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Are Your HR Leaders Building a Spirit of Business Partnership?

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Over the past week I've had the opportunity to speak with the HR leaders of several global corporations. Each of these discussions had a similar theme: "How can I help my HR consultants to gain the self-confidence to act as true business partners?"

David Gergen, an advisor to several U.S. presidents, offers some helpful advice: " A leader's role is to raise people's aspirations for what they can become and to release their energies so they will try to get there."

What can HR leaders do to help HR professionals "raise their aspirations and release their energies?"

1. Demonstrate interest and effort in knowing the business. In a recent HR business partner workshop with HR managers in the insurance industry, we asked how many HR leaders had spent time with real customers in the past month. The answer was a dismal 10 percent. When asked how much time they had devoted to researching and understanding current events in their industry - the external trends that were impacting customers, competitors and investors - 80 percent of HR professionals spent less than one hour a week. When HR leaders and professionals don't put time and effort into knowing the business, they lose the right to call themselves business partners. Why would a line manager be interested in a "partner" that isn't interested in them?

2. Recognize that where you stand depends on where you sit. Although the old saying is meant metaphorically (your opinion is influenced by your perspective), we mean it literally. When HR professionals are around the business, interacting daily with line managers and employees, trust is more likely to build. Informal opportunities to talk or work together reinforce a feeling of personal relationship, and that helps self-confidence to grow. HR leaders might ask themselves, how can we better use physical space and proximity to the business to reinforce business partnership?

3. Coach and feedback. How often do you sit down with HR professionals to help them understand how to build stronger and deeper relationships with line managers? In the U.S. and elsewhere, HR work volumes are large, staffing levels have been reduced, and there remains a fairly high level of anxiety as a result of the recession cuts of 2008 and 2009. These are times when young HR professionals may be unsure how to build strong relationships with business partners. They need advice and guidance. Are they getting it from you?

4. What example do you set? A colleague in our firm, RBL Group, was recently invited to talk with the HR team of a large brokerage firm about how to fix talent management. When she asked whether talent management was a deep concern to line management, the response was a resounding yes. But when she suggested that line managers be involved in defining the needs for change and visioning a new approach to talent management, my colleague was told: "Oh no, we'd never directly involve line managers. They expect us to fix it." The message this HR leader sent her team: don't engage directly with the line managers! No wonder talent management and HR in this company has zero credibility and functions strictly on an administrative basis. Where is the value added?

As this last example points out, HR leaders play a critical role in helping - or impeding - the creation of a real sense of business partnership. Organizations like AXA in France, Maersk in Denmark, Statoil in Norway, Novartis in Switzerland and Mars in the U.S. have established a different kind of relationship - where human resources professionals operate as "stewards" of the business and culture rather than as "servants" to line managers and executives.

The starting point is the behavior and example set by HR leaders. So, what kind of example are you or your HR leaders setting through your words, actions and choices? Are you helping to construct a strong business partnership between HR and line managers, or just wishing it would be so?

Let me know what you think.

Jon Younger is a Partner of The RBL Group, a firm providing consulting and executive education in strategic HR and leadership. Jon leads the Strategic HR practice area and is also a Director of the RBL Institute. He is co-author, with Dave Ulrich and three other principals at The RBL Group, of "HR Competencies" (SHRM, 2007), "HR Transformation" (McGraw-Hill, July 2009) and many articles, and last year logged client work in 35 countries.