Rob Donkers on What It Takes to Become a Great HR Business Partner

A finance leader weighs in and shares that “Understanding the numbers is not enough, it is important to understand the story behind the numbers”

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?

Rob :  The HRBP is the link between the Business and HR. Their job is to understand the company strategy, listen to the business needs and build the bridge to the people plan. This can include :

  • providing coaching and advice to executives and challenging them to build high performance teams;
  • developing, recommending and implementing initiatives that support an engaged workforce;
  • helping management to understand how people support the strategy and highlight risks and opportunities; and
  • resolving people related issues and influence for best end result.

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

Rob :  Typically,  finance (which I oversee) transactional work  is not outsourced due to the confidentiality of the data but it is offshored to low cost countries.

Decisions are made at the highest levels in the organisation and are mostly cost driven but not all business cases presented are achieved. And although local management is rarely involved in the decision making, they are key to mitigating risks or resolving issues.

What aspects of your work are strategic?

Rob :  No aspect – I consider the Business Partnering role as one that translates strategy into actions and initiatives that should be taken to achieve the strategy. And to influence the strategy in case there is risk.

How have you brought greater strategic input into your deliverables?

Rob :  Many of HR’s strategic conclusions are drawn with data management and data understanding and equate costs and value to the business. I can use my strong analytical and systems / tools skills to manipulate data and talk to the business issues.

I am also a trusted advisor of the business. My authenticity, broad business experience and passion give me confidence to coach, lead and influence leaders for best outcomes.

I am purpose driven and focus on problem resolution and people relationships.  I also have a very solid understanding of the bigger picture business view and am able to connect HR initiatives to strategy and value to the business.

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

Rob :  There are a number of aspects I consider to be key.

First, possess strong interpersonal skills, such as being a good listener, have strong influencing, coaching and motivation skills and generally, be confident. You also need to be an independent thinker, objective and able to challenge others. You’ve got to work in a structured manner, be analytical, have a healthy interest in the business and in people and importantly, be curious.

I also believe you need a strong business understanding and to be solution-focused.

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

Rob :  I learned this while being a finance manager: understanding the numbers is not enough, it is important to understand the story behind the numbers. This can be learned by participating in budgeting and forecasting processes. These offer valuable insight into what the business does and how they perform against its goals.

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

Rob :  I will mention three in particular.

First, managers don’t want to talk about people challenges. To overcome this, make people topics quantifiable (what are the costs, what is the opportunity) and  see how these can be linked to the objectives the business needs.

Second, getting time on the calendar to speak. Establish a governance with deliverables (meetings, reports, etc) and cadence, so everyone knows what to expect and can block their calendars.

Third, your messages are different from what managers want to hear. Avoid this by understanding what the challenges of the business are so you address the right topics. Also, work on expectation setting and prepare managers that you will also challenge them.

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

Rob :  It is always good to be proactive and take charge. It is important that you work closely with the business and that you agree on common goals. Always align your ideas to the business needs so that there is no misunderstanding on why you take action or when you challenge managers.

In case of doubt, coach managers to see your point of view. Don’t make too many changes at once.  Make sure the business can follow the speed at which you want to develop. Focus on the changes that make the most important impact.

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

Rob :   First, by determining what success is and which are the most important KPIs to measure it by.

Second, by quantifying as much as is possible and equating as costs and value to the business.

Finally, by producing a balanced scorecard. Report actual results versus goals and then publish and share with the management team.  Review variances and prepare plans to close the gap with the goals.

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

Rob :  That you need to know HR to be an HR Business Partner.  

An HRBP is the link between the business and HR and her/his challenge is to move with the business changes and be open to listening and finding new solutions. Therefore, people from the business can be excellent HR Business Partners if they have the right translatable skills.

Today, business managers must perform many HR tasks themselves and they play an important role in recruiting, objective setting, performance management, successions planning and many other processes. Together with their strong understanding of the business, they would make very good HRBPs.

How do you get invited into critical conversations?

Rob :  Earn the trust of the business and be able to convince management. Show that you can add value. Speak the language of the business and link your recommendations to business needs. Show that you are the expert in people matters.

Be open and transparent when delivering good news as well as bad. Participate and contribute ideas even if they are outside your direct area of responsibility. Support others and other people’s ideas if they contribute to the success of the organisation.

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?

Rob :  I analyse the financial reports to get a comprehensive overview of the performance of the company. I engage with everyone in the organisation, formally as well as informally, learn as much as I can about what they do, show interest, listen to them and be curious.  

Find competitive data on the Internet to learn about new developments in the industry and how the company performs compared to others.

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

Rob :  Yes, it is very important because everyone believes it and talks about financials.

However, personally I disagree. It is more important to understand the drivers behind the financials, the people, the actions, etc. It is important to understand how the people plan addresses business needs and creates value. If attrition is high, what is the impact on the financial results and what is the cost to fix it?

The financials are an outcome.

They don’t tell you what needs to be done or how it is done. You need to decide that yourself as well as take the action. We should also realise that the same set of financials could trigger different actions depending how the financials are interpreted. So it is also important to understand what people do with numbers rather than the numbers in isolation. But there is a risk to be dismissed from the discussion if you have no basic understanding of the financials.

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

Rob :  Work hard, earn trust, add value, support others, listen to concerns, be expert in your area, focus on solutions, volunteer to help, join in, team up and participate. Basically, be a good team member.

I always try to lead by example and did a lot of volunteer work and mentoring which helped me build strong relationships across the different teams in the organisation.

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

Rob :  HR should be easy to do business with. In terms of skills of the people (expert knowledge but also good communication skills) but also systems and tools to contact them and/or exchange data.

They need to organise themselves so that they work well together as a team, are able to share learning and information and quickly identify subject matter experts in the wider HR team.

HR needs to have a good understanding of the company’s strategy and of its different teams and organisations and need a good understanding of how their HR policies support the objectives.

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

Rob :  Perhaps there isn’t sufficient appreciation for the work that HR does today and they fail to demonstrate their value-add for the business. Much of the work is seen as tasks that can be optimised in centres of expertise, and as a result, many business managers end up performing HR work themselves.

HR doesn’t always feel like they are part of the business. If this can be overcome, this offers a huge opportunity for HR to start adding more value.

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

Rob :   One moment you are the right person for the role but the next moment, the role changes. In a dynamic environment, it is more important to build an organisation where people are flexible and know how to handle change and are not afraid of it.

Job rotations are a great tool to develop people and make them familiar with the different roles in the company. People learn what they like and organisations learn what people can do. This increases the likelihood of picking the best person for the job even if that role changes. But an organisation should also take action to simplify jobs and motivate collaboration between team members so that there is always help available for the best person for the job (everyone will always need help at some stage).

The moment you give up on things like “difficult jobs” or that there is only one best person for the job and spend more time being creative and less afraid to make errors, new opportunities to do work present themselves.

The HRBP has an unique opportunity to help the business through change, to understand it and to coach, influence and challenge the business to build world-class teams.


Rob Donkers







Rob Donkers is a finance manager with more than 20 years’ experience in international business, leading finance teams through significant change and transformation processes. He successfully partners with the business to achieve multi-million-dollar improvements by increasing efficiency in sales, procurement, HR and delivery organisations. His leadership style can be characterised by sustainable management of employee relationships and letting everyone participate in the success. He is considered a leader of change in finance organisations.

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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