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How will the HRBP role evolve post-pandemic?

Jennifer Wich, Managing Director & Partner - Kincentric

The HR Business Partner (HRBP) role has been around in concept since the late 90’s, when Dave Ulrich published his seminal book, Human Resource Champions[1]. But over the past 18 months, the role of the HRBP has changed dramatically, becoming less tactical and more strategic almost overnight as organizational leaders and employees sought guidance and support navigating through incredibly challenging times.  To learn more about how the HRBP role has changed, Kincentric interviewed top-performing HRBPs and identified six traits critical to success in the role:

  1. Serve as a coach to business leaders

The ability to serve as a coach has become the hallmark of top HR Business Partners. A strong HRBP can coach business leaders on their individual leadership effectiveness and help them drive solutions for the business. This requires the ability to challenge the leader’s perceptions, refocusing away from problems to desired solutions. They must have the confidence to ask difficult questions with a posture of openness and a sense of curiosity, helping leaders to think differently.  The HRBP needs to listen, be strategic in their response and help the leader understand the implications of their decisions.

  1. Act as business leaders first, HR practitioners second

The successful HRBP sees themselves as an integral member of the leadership team as well as a member of the HR function, continuously striking a balance between the two.  This requires them to think differently about how they apply their expertise to achieve desired business outcomes and come to the table with solutions that drive impact. Doing this effectively requires the HRBP to build credibility with leaders so that they are not just viewed as the “HR person” in the room. It requires them to be clear with leaders on the purpose of their role and demonstrate the value they bring. This is what earns them a seat at the table.

  1. Serve as the “connector” between the business and HR function

While top HRBPs consider themselves “business first”, they also play the unique role of serving as the bridge between the business and the “rest of HR”. They need to translate business needs to shape the development of people solutions, programs and tools that drive talent and business outcomes.  While HRBPs cannot be expected to be the expert in all things HR, they must be able to connect with the right resources when necessary and maintain close relationships with their peers and partners in HR COEs and HR Operations teams.

  1. Perform with courage

One element consistently mentioned as a critical differentiator for top HRBPs is the ability to demonstrate courage on an ongoing basis–courage to say ‘no’, courage to be direct and openly share their perspectives, courage to push leaders to make effective decisions, and the courage to make decisions while dealing in the “grey”. The role of an HRBP is not to be an order taker but a strategic business partner, and to be effective the HRBP needs to set the right expectations with leaders. Further, the HRBP needs to be comfortable asserting their opinion and sharing their perspectives to drive the right outcomes for the business.

  1. Exhibit agility and flexibility

The experiences of the past year have underscored the importance of being agile and adaptable. From creating cross-functional teams to solve urgent business problems to reprioritizing the HR agenda (again and again), this is the new reality within which HRBPs must operate. Recognizing that one size may not fit all, effective HRBPs must remain open-minded, listening and learning before jumping in to solve issues. Solutions must be grounded in an understanding of the needs of the employees as well as the needs of the business. Modeling agility and flexibility, the top HRBP helps the business transform the status quo and assists the organization to be nimbler and more adaptable.

  1. Speak the truth as an inspiring storyteller

There is power in words. Through words and actions, the HRBP speaks truth, takes a stand, and advocates for change that drives evolution.  The ability to tell a good story that stirs and transforms hearts and minds has become a critical business skill, and the strong HRBP has mastered this. Keeping an ear to the ground, listening to the employee voice, and using data to provide insights about the most critical talent needs is how HRBPs provide value to business leaders.

In the wake of the pandemic, the role will surely continue to evolve, but these foundational traits will always serve HRBPs well.

[1] Dave Ulrich, “Human Resource Champions: The Next Agenda for Adding Value and Delivering Results”, 1997

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