you know (although you absolutely have to have a good baseline of knowledge and experience from the start of your career) but it’s how you approach getting things done with and through others and having a business ownership mindset in applying your knowledge that is most critical.

Thus, true business partners don’t have deep expertise just in one functional area – they should learn to be general managers ie. Have knowledge across marketing, human resources, finance, strategy, digital and change management. In the future, Steve predicted there will be business leaders who can apply knowledge across disciplines, not business partners within a specific functional area. This will require business partners to take an ownership mindset where they aren’t just supporting and advising business leaders, but personally having accountability for the success of the business.

Equally as important is their approach to the business and the role in terms of mindset, attitude and style. BPs need to develop a partnership with business leaders based on mutual trust and respect which then enables them to add value to the business through actions such as confidently and thoughtfully challenging the status quo. They need to understand where they can best influence business leaders to impact both the strategy and the bottom line, which requires excellent stakeholder management and active listening skills.

BPs should also understand the internal and external business landscape deeply and passionately enough to be able to predict future issues that may arise, anticipate the likely impact on the business and prepare the organisation’s response. This knowledge is enhanced by being able to tap into internal and external networks and resources.

It was agreed that business partners who put aside organisational structures and position descriptions and get on with actually working side by side with the business to get things done, regardless of job titles, will quickly build trust and respect with business leaders.

Where Human Resources BPs in particular can provide real value to the organisation is in being able to skillfully take the organisation through transformational change programs successfully whilst maintaining (or changing) it’s culture and employee engagement. Additionally, HR BPs who have experience with true strategic organisational and leadership development will be instrumental in enabling the organisation to succeed.

From an attitude and stylistic perspective, BPs who have courage, confidence, curiosity, high energy, tenacity, creativity, commerciality, an ability to prioritise based on potential to influence outcomes and the power to stretch their own and their client’s thinking will be most successful in BP roles.

As Karen neatly described it, you can judge the BP’s capability, and thus the success of the relationship, when the business leaders aren’t thinking about whether or not to involve the business partner before making a decision; but that they wouldn’t dream of proceeding without the BP’s involvement.

Thanks again to our amazing panel members who so generously shared their insights and experience and look forward to further discussion on this topic.

My two questions for business partners reading this article are:

  • how do your clients describe your capability and aptitude to add value to the organisation?
  • are you on track to be a business leader or are you still developing as a business partner?

If you are an incredible Business Partner considering your next career move, please CLICK HERE for a confidential discussion.