I Am NOT a “Business Partner”

By Dr. Sullivan

Dec. 1, 2006

It’s fairly common for HR professionals to call themselves “business partners.” I hate the term. It hinders HR’s success.

    “Business partner” is a term that was invented by academics for HR people. The term “partner” confuses people in corporations because, unless your organization is a professional services firm, the term “partner” is just not used. Even those within professional services firms think of a “partner” as an “owner,” which most HR people certainly are not.

    I would avoid using the term “business partner” for a variety of other reasons, including:

  • Top management and CEOs often find it strange, because other staff functions don’t use the term “partner.” The CIO is not an “information partner,” nor is the CFO a “finance partner.”

  • It doesn’t describe what we actually do. Most titles are descriptive of a service. Business partner makes it sound like we are the partner in charge of business operations. Actually, that’s what the COO does.

  • Few HR people can define “business partner” or even agree on what it means. To be perfectly frank, when I visit corporations, I find more often than not that the people who use the term are “wannabes.”

  • Using the term demonstrates that you truly don’t understand what “partner” means. Partners have skin in the game. They are accountable not for working hard, but for producing results. If by using the term “business partner” you are actually seeking to be an equal partner with your colleagues, then you need to focus more on producing results that impress them, rather than worrying about your title or even getting that much-discussed seat at the table.

    The overuse of this invented term, I fear, can be attributed to wishful thinking. Calling yourself a partner doesn’t make it true. I could call myself the president of planet Mars, the customer service champion or HR business partner, but eventually I would learn that it is my actions and my results that determine the level of respect I receive, not some made-up title.

Should we change our title … again?
    Our function is now called “human resource management” because we didn’t like the term “personnel.” The HRM title implies that we manage “resources,” i.e., employees. To shift it again to become the “business partner function” would lead to further confusion. “Business partner” leaves out the crucial element of what we do: We manage human or employee resources in order to make them more productive.

    If I were going to make up a term for proactive HR people who have a significant business impact, I would use the term “leader” or “internal productivity consultant.” At least those terms imply that we are not trying to just catch up, but instead say that we want to lead the corporation in matters related to people management. Real leadership is obvious. If we are really experts in preventing and solving people management problems, managers will seek us out and find us, no matter what our title, rank or location.

Achievement says more than any title
    My recommendation to HR professionals is to stop using the “business partner” designation. And, for that matter, stop relying on external HR certifications to build your credibility. Demonstrate your expertise through actions and approaches that make it apparent to everyone that you are indeed an expert in forecasting, preventing and solving people management problems.

To accomplish this, use the language of business: money.
    If HR wants to gain respect, it needs to stop inventing terms like “engagement” and “empowerment.” Instead, it should focus on converting the results of HR actions in the areas of hiring, deployment, motivation, innovation and training into hard business dollars. Then everyone will understand and directly compare the impact of HR efforts with those of the marketing, finance, sales and supply-chain organizations. HR must begin to act like an organization that’s based on Six-Sigma, quarterly results and metrics. It needs to employ a decision-making approach that is used in other, more credible business functions like finance, engineering, supply chain and marketing.

    You need to be proactive. True leaders don’t wait for things to happen; they forecast upcoming problems and act to prevent or mitigate the damage. They also seek out opportunities to improve workforce productivity and present them to managers in such a way that the managers want to invest their own money in these HR programs.

    You need to build a competitive advantage. Provide the business with a competitive advantage in workforce productivity by continually comparing what you do in HR with your competitor’s people management practices. Nearly everything in business is a competition, and HR should not be exempt from this rule.

Final thoughts
    HR people have spent a lot of effort attempting to become business partners. I urge you to aim higher and continue up the ladder to the next rung, which is to become producers of measurable business results. What would you call HR professionals who acted this way? Start with the words “experts,” “respected” and “problem solvers.” And yes, you would call them leaders.

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