At the RBL Group, we work with a wide variety of client organizations helping HR leaders and professionals increase their skills as business partners. Last week, we had the privilege of delivering our HR Business Partner (HRBP) workshop to the HR executive team of a leading global financial services firm. The participants included HR executives from the UK, Japan, Belgium, France, Switzerland, Mexico and the US.
This was a group of smart, experienced HR leaders. But, for them, and for HR leaders and professionals across industries and geographies, a challenging question is "Who is my customer?" Most of the individuals in the workshop regarded internal line managers as their customer. As one of these individuals stated, "In our company, HR is expected to do a good job of executing on the HR priorities identified by line managers." As such, few HR leaders and professionals invest meaningful time in understanding the needs and expectations of external customers.
But, can HR deliver true value to line managers without a good "SWOT" perspective -- an appreciation for the strengths and weaknesses of the organization and a thorough working knowledge of external environmental opportunities and threats? Does the role of HR include a responsibility to see the organization as it is viewed and experienced by external customers, investors and other stakeholders?
Our research (see our book HR Competencies by Ulrich, Brockbank, Johnson, Sandholtz and Younger) demonstrates that the most important competency of high performing HR professionals and leaders is that they operate as credible activists, not just as "pairs of hands." Strong HR professionals and leaders do external as well as internal homework, and identify company needs and requirements from the outside in. They do so by making time and effort to meet with customers and understand their experiences, to read what investment analysts and competitors are saying about the company, and to follow current events that shape the performance of the organization. By seeing the company from an external stakeholder perspective, HR professionals operate as true business partners, helping line managers see the HR priorities that will increase organizational performance.
A workshop activity made this point in a powerful way. A new Doubletree hotel is being built next door to the Westin hotel, where we were holding the workshop. To help these HR leaders experience the importance of a outside-in perspective, we divided them into two teams: one team role-played "Westin managers" who were reviewing service performance. The other team took on the role of "Doubletree spies" looking for weaknesses to exploit. Both teams observed for 30-minutes and then reported back.
The outcome was striking. The group role-playing Westin managers came back with a positive report and just a few small problems to correct. The Doubletree spies returned with a long list of service problems. In other words, the team role-playing line managers either missed or rationalized many of the problems identified by the "spies". For example, the spies pointed out that there were not enough desk staff to handle check-outs and guests were growing impatient. The team role-playing Westin managers missed it. The spies noticed that delayed room cleaning had frustrated guests who wanted to check in. Again, it was missed by the managers. Third, cell phones didn't work in the hotel, a major problem for Westin's primarily business clientele. The team role-playing Westin managers blamed the phone company, but lost sight of the frustration it was causing hotel guests. Each of these problems had an important HR element.
From this activity, workshop participants learned the power of an outside-in perspective and the importance of operating as a true business partner, not "pairs of hands." They found that responding to line management's agenda for HR isn't enough. Real partnership requires HR professionals to do their own due diligence to understand the business and what issues should be keeping line managers up at night. If HR defines its role solely as meeting the expectations of line managers, we miss the opportunity to perform as true strategic business partners and to deliver greater value to the organization.
High performing HR business partners don't just react. Instead, they bring insight, new perspectives and creative solutions to the business needs of line managers. They create value by making sure they are informed and thoughtful about the needs of customers, the weaknesses and vulnerabilities of competitors, and the best practices of admired companies. And, they do so by doing their homework ... from the outside in.
What do you think? How well are your HR professionals and leaders thinking outside-in?
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.