Deon Smit on What It Takes to Become a Great HR Business Partner

You must be able to offer advice and insights which nobody else can provide.

This article is part of my series of articles on what it takes to become a great HR business partner. Read more articles in this series.

What does it mean to be an HR Business Partner today?

Deon : I have worked as an HRBP for most of my career, interrupted by stints in specialist/head office type roles; at all levels from entry level (as a young graduate) to HR country manager. As a specialist, you need to know your field intimately and be able to promote your ideas, projects and latest thinking continuously. For me, it has been in areas like Assessment Centres, Executive Management development, Change Management Consulting, Strategy and currently, Workforce Planning.

As an HRBP/generalist, you can tap into these specialist experiences if and when required but it is critically important to be able to talk about more than hire and fire. You must understand the business in all its complexity to be able to have insightful conversations with the managers that you support.

This is difficult in IT.

There are business units, solutions, verticals, technologies, products, partners and vendors, market segments; all need to come together and all play a vital part in effective IT services delivery to the client. You need this business knowledge to even have a chance of being a successful HRBP.

You must be able to offer advice and insights which nobody else can provide. If you can’t, then the old saying comes to mind. “If you don’t add value, you add cost”.  To add real value, you need to be willing to learn all the time, be open to change and new ways of doing “HR things”.

In my view, these are baseline requirements. It sets you up for moving into a role which is actually required and valued by the organisation and its leadership, be that at a strategic or even more operational level.

Is there a significant portion of your typical HR transactional work that is outsourced? Were you involved in that decision? If so, how did you successfully put your case forward for outsourcing?

Deon : Yes, in the two organisations that I have worked for in the past 10 years. I was involved, to a degree, but mostly on the implementation projects. I can only share from that perspective. The cost benefits are well known but it does provide challenges for the HRBP community.

It requires a change of our own mind sets. We cannot and do not need to control everything HR. We need to let go at the right time but we need to manage it carefully.

Key success factors, in my experience, come down to diligently managing service delivery (especially in the early stages) and staying close to your managers to pick up on problems before they become debilitating major issues!  Manuals and process maps must be 100% clear and you need to stick to those, once agreed and signed off. “Enforcing” that discipline during the early stages of implementation is paramount, be that through training, education, awareness and selling the benefits and sometimes by decree!

Emphasise commonalities in underlying skills (for example, administration and interviewing) and process rather than country or location uniqueness – the most common argument against a shared services construct…. be very prepared for this one!

What aspects of your work do you consider to be strategic? How have you brought greater strategic input into your deliverables?

Deon : Currently, a good example is our Global Workforce Planning process. Our company strategy created the baseline for what we had to do in respect of our workforce of the future. It identified what will be required for the business to be successful.  Specifically also, what types of services we will need to be able to take to market in the future.

From this, it identified the critical skills and competencies groups which will be required to be able to deliver to these future needs. Being a global organisation, we did not know where and how much of these skills we currently had across all the regions and countries. It led to a massive exercise where we requested ALL of our technical employees to rate themselves on all current and future required competencies.

This was verified by their managers. Using special reporting tools, we were able to identify skills gaps per country, per region and also globally. We then assisted the countries to do their Workforce Planning to identity and plan for closing these gaps off in their country-based strategy, training and talent acquisition plans and budgets.

This project would have been impossible without a focus on and use of a global HRIS and big data analytics. A perfect example of how HR can in fact contribute to strategy planning and execution in a big way.

When working with projects of this magnitude, it is important to translate the complexity to something that is simple and digestible for those who have to roll it out and participate in the process.

Sometimes you have to create your own models and pitch them at every opportunity to reinforce importance and associated required learnings. Be confident about it but always listen to feedback. Changing the name/label of a box in a model (if it does not change the fundamental model) is easy to do and advisable if it satisfies and facilitates greater acceptance by key stakeholders.

What are the key aspects of being a great HR business partner?

Deon : Apart from what I have already highlighted, you need to be aware of and sometimes “make your peace” with some HRBP realities.

Firstly, you can never win over all the managers, stakeholders or interested parties to see it your way.  Be very mindful of a sometimes-prevalent HR paradigm which demeans the quality and value of managers (“our managers just don’t know how to do it, they don’t care about their people, they are stupid etc”). You will undermine your own propensity to succeed in your role if you approach your role with this kind of mind set.

Business knowledge and political awareness is non-negotiable when it comes to your key competencies in this role. Don’t be too naïve and be passionate about a least two or three things that need changing in the organisation such as a strategically important project, employee engagement or improving the quality of hiring. You will get known for that, and in the end, respected for that …. and more.

For me, international exposure has been very, very helpful. I started my career in Africa but also worked and consulted in the UK, Hong Kong, USA, Australia and New Zealand. Nothing has been more helpful than that. Seek out and push hard for those opportunities and pursue it with commitment, openness of mind and visible energy. Travel as much as you can!

What have you done to develop a deeper understanding of the business you are in?

Deon : Each industry has some common qualities, issues and opportunities. For example, in IT, people cost is the biggest portion of total cost and has the biggest impact on profit margins; finding good quality people in this very competitive market is difficult and drives up the cost.

I have always tried to understand how these types of key dynamics in the industry impact on the company that I work for at any given time.

Here’s another example. In corporate and merchant banking, I worked with the brightest of the industry : Chartered Accountants , Capital and Money market and forex managers, project financiers and listing/IPO consultants, Investment and Fund managers.  If you want to design a bonus scheme for these guys in a corporate environment, you need to fully understand what they do on daily basis and what it is that drives them as they do it.

Talk to senior managers, middle managers, supervisors and operating /frontline people as often and as much as you can, all the time.  Ask questions, be or act dumb and ignorant instead of arrogant. Show a willingness to listen and learn from them about their jobs.

Talk to product and project managers. Learn their language and the key factors that they are measured on, such as average percentage utilisation of specialists and consultants, charge-out rates, costs, margin and overheads.

Learn their jargon. This has been difficult for an introvert like me but whenever I joined a company, it was the first thing I forced myself to do, before I proposed any changes or anything new.

How do you balance the need to take charge and question legacy systems versus following organisational vision?

Deon : Just do it. Workplaces are not democracies. While consulting with KEY stakeholders is key, you can end up going around in circles. Accept the simple fact that you will never get 100 percent agreement from all. Get on with it.

Question politely and respectfully. If you do that, even the hard questions will not be threatening to a good manager. Don’t be a smart-ass; good business managers will out-play you.  Get alongside them and work WITH them. Pick your battles wisely and shut up when you need to.

There will always be another day. If you know your stuff, you will experience many ITYS (I-told-you so-moments) down the line … but don’t tell them that.

I have worked for large corporates for most of my career and have been fortunate to experience the most amazing opportunities in the process. Head offices have the tendency to want to prescribe what you should do and how you should do it, for example on new projects or initiatives that are being rolled out across the company. Don’t make it your mission to fight and disagree with all of them.

My approach has always been to work with them, asking the difficult-to-answer questions but showing a clear commitment to what they are trying to achieve. At the same time, I make very sure that I understand enough of the project to be able to translate that for our local/location management team and employees.

How do you measure the success of your HR initiatives against business results?

Deon : This is not the text book answer that you might expect. Can I be honest? I have stopped worrying about that.  The key test is whether your work is aligned with and supports the strategies of the organisation and whether you have acquired sign-off for the project/s and the cost of those projects.

When you are working on a specific project or system, it can be done through leading indicators like working within budget and according to timelines. Typically, you can add some anecdotal evidence and user feedback to that as well.

The textbooks list and explain many of these measurement techniques. Some work, some don’t. Some are so costly and time consuming that it defeats the purpose. This does not mean that you don’t have to be conscious of and diligent in respect of cost management and project viability, that goes without saying.

However, when it comes to trying to justify your existence as an HR person or department based on complex ROI and other calculations, I have a very simple belief. If your company, in this modern age, asks you to do that, find a different company to work for … ASAP!

What is the biggest myth about being a great business partner?

Deon : That it is only about turning up and be friendly and nice – it’s not.  Relationships are important but if you don’t use them to build a deep understanding of the business and its challenges, you will have a great time socially but not achieve much.

Make sure that when you get a request the first time, you sit down, think it through, talk to other managers and HRBP colleagues and provide the best possible value-added thinking and insight and suggestions possible. There is no such thing as a second impression.

You must always follow policy and procedure. Managers know this and they normally know the policies and procedures well enough (they can read that in your manuals, on the intranet or chat to a chat-bot/AI or “person” in the shared services centre).

When they contact you it is, more often than not, about urgent and pragmatic solutions and advice to a non-standard request, issue or problem. Pragmatism and workable solutions will always trump theoretical and policy driven advice. Pragmatism could ruffle the feathers of your policymakers but I strongly believe that HRBPs cannot be effective if they are not willing to test the limits of policies sometimes and frequently their own!

How do you get invited into critical conversations?

Deon : With great difficulty, time and patience. It takes mindful application and hard work.

Sometimes you are included, simply by virtue of your position eg as a country HR Manager but what are you to do if you are a young, recently appointed HRBP? Realistically speaking, you cannot expect them to trust you from day one.

They are senior leaders for a reason. You have to earn your keep, establish your credibility and be worthy of their trust. Most of them would have had to do the same. Expecting them to trust you with contributing to the strategy planning of the business as a whole, if your payroll cannot pay their people correctly, is simply not a valid expectation. Get the little things –  the basics –  right, firstly and always, whether it be turnaround times, recruitment interviews, providing correct data, etc. You have to be willing to draw the curtains before you enter the stage as an actor (not sure that there is a saying like this but I am using it)!

What has worked for me was to actively and deliberately develop my group facilitation skills.

When facilitating any session for groups (for example, team planning, conflict resolution etc), you have to ask questions and then question the answers all the time. This was dramatically helpful in my learning and personal development. Doing this well, led to requests for facilitating planning sessions at different levels in the business, eventually strategic planning sessions for key groups and eventually doing that for the business leadership teams.

It took many years of building that skill, specifically the business knowledge and process understanding to underpin it. Experience, in this case, was the best tutor.

How do you ensure you see the bigger picture ie outside the perspective of your own function? What concrete steps do you take to achieve this?

Deon : Read, read, read, even more so than just about your own field.

Read business magazines, papers about country politics and economic indicators and climate, competitor activity, factors which create or inhibit success in your type of business, for example key costs, revenue streams, client preferences, changes in the verticals and in your industry.  If your business clients understand and know that you know about this stuff, then they might give you an opportunity to talk to them about your pet project, about the value of properly planned change management, about a new model on employee engagement and how they can use it.

Is financial literacy key to you becoming more relevant to the business? If so, how?

Deon : Yes, without a doubt. Study the business financials and profit/loss every month (if you don’t get them or can’t find them, pick a good reason why you must have them and get on the DL). If you don’t understand the difference between terms like PBIT and average margin …. ask and ask again. Find a friend in Finance (this could be difficult – you know the many stories about the accountant and the… ).

What has been key to you building better relationships across the organisation?

Deon : Some of us are better at building and fostering good relationships than other. This is not my natural strength. I recognised that early in my career and had to develop additional strategies to build the best possible relationships and personal credibility. If you are like me, you might have to fall back on your natural style.

In my case, it has been on being well prepared, understanding the topics better than others in the room, being on top of the latest research and market dynamics. I have found that knowledge, understanding and deep insight can do it for you but do not rely on that as your only strategy.

Be super responsive and quick. Anticipate questions in advance and prepare answers (think them through multiple times before a meeting). Identify the key players and influencers as soon as you possibly can and focus your best relationship building skills on them. Find out and know what is important to them now and in the future.

How have you seen that it is best to structure HR in order to provide support to the organisation?

Deon : A very short answer based on years of working in and experimenting with many different models and forms:

  • Operations/administration (as a shared service if there is adequate critical mass);
  • COEs (Centres of Excellence) (for example, talent acquisition, learning and development, employment relations);
  • Business partners (generalists); and
  • Payroll is optional (ideally not part of HR).

What have you learnt so far about how to get the right people into the right roles?

Deon : In short, if in doubt, don’t appoint. Don’t get caught in the personality trap (either way, positive or negative). Take your time and more time, even if the pressure is on.

Pay more attention to character references (integrity will always beat showmanship) and remember that overnight career success is seldom a good predictor of future success. People skills and leadership qualities are more important than ever.

Past behaviour is a predictor of future behaviour, no arguments please. If somebody changes jobs every 3-6 months, don’t waste your time because even the best laid retention plans will not help. Be careful not to overuse behavioural interviewing.

This next question should always be a top of mind question to yourself during the recruitment process: What is more important, willingness or ability?

I have lived and worked by the principle that you can develop somebody’s abilities but willingness/attitude comes from who the candidate is at a  personal and deep-seated being level. It cannot be taught, coached or mentored, at least not in a short period of time.

When you have a clear successor for a role (internal or external), don’t advertise unless it is required by law or written into a union agreement. Speed is sometimes of the utmost importance and if you are advertising simply to satisfy some internal or externally imposed pseudo-requirement, rather go for speed.

Lastly, and many professional recruiters will disagree with me, trust your instinct (or your gut-feel if you want to call it that).

In my career, it has only let me down once. Having said that, no candidate is ever perfect.  If you are going to go with an appointment in a certain role but you have concerns about some areas in his/her make-up, identify them clearly, anticipate the risks or potential downsides and ensure that you put strategies in place to manage those with the new employee. Oh yes… and good strategic workforce planning is also necessary!


Deon SmitDeon Smit is an experienced HR manager and HR Business Partner with a history of working internationally in the Information Technology and Financial Services industry. He is skilled in Talent Management, HR Consulting, Personnel Management, Employee Engagement and Change Management, Succession Planning and Employment Relations. Armed with a master’s degree in Industrial and Organisational Psychology, Deon has worked as Country HR Manager for HP and Dimension Data New Zealand respectively. Currently, he is in a regional role (Asia Pacific) focusing on Workforce Planning and Talent Acquisition. His answers are not text book ones. More than anything, it is based on his experience and who he is as person.

This article is part of my series of articles on what it takes to become a great HR business partner. Read more articles in this series.

Vertical Distinct offers the Strategic HR Business Partner certification, a three day HCI offering that helps you build credibility as an HR leader that influences, impacts and advances your business and your career. Find out more about the SHRBP course programme, scheduled dates and cities where you can register.

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