Kenny Tan on What It Takes to become a Great HR Business Partner

Defining the role and discussing mentors and myths

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.

For those outside the HR profession who might be wondering what all the fuss is about, the HR Business Partner or HRBP is a term that was popularised by the HR academic and consultant, David Ulrich in the late 1990s. The complexity, in the profession, over the years arose largely because of HR’s history. With roots in administration, personnel and compliance (all of which were driven by necessity), it’s no wonder that HR has long developed a reputation and a PR problem.

This idea of the HRBP is aimed at showing how HR can be better integrated and at the centre of the business so that there is less issue with identifying who they are, what they represent to the business and what value they provide.

To this end, I’ve been conducting a series of interviews with senior HR leaders and HRBPs. In this article, I share an interview with Kenny Tan. Based in Kuala Lumpur, Kenny is the former Vice President and Head of Human Resources at Lazada Malaysia.

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

Kenny: For the last decade or so, much has been said about the relevance of the HRBP as people with the knowledge of the business. What this means is that the role requires more than just understanding the kind of business it is in. Rather, the HRBP needs to have the acumen and mindset of a business person who happens to be in an HR role!

To be successful as an HRBP, you need to have the training, knowledge and mindset of everything business-oriented. This means looking at things like risk-return, situational/scenario planning, finance, ROI, matrices,  make versus buy, being more analytics-driven, projections, forecast, margins, brand and appeal, trajectory, next levels, perception, touchpoints, PR, safety, technology, supply chain and much more.

Gaining an understanding of more than just lingo is essential for an HRBP to be effective and relevant to the business they support.

If these things are in place, the HRBP will be able to have a very business-like conversation with the CEO/MD/Board and will be efficacious in providing a solution-based approach which is business relevant within the framework of good HR governance and practices.

In summary, I would say be financially literate, take an interest in reading anything that impacts the business, train to become a more effective negotiator and influencer and finally, listen and communicate well.

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?

Kenny: We outsource the kind of things that most others also outsource. Things like payroll, despatch, and to some extent, travel bookings.

These were not difficult for us to decide on as we constantly look for what we want to focus on so that we deliver greater impact on the business. We also look for services which we can leverage on, in order for us to optimise our time, effort and impact on the business. The value in proportion to the internal investment we have to make, in order to continue delivering these services in-house is, therefore, clear decision drivers.

What aspects of your work are strategic?

Kenny: There are three areas specifically:

  • the business partner role – This role is a business-relevant role in that we influence the people agenda and its relevance to the business. This includes, for example, the person’s fit within a team in terms of group dynamics, attitude and agility to influence the team positively, ability to value-add through various experiences as well as any new ideas which are monetisable ie which can be commercialised to grow the business sustainably;
  • people development – This involves building and creating a learning curriculum that grows an employee’s skillsets that match the needs of the organisation and that of the individual realistically. This is done by developing learning and development processes and policies as well as providing active support that provides flexibility and promotes  an environment where people take challenges and risks and are willing to experiment;
  • culture and behaviour – This is about a focus on building and influencing an ecosystem that promotes productivity, teamwork, harmony, respect for people and performance within the context of the ecosystem –  people, the organisation as a whole, the community, business partners, suppliers, government and local councils, shareholders, customers as well as next-generation potential employees.

How have you brought greater strategic input into your deliverables?

Kenny: Over the years, I have been fortunate to work across a wide spectrum of broad roles.

Some of these roles involved me spending quite a few years specialising and doing a deep dive.  I have also learnt a lot from others. I have been privileged to gain mentors and coaches who helped shape my professional outlook. The bottom line is to always have a clear deliverable on the what, why, how, and to agree and align with stakeholders on the outcomes (both the tangible and intangibles).

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

Kenny: A great HRBP must:

  • have commercial acumen;
  • love numbers and analytics;
  • be able to see the big picture;
  • be an effective communicator/listener; and
  • be effective at building relationships across all levels of the business.

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

Kenny: For me, it was not difficult given my training and background in accounting, finance, capital markets and also, having had some contract law training. I’ve always looked at things in terms of how they impact the business and its people.

However, I have observed that many HR professionals in Malaysia tend to be more comfortable with HR operational work. That said, I have also noticed in the last 10 years or so, that more and more people are coming into HR from other backgrounds.

It’s really only a matter of time for the requirements for a holistic HR person to come from a mixed set of experiences, training and backgrounds.

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

Kenny: That it’s just all about the relationship with the person. That it’s just a coordinating role and while these two are true and good attributes you should have, your efforts must translate into a solution. If it does not, then others may view this more as a relationship manager or as a go-between.

In the end, what you should hope to achieve is a situation where solutions provided make business sense even though it may originate from an HR person.

How do you get invited into critical conversations?

Kenny: Be competent in terms of your business. Demonstrate a clear understanding of non-HR discussions in a way where you’re not merely following but able to hold a meaningful conversation. In the end, what you should hope to achieve is a situation where solutions provided make business sense even though it may originate from an HR person.

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?

Kenny: Obviously, this means you need to get out of your chair and walk about. You need to be connected to all aspects of the business by doing this because you cannot expect to learn and understand your business without stepping out of your zone.

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

Kenny: Absolutely! Business is all about delivering financial targets. For example, the primary purpose for any venture (even for an NGO) is the ability to generate sustainable cash flow, possess a strong balance sheet, obtain profits, make investments etc. These are all must-haves. It will be extremely difficult for an HRBP if they are not comfortable working with numbers.  It will not work and it will not be effective.

You need to be connected to all aspects of the business by doing this because you cannot expect to learn and understand your business without stepping out of your zone.

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

Kenny: Stakeholder management. You have to understand where the influencers are and build those relationships accordingly.

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

Kenny: There are three must-haves:

  1. a stable and comprehensive integrated automation process;
  2. a mature and competent HR specialist and for some, this might involve the set-up of Centres of Excellence (COE); and
  3. seasoned HRBPs of course.

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

Kenny: Get feedback from all your stakeholders. Be very open and transparent in receiving them.

This feedback needs to be specific about the areas that are well managed and those which are not. Identifying root causes is critical because without this it will be a challenge to know specifically what to improve on, where you need to press on and do more etc.

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

Kenny: Like any team being established, it’s about an understanding of the roles, what skills are required for these roles and getting a correct mix into the team. You’ve got to develop a clear understanding of what is required to support the business so that you can then go on to determine the type of people that the organisation requires, to operate at its optimal level.

When I am building a team, I look at a few areas – diversity of skill sets, transferable skill sets and the ability to appreciate the financial perspective are all essential.

Kenny TanKenny Tan is an accidental HR practitioner who declared, many years ago, that HR is a role he will never understand, let alone get into as a career.  With a background in accounting and finance, his early years were shaped by many coaches and mentors whom he had the privilege to work with.

It is these experiences which have opened up his soul to what it means to be in the business of people. He sees himself as a business person handling a corporate role in an HR function.

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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