Jessica Michael on What It Takes to Become a Great HR Business Partner

“Sometimes, small gestures mean a lot to people.”

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

Jessica: It means working closely with your business managers and your senior leadership team to help build people capabilities and work towards your organisation’s goals in a strategic way.

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?

Jessica:  No, we have a People Services Specialist who handles all HR transactional work.

What aspects of your work do you consider to be strategic?

Jessica:  Almost 100 percent of my work is strategic as I’m the People Business Partner for the non-sales function in Asia (Malaysia and Singapore) and for Product APAC (which includes Australia).  I provide strategic advice to my function stakeholders on a range of issues including retention planning, resource utilisation, succession planning, talent upskilling and more.

How have you been able to bring greater strategic input into your deliverables?

Jessica: I do this by setting up weekly one on one calls with my stakeholders. In these calls, we discuss their pain points, short-term goals and also, how I can help them achieve their goals through their people.  This is key especially since my stakeholders are located in multiple cities around the world.

I’ve learnt to not be afraid and to ask questions (even silly ones) so I can learn more about the respective business functions that I support.

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

Jessica: I consider it important to listen and read between the lines. You need to communicate your ideas and challenge all decisions with facts.  It’s also important to have great people and influencing skills

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

Jessica:  I’ve learnt to not be afraid and to ask questions (even silly ones) so I can learn more about the respective business functions that I support. In this way, it becomes easier to understand where they are coming from and to have a clearer direction of where the business is moving towards. Then I am able to support them along those lines.

What are some critical communication challenges you have faced and how did you overcome these?

Jessica:  I’ve not had any major communications challenges as we’re able to communicate remotely via Microsoft Teams.

How do you balance the need to take charge and yet, question legacy systems and ways of thinking?

Jessica: There’s always room for improvement and while we want to change things sometimes, legacy systems are there for a reason. We can’t change things overnight so we need to look at the pros and cons of changing them as well as mind-set change.

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

Jessica: We have quarterly Pulse Surveys and we look at eNPS (employee Net Promoter Scores) scores which is one way we measure.  We also have company goals that are cascaded top down to the respective functions. This becomes my KPI for each financial year.

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

Jessica:  That it’s just another title for HR Manager.  To be a great business partner, you need to act like a consultant to your stakeholders and your senior leadership team. You need to be an HR generalist which means a few things – sound knowledge about employee engagement, organisational change management, talent acquisition and development, industrial relations and more.

How do you get invited into critical conversations?

Jessica:  By taking the time to listen to them, build the rapport and gain their trust. Then, contribute feedback on how they can do things differently for their function.

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?

Jessica: It’s important to understand the financial aspects of your organisation and see how you can help the function leaders align in terms of the organisation’s goals.  I do this by working with function managers on their budgets especially headcount budgets and deliverables. Once we have sorted it out, we look at how we can maximise resources within the team to achieve the desired results.

Do you believe that financial literacy is key to you becoming more relevant to the business? If so, how?

Jessica:  Yes, it is important since we are business partners to the key stakeholders of the organisation.  We need to be aligned with the organisation’s goals, KPIs and deliverables. This enables us to help our business leaders work towards a common revenue goal.

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

Jessica:  There have been a few things.  By walking the floor daily to chat with colleagues and ask them how they’re doing. Small chats at the pantry or wherever. With remote leaders, I have weekly one on one calls to touch base on any issue that might surface but also, just to have a chat. I find these to be fairly effective in building better relationships. Sometimes, small gestures mean a lot to people.

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

Jessica:  It’s good to have SMEs (Subject Matter Experts) in areas like Learning and Development, Rewards and Benefits and Recruitment in the CoE (Centre of Expertise) who work closely with HRBPs because we relate more to them than some of the business leaders. They may not have all the time in the world to communicate with so many different sets of people either. So a single point of contact may actually be quite good for them.

How do you review how well HR is currently meeting its needs?

Jessica:  In my current organisation, we have a quarterly Pulse Survey and we have eNPS scores. These help us to check how well we’re doing in various aspects including HR. Looking at the areas that are going well and the areas that need improvement.  We have done this for the second consecutive year and it has helped us retain what works well. We’ve also had the opportunity to improve what needs improving.

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

Jessica:  It’s important to always ask the right questions during the interview. Often, you can gauge what potential employees are looking for and how long they will stay with the organisation by simply asking the right questions.  When they are already in the organisation, we sometimes find that some colleagues may be better suited in roles contrary to what they were hired to and based on vacancies and flexibility within the organisation. We have managed to retain colleagues who are actually high potentials but who were under-performing simply because of a bad fit with their roles.

Again, simply by learning to ask the right questions, we’re able to reduce the attrition rate and increase employee productivity.

Are there any articles, whitepapers, surveys or blogs readers should check out for more information on this topic?

Jessica:  There are many articles and resources on the internet. But what I have found most useful is to hear the real-life experiences of others in HR roles.

Any tasks or activities you’d like to suggest to people to get started with?

Jessica:  I strongly believe that you just need to have passion. Be passionate about people and you have won half the battle. The rest is just knowledge that you can gain in order to become Subject Matter Experts.


Jessica Ann Michael is a strategic advisor to the business leaders of certain functions for Malaysia, Singapore and Australia and the HR Manager in Malaysia for a tech company.  She is also a certified HRDF trainer who has vast experience designing and delivering soft skills and leadership development programmes. Jessica has a Masters in HRM and Industrial Relations from the University of Newcastle,  Australia.

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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