Pearly Tan on What It Takes to Become a Great HR Business Partner

“The most critical communication challenge I faced was to bring awareness to leaders.”

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?

Pearly: I believe that it means having an understanding of and staying relevant to the business. It also means being able to prepare for what is coming our way. It means an ability to foresee the challenges and needs ahead so that you can continue supporting the business to develop resilience, continuity and building bridges to connect others.

There is a diverse set of qualities that the HR Business Partner is expected to acquire.  You have got to be a well-rounded individual, be emotionally intelligent, be business-minded, and most importantly, have people (I stress this again) at heart.

People make the culture – it’s not the coffee machine nor the beanbags.  It is only by having a true interest in people that you will be able to understand the internal culture of the organisation and understand how to support and make the improvements within.

What aspects of your work  are strategic?

Pearly: There are a few areas I can think of and which always remain my focus. First, support the leadership team to develop the leadership objectives and their unique way of working to ensure an integrated team and alignment across the various functions and across the organisation.

Second, drive the talent management strategy by building a solid talent pipeline and capabilities. Third, build connections within functions and departments.  One of the key successes of any business is to understand the power of networking and the ability to connect opportunities to achieve win-win business goals. The same mindset can be applied to a strategic HR Business Partner who understands the benefits of building a win-win networking relationship both internally and externally.

How have you brought greater strategic input into your deliverables?

Pearly: It has been a challenging year or I should say a fruitful year for me. Aside from being an HRBP in the KL Global Business Centre, I have also been tasked to take over the sales offices in Singapore and Australia shortly after joining the company. It’s been less than a year that I joined.  To stay focused on the day to day and yet, to simultaneously get the buy-in from leaders across different functions is really not an easy task.

My focus is to build the HR function credibility with our leaders and teams. For example, I support the leaders on organisational redesign, connecting the business units to the Center of Excellence to learn best practices, develop and up-skill employees, understand each functional need and then develop job matrices specifically for the critical functions to ensure key talent is retained.

Also, I am the go-to person whenever leaders or employees need to have an open discussion and explore possibilities either in terms of changes in business plans or changes in career.  All the strategies have been implemented as planned and things have been positive.

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

Pearly: The key aspects are to be consistent in any situation and regardless of who we are dealing with.  The message is always about aligning and advocating on “building resilience, building continuity and building a bridge for others”.

For the longest time I have been trying to do my “job” well as an HR practitioner. But I’ve come to realise that this is simply not enough. Maybe, it’s even been a wrong approach in today’s business environment.

In a few years, the transactional role here will be less in demand due to the rapid growth of smart automation technology. Organisations depend greatly on HR and the HRBP to drive the transformation forward. If we do not realise this by now and learn what we need to get done to build resilience and continuity, we will soon be left behind.

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

Pearly: I’ve participated in business launches, engaged with dealers and clients and also been networking.  This not only allowed me to understand the client pool we have but it has also helped me understand how our business leaders drive the business forward and shape product strategy.  Also, most importantly, I’ve been working to understand which talent profile mapping and skills are required to best fit the business and the direction that we are moving in.

I’m part of the business leadership team that helps drive the culture. I have monthly discussions with our Finance Controller to understand business performance and operating costs and I use this to explore how I can best support the business.

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

Pearly: The most critical communication challenge I faced was to bring awareness to leaders. By this I mean making observations on leadership behaviours that need to change or improve.  Some of them accepted the feedback with an open heart but some do take it quite hard. I always focus the communication on ensuring that I have people at the heart of it.

To do this, I focus on coaching the leaders on what the ultimate outcome that they want to see is and what behaviours are necessary in order to make that happen. I do this instead of telling them what they are doing wrong. Do those behaviours work? If not, is there a better way?  Eventually, it kicks in.

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

Pearly: The only way to ensure the success of HR initiatives is to stay relevant to the business and to the people.  Understand what need to be done to achieve business results.  For example, collecting data on the type of personality traits that a high achiever will have in our organisation.  Employee engagement pulse checks, noticing what works and what did not, engaging in dialogue or one on one sessions with various people and leaders in order to get feedback.

I love that one of the culture principals in our organisation is to “start small and learn quickly”. It really fits into the agile working mind set. We’re constantly getting feedback, tweaking to make improvements and trying again.

There are many ways to measures the success of our initiatives. You can do things like surveys, ensure that your staff is stable and reduce turnover. Getting that recognition from your leaders also helps – when they have fruitful discussions with me and I am able to give them a new perspective on how to do things and they come back for more, that’s always a great thing!  And there have been times when these leaders are not even from the country that I am supporting.

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

Pearly: This is an interesting question.  I can think of a few but I would say that there are two very common myths.

First, we are seen as the expert on everything related to human beings, including depression and psychological problems.  The fact is that we don’t always have the answer and we are not the expert on handling employee depression. However, we are curious and so we will work to find solutions and get the best professional on board to provide help and assistance.

The second myth is that HRBPs always have high energy.  No, we are not always at our best because we are like any other human being out there.  We have moments when our brain freezes or we are drained emotionally and mentally.  But we always know our limit and we find ways to re-energize and refocus.

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

Pearly: Yes!  This is important. We must understand and be aware of our financial situation and direction is very important for the HRBP. This is so that we can plan around the given budget and even help to remind leaders that we have certain parameters within which we can play. We can be creative, optimise and leverage other platforms.

For example, we can leverage our efforts by developing a business success newsletter or running a press conference when planning activities related to employer branding instead of spending huge amounts of money to buy advertising.

Also, we have to be mindful of our headcount and any reshuffling process that may impact the cost centre’s operating cost budget etc. The HRBP also plays an important role to update finance about unexpected expenses that need to be accrued and its timeline.  This then ensures that there are no surprises in the month-end financial report.

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

Pearly: Networking and relationship building go hand in hand.  It is not just a “hi” and “bye” thing. It involves being interested in what others are doing and working on and how we can connect or engage them in a more effective way that benefit everyone.


Pearly Tan










Pearly Tan is a multi-site HR Business Partner Lead at the Steelcase Global Business Centre. She is based in Malaysia but is also a business partner to the sales offices in Singapore and Australia.  Pearly is both a strategic and hands-on HR Business Partner who works closely with the leadership team and with HR in APAC on various people initiatives. These initiatives serve to strengthen talent management to ensure business performance and continuity, build functional and leadership capabilities to meet current and future business needs as well as transform the culture to enable people and organizational growth.

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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