Partnering with business managers: a how-to guide

by 19 Aug 2009

HR professionals are often accused of not having a grasp on business essentials, and as a result, suffer from a lack of credibility amongst their business peers. Craig Donaldson looks at how HR professionals can overcome this, the pitfalls of the process, and examines the role of HR in business partnering

Many HR practitioners strive for the much-vaunted title of ‘business partner’. But what does it actually mean? Ask most practitioners and they will happily regurgitate theory or what they imagine the role entails, but getting them to speak from the wisdom of experience and have it make sense to a line manager is something else altogether. Effectively partnering with line managers is not taught at any university course, and it takes time and often hard-earned experience to even begin to appreciate what constitutes the role. Whether you argue that the HR function should be centralised or decentralised, partnering with the business begins at the frontline: with the line managers.

Line managers are the real HR managers

Pretty much all line managers have a people management responsibility of some sort. As a result, they are the first point of call in managing the human resource within organisations. The idea behind strategic HR management is that HR functional responsibilities are return to their natural owners, or the line managers, who are then held accountable for their contribution to enhanced employee performance. Simon McCoy, HR manager for Corporate Express, says there’s a trend towards decentralising HR to the line management role. “The more people I talk to about this, there seems to be an increasing interest in empowering managers to be the HR manager. I’m seeing more and more of that,” he says.

Russell Varley, HR manager for Elders, says that line managers have to manage their business and employees happen to be one of those assets that need to be managed. If the relationship with employees is managed well at that level, he believes managers can get twice as much productivity out of an individual. “The best person to manage an individual happens to be the person’s manager – not HR, not general management and not anybody else,” he says. “I don’t have a relationship with nearly the 4,000 employees in Elders, but there are a lot of managers who do. At the end of the day it’s HR that is so far removed from it that it makes much better sense for them to invest in the managers who do it day-in, day-out.”

Mark Kelly, director of strategy and marketing for Murdoch magazines, agrees that it makes more sense to delegate people management responsibilities to line managers. “What we really try to do is work in a collaborative way with very little hierarchy and we believe the decision making process grows out of that collaborative effort. We don’t have a HR department, but we have a long history of being committed to corporate culture. The whole idea behindthat is that everybody has the opportunity to contribute to the fullest,” he says.

The idea of empowering line managers is not new, but as this comes into practice the role of HR shifts, along with the required skill-set, according to Cliff Parker, group manager of training and development for WMC Resources. “You’re actually encouraging people to be more involved in the business. The role of HR actually changes in this, and becomes more of a guiding role – that’s probably the biggest shift whereby you move from policeman to coach.”

The changing role of HR

When HR functions are decentralised, there is often a reduction in HR department staff. However, the role that HR plays is often more of a strategic one as a result. “There’s still a place for the HR department, and their role is more around consulting, education and support. They can get closer and deeper with the business as opposed to being just obscure technocrats who tell you what you can and can’t do,” says McCoy. “You cease to be a gatekeeper. It should elevate the HR function to the nirvana of all HR managers ever wanted to be – that is to partner with their business.”

Parker agrees that HR’s role will change to more of a collaborative one with the business whereby HR coaches and facilitates. “HR will be expected to have a broad set of skills in terms of bringing people together but also being able to relate that to business. That’s different for a lot of traditional HR people,” he says.

There are a number of organisations in which HR acts as internal consultants, which Parker believes is beneficial for both an organisation and HR. Consultants are often brought in to assist with a particular issue or point of a project, however once they complete their work the knowledge goes with them. “Where HR acts in that capacity internal development keeps the knowledge in the company,” says Parker.

Benefits of HRs coaching role

There are a number benefits, both for HR practitioners and the business, when this consultative approach to HR management is adopted. Varley says managers usually get improved performance out of employees when they establish good relationships at the team level. “The more we can provide line managers with the skill, knowledge and support they need to manage their people, there is ultimately a bottom line benefit to the business,” he says.

McCoy says this model is flexible and more able to accommodate growing needs of a business. When he joined Corporate Express in 1995, the company had slightly less than 200 staff with sales of about $70 million. Today, the company employs about 2,060 people and is approaching $900 million in sales.

“The model that we adopted right from the outset is that the best HR manager is a line manager who gets good advice and support. Today we have myself, a bunch of line managers and no HR department,” he says.

“This strategy is one of the direct contributors to our success. It wouldn’t be the only one by a long shot, but we’ve kept HR management where it’s meant to be: at the pointy end of our business, and our business is designed to enable managers to do their work. A critical part of their work is having the right people in the right place at the right time with the right skills.”

Securing business manager buy-in

Managers will either embrace or resist the responsibility for managing people, however there are a number of steps HR practitioners can take to make the process easier.

“If you try and do it from the middle without having leadership from the top you’ll probably fail,” says Parker. “The key thing is to get the ownership from the senior management down. Though it may take you a lot longer to get the support from the top, the time taken to get that far outweighs the support you’ll get once you achieve it – it will stop all the roadblocks you get along the way.”

Parker also recommends approaching business managers on their own ground in order to make the process relevant to them. “Rather than inviting them to come and understand it from your perspective, you’ve virtually got to go out to their world and understand it for them. You’ll find it will then be something they’ll become more and more comfortable with – the fact they have to do this people work.”

Kelly says that the prospect of managing HR is not such an issue for those managers with an innate sense of how to deal with people, but HR must be ready to provide support for those who are nervous about it or aren’t used to managing people. “You’ve got to be available for them to come to you and check in,” he says.

In working with line managers he says it’s also important to work with them in regards to setting parameters. “You obviously have to agree to it, but you get the buy in from them by getting them to tell you when they’ll do something. Get that commitment from them, but don’t go to them before that date. I think the worse thing you can do is say, ‘We agree that we’ll talk on Friday about this,’ but then go to them on Wednesday and ask, ‘How are you going with that job?’”

Challenges and pitfalls

There are a considerable number of challenges for the aspiring HR practitioner aiming to build bridges with managers. First and foremost is gaining an appreciation for collaboration and understanding of mutual benefits. “HR has to explain to them what it is they want managers to do and what are the business benefits associated with it. Translate it into a business opportunity rather than a HR opportunity,” Parker says. “If they can’t make it relevant to the business and how it’s going to give them a dividend that supports the business in some form, as opposed to the old ‘this will be better for you’, it’s going to be really hard for them.”

It’s also important to invest the time in training managers. “In a lot of cases it’s their first role in managing some people and they’ve usually just been thrown in the deep end,” he says. Elders has rolled out frontline development programs, middle management programs and executive programs, which assist managers with issues such as leadership and performance management, for example. “I think businesses often fail with the normal old syndrome – you take your best salesman and turn him into a manager. In that context we haven’t provided them with the tools to do their job.”

Training also assists in protecting against possible liabilities at any level of line management, according to McCoy. “I guess you’re only as good as your weakest link. One manager doing something wrong can get you into court quick smart,” he says.

“So the role for the HR department is one of coaching, guidance and facilitating, to help those people so they don’t do it wrong.”