Silke Pilger on What It Takes to Become a Great HR Business Partner
Silke Pilger is an HR Business Partner (HRBP) and lawyer for a Big Four company in Saudi-Arabia. Silke sees herself as a naturally energetic and solution-driven person who thrives on challenges. As she puts it, “a mix of humour and a sense of curiosity are integral to my personality and I feel that these qualities combined with my drive to excel are what sets me apart.”
What does it mean to be an HR Business Partner today?
Silke: The business partnering role means that first, you’re looking out into the business rather than waiting for the business to come to you. It is not a secret that CEOs expect Human Resources (HR) to enable business strategies and play a very active role. HRBPs are supposed to be strategic partners, emergency responders, operations managers and solid employee moderators – all these required capabilities combined within this role.
The challenge of HR in dynamic economic environments with new trends and changes in the market is that they either evolve and contribute significantly to the business or they diminish and get dispersed into the business or other support functions.
Personal experience shows that much depends on how you interpret the role at an organisational level and how you enable collaborative forms of joint effort to work together on the same agenda.
An overlap of roles is common and genuine. Core HR topics are spread across the business. This may lead to an inability to sustainably implement the business partnering model effectively. Personal experience shows that much depends on how you interpret the role at an organisational level and how you enable collaborative forms of joint effort to work together on the same agenda.
It helps tremendously to fill the role with credibility by having a strong business background. If you do that, you have a better grasp of market dynamics which are often connected to changes in the firm’s overall strategy, understanding of the services offered and their go-to-market approach.
Case Example: Over the last two years, the HRBPs have partnered internally at an organisation level to build more business-related capabilities inside the firm together with a separate support function in the business itself. This function is primarily in charge of managing project staffing and coordinating talent development in the business. HR’s strategic objective is to drive the HR service delivery model and to enable and implement HR services that would deliver on the products needed. Successful business partnering can only be implemented by collaborating closely with the business and by establishing reliable networks.
“Did you know? Poor coordination among key stakeholders in HR is one of the main reasons integrated management fails.”
Is there a significant portion of your HR transactional work that is outsourced? Were you involved in that decision? If so, how did you successfully put your case forward for outsourcing?
Silke: Currently, outsourcing is not an option for most of our HR transactional and operational work. However, certain talent acquisition processes such as senior hires and succession planning are outsourced to a large extent. We cooperate with hiring agencies and internal (global) hiring teams.
Further expansion in the Middle Eastern market might lead to new strategies in the field of outsourcing transactional services very soon. This will predictably lead into a transformed HR Service Delivery Model.
Talent acquisition and being able to deliver on the country’s (Saudi Arabia) nationalisation agenda are strongly implemented as they are critical components that need to be addressed.
What aspects of your work do you consider strategic?
Silke: Our organisation is currently busy with shifting to a leading practice HR Service Delivery Model. The major challenge lies in bringing lots of new talented resources on board which can support the growth agenda.
HRBP involvement effectively covers the complete employee lifecycle with a strong focus on performance management and performance guidance.
The shift into a new Target Operating Model has implication in many areas relevant to HR such as strategic workforce planning, strategic workforce transition, skills and talent management, and of course, the manner in which new talent and new competencies can be scouted and brought into the organisation smoothly.
We recently launched a new Performance Management Framework for the function that links solidly to business performance and business goals. It will help Service Lines and Sub-Service Lines to properly cascade those goals into their lines of business as well.
Introducing new measurement mechanisms, new KPIs and new ways to measure actual performance are core to retaining employees, rewarding them and establishing a high-performance culture. We focused quite heavily on the quality of performance discussions and how to add value to the process. Not many aspects of this work were actually operational.
We need to address ways to ensure recognition of the HRBP as an integral player in the organisation’s growth and success. We need ways to showcase how the role adds value.
How have you been able to bring greater strategic input into your deliverables?
Silke: Clarification of roles and interfaces within the HR transactions and operations teams is one of the key ways we free up some time for relevant deliverables.
Ideally, in a transformed model, 80 percent of the HRBP’s time should be allocated to aligning HR strategies with current business initiatives and delivery of relevant content and insights. I try to implement this rule in my daily tasks and planning schedule as much as possible.
But these KPIs which may appear easy to understand are often difficult to implement in practice. We need to address ways to ensure recognition of the HRBP as an integral player in the organisation’s growth and success. We need ways to showcase how the role adds value.
To develop a map that prioritises your area of expertise which you can share with stakeholders might help them understand that your role involves more than being a generalist and troubleshooting at an operational level. To grow your expertise and bring in more strategic input, dive deep into the understanding of the business (regardless of whether you’re in a corporate or non-profit environment).
What does this mean?
Understand what the business does.
Understand your products and services, customers, markets, competitors, how the business works, your business model, your performance, financial drivers, your mission, direction and strategy, your history and culture, the environment you operate within and global influences.
Understand how your business makes and spends money so you know how to better contribute to the bottom line and organisational sustainability.
The figure below, based on a Big Four company study, demonstrates what organisations have been concentrating on in order to implement a strategic HR Business Partner model. It might assist your work if you think about your strategic influence as being a part of a long-term change journey.
The illustration below might also help you structure your personal HRBP change journey and plan your change interventions accordingly. It shows, at a generic level, what phases of change you might need to consider in moving towards any implementation.
Taking the example of the new Performance Management Framework we followed, our communication architecture included focus groups, ad-hoc training and briefing sessions to support the internal goal-setting phase. We put emphasis on how to “make it clear” to our different audiences and explain the business rationale.
Did you know – culture change is the most frequent type of large-scale change that organisations have recently experienced (relative to restructuring, market expansion, leadership transitions and M&A)?
What are the key aspects of being a great HR business partner?
Silke: The HRBP role demands a lot of continuous adjustment, flexibility and change in approach in terms of addressing business challenges and emergencies as well as conflicts within the organisation. For me, this typically conveys two dimensions: the personal and the organisational.
Personal aspects and the personal dimension
This involves building on real HR business partnering capabilities which include implementing specific business partner training programmes that help to accelerate personal development for Business Partners.
This might mean developing consulting, project management and change management capabilities at the same time. These are not necessarily less important than general business and commercial acumen.
Despite this capability development, you also need to focus on clarifying and sorting out interfaces and expectations about roles. Personal aspects also mean that the HRBP roles get filled with the right competencies. There are some key competencies  that drive the strategic partnering role and which are useful to identify personal development areas:
- analytical skills: the ability to collect, interpret and present complex data sets in a simplified manner and the ability to easily draw conclusions from large data sets;
- business insight and knowledge: a full understanding of the business and how it operates. Also, the ability to translate HR concepts and actions so that they better fit into the business and its operations/transactions;
- teamwork: an ability to develop and maintain significant collaborative and cooperative relationships to work closely on the business needs and requirements;
- problem-solving: an ability to use critical thinking skills and methodically break down problems into components in order to discover root causes. It means an ability to develop data-supported conclusions which manifest in tangible action plans;
- communication skills: an ability to communicate tailor-made messages which are customised for the respective audience in order to drive change and ensure buy-in.
Organisational aspects and the organisational dimension
Implementing the Business Partnering model needs to reflect the challenges faced. In most situations, this involves reducing transactional and operational burdens and enhancing system and process clarity. The organisational aspects clearly cover one primary area.
This sounds simple but often, it’s not. The HRBP can be neither fully functional nor credible without the provision of reliable, stable operational and transactional delivery. This cannot happen in the absence of underlying foundations that include standardised reporting, technology and systems as well as up-to-date policies.
Case Example: Why are analytical skills required?
Over the last few years, the organisation’s Performance Management structure was not linked to the business objectives and requirements. Allocation of Performance Managers happened rather randomly in the organisation. HR analytics brought light into the valley of shadows.
Data analytics led to a rightsizing/downsizing exercise of Performance Managers. In turn, this brought more quality into the Performance Management process in general. Grade, service groups and competency groups, managed span/ratio and regional allocation were all reviewed carefully as a new Performance Management structure was implemented. Data analytics helped to review and question legacy ideas and processes.
What have you done to develop a deeper understanding of the business you are in?
Silke: It was very helpful to come from a business and consulting background. It helped me understand business requirements and the dynamic environment that pushes for more excellence and a high-performance culture. It helped me understand the pressures that the business often faces. This does not mean all HRBPs profit from this kind of experience but my recommendation would be to gain as much business insight as you can.
If your organisation offers a rotation programme that enables you to shift from a support role to a client/customer-facing role, this might help you understand business requirements more easily. If such a first-hand experience is not available in your organisation, then listen carefully to those who are in business roles. Take a deep dive into their work and their challenges.
What are a few critical communication challenges you faced and how did you overcome them?
Silke: The most critical communication challenge is, not surprisingly, the time factor. Once stakeholders are aligned (which can be quite a complex process moderating different views), business decision-makers might move into different, or even, opposite directions.
When that happens, the messages and storytelling elements that are developed soon become obsolete. To overcome these constant challenges, be active and agile in the business. Develop a good sense for what might come next so you can better respond and drive the agenda accordingly.
The time factor is often combined with the issue of not being able to speak the language of business. These communication challenges might be best addressed by implementing a proper communication strategy in the day-to-day tasks including tailor-made messaging for business audiences.
The other more serious aspects of communication challenges can be found while managing critical employee issues. Feedback may not be accepted or resisted heavily. Coaching and mentoring skills and extended conflict management capabilities are critical in order to become an employee mediator. You have to find the right approach to managing sensitive HR issues. Cultural understanding can’t be viewed purely in terms of organisational culture but also at a personal level.
How do you balance the need to take charge and yet, question legacy systems and ways of thinking?
Silke: The Middle East market is flexible and agile. There are multiple dynamics at play and much opportunity. This includes the way we work and the nuances of the Saudi work environment. Change is embraced and experimental working styles are welcomed so long as they contribute to the organisation’s agenda and are solution-driven.
Out-of-the-box thinking is part of the overall thought process and very much appreciated. And it’s a good idea to always include the legal department as one of your stakeholders throughout.
The biggest choice I have observed is how the HRBP decides when their career is over and the kind of work they get involved in.
How do you measure the success of your HR initiatives against business results?
Silke: As with many other organisations, we use a classical survey approach to consistently measure our resources’ opinions about the organisation. This Global People Survey (GPS) is delivered for all member firms annually. GPS results provide an overview of HR categories that address collaboration, internal communication, innovation, corporate citizenship, leadership, wellbeing, performance management, quality & risk, review & rewards, strategy and vision as well as work environment and enablement.
Based on the results achieved, the HR strategy takes strength and organisation opportunity into account and addresses the specific feedback points accordingly within a structured and governed process.
What is the biggest myth about being a great business partner?
Silke: The biggest choice I have observed is how the HRBP decides when their career is over and the kind of work they get involved in. Are they HR generalists – a jack-of-all-trades who can turn their hand to anything from handling disciplinary cases to facilitating team meetings? Or are they business leaders who focus on how to create the conditions for high performance or build the workforce of the future?
I deliberately describe this as a choice because those who try to do both invariably have less impact on the business. The more time they spend doing the jack-of-all-trades work, the less time they have to add real commercial value. So to me, the biggest myth is to get involved randomly in all HR related areas without a clear business focus.
You want to be included in the conversations where the future of the business gets determined. How do you get invited into those critical conversations?
Silke: Raised expectations around the HRBP business skills are not only a continuing trend but a reality. The requirements of being a data scientist in the relevant HR field is more obvious whilst moving the organisation into the future. Success in driving the change agenda of an organisation can only come with being a strong communicator and relationship builder.
To have a real voice in strategic conversations, you need to think about who the influential stakeholders are. Think about what drives their agenda and map them out to identify whom to partner with as a starting point.
It is helpful to use a set of questions to help you identify the best stakeholders to partner. These might include: 
- Does the stakeholder work with the same line clients you personally work with?
- Is the stakeholder working to achieve the same goals as you or are there any conflicting goals?
- Do you share budgets with the stakeholders for specific projects?
- Do parts of the stakeholder workflow overlap with yours?
- Does this stakeholder have access to information on potential business optimisation opportunities that are useful to you?
- Do the decisions made by this stakeholder have an impact on the work you do?
- Have you included non-obvious stakeholders into the communication flow?
- Do the decisions made by this stakeholder impact the common goals we have to meet to achieve a business objective?
- Do the solutions provided by this stakeholder support or contradict/conflict the solutions you provide?
What would also be helpful, as a starting point, is to ask reflective questions to settle in the role and to work on an interpersonal network map that can be further developed.
Reflective questions you might ask yourself might include:
Reflect on challenges and personality:
- What challenges will I face in the new role?
- How might my personal working style impact my business and working relationship with different stakeholders?
Reflect on value:
- Do I understand what my department and peers need? How will I bring in a unique perspective to their work and create impact?
- Do I understand and interpret the role according to inconsistent expectations, perhaps? Can I prioritise the desired outcome accordingly?
Reflect on collaboration:
- Who is in my network?
- Who do I need to add to this network?
- How am I going to work with these individuals on a day-to-day basis?
The illustration below might help you get a sense of how an interpersonal network map may work for you as an HRBP. It may help you create your own interpersonal network and identify the ways in which you currently work across it:
Source: Syngenta, CEB analysis
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?
Silke: The corporate environment makes it relatively easy to reach out to a broader network. This may be another function, another country or just a different type of approach that you look out for. We have started to initialize a cross-country network for HRBPs that includes countries like Lebanon, UAE and Jordan. The main idea is to exchange best practices and lessons learned.
Do you believe that financial literacy is key to you becoming more relevant to the business? If so, how?
Silke: The key differentiator between HR Business Partners is neither the organisational placement of the role nor the hierarchy the HRBP is working within. It is about the personal choice of how to make a commercial business impact and what type of work the HRBP gets involved in.
The choice is between being the HR generalist (who needs to handle anything from disciplinary cases to facilitating team meetings) and being a business manager and leader (who focuses on creating the conditions for high performance or how to build the strategic workforce of the future). HRBPs who try to do both will inevitably have less impact on the business. The more time HRPBs spend on operational and transactional HR work, the less time they have to add real business value.
What has been key to building better relationships across the organisation?
Silke: Formal and informal regular stakeholder engagement and touchpoints with key stakeholders in the business are key. Thus, we introduced regular touch-base meetings with the main stakeholders in the business, the various business leaders and a lot of direct engagement with the C-Suite in the company. This comes back to creating a proper stakeholder engagement and network map.
Relationship management also includes global stakeholders and the HR team in our worldwide HR network. Global stakeholder management helps us leverage the knowledge base of all member firms who have successfully tackled issues.
To monitor the stakeholder network better, it might be helpful to assess stakeholders on a regular basis and reflect on intervention measures where needed. The following simple assessment tool might help you map your stakeholder and understand why and how they support change initiatives.
Behavioural Risk Indicator Assessment
The Behavioral Risk Indicator Assessment tool helps you to identify key Stakeholders’ level of resistance to change
When to use it
Complete the assessment at critical points throughout the lifecycle of any change initiative. It will help to identify supportive Stakeholders and potential resistors to any change initiative. It should not be shared but used as a source to aid your thinking/thought process on how to engage with critical Stakeholders
1.Use the results of the Stakeholder Identification Assessment to identify critical Stakeholder in the change initiative
2.Complete the Behavioral risk Assessment for each Stakeholder, using one worksheet per Stakeholder
3.Rate each Stakeholder yourself, using your recent experience with the Stakeholder to complete the questionnaire.
Enter Stakeholder Name:
1= Not at all like this Stakeholder
2= Is like this Stakeholder to a slight extent
3= Is like this Stakeholder to a moderate extent
4= Is like this Stakeholder to a great extent
5= Very much like this Stakeholder at all time
Awareness and understanding:
- Understands the reason for the change
- Understands key activities and milestones of the projects
- Can succinctly outline intended outcomes and potential benefits of the change initiative
- Communicates frequently with the team about the need for change and progress of key initiatives
- Expresses the change in a positive way
- Creates appropriate feedback mechanisms within their area to support change
Participation and Support
- Usually present a special event, training sessions, review meetings and scheduled meetings for change
- Provides appropriate budget, resources and team members for the success of the change initiative
- Delivers on commitments regarding the change
- Expectations of Stakeholder are aligned with the intended outcomes of the change
- Obtains direct positional benefits from the change initiative
- Stands to lose positional benefits from the change initiative
Source: ING Australia: CEB Analysis
What, for you, is the most satisfying part of your job?
Silke: An easy question, in the end, being asked as to why we work as HRBPs.
Definitely, it is because of the amount of direct people engagement, the team and collaboration components that the role requires. It is incredibly satisfying to implement new solutions that help our talents and support people to either have more clarity or to improve their ways of working in our organisation.
A large part of the role requires dedicated internal client orientation. If the simple outcome is to have more satisfied clients who could be helped with a challenge they were facing, this is a highly motivational factor.
The work you do as an HRBP goes a long way in the professional development of other employees. With tools like performance reviews and exit interviews, we as HRBPs can collect valuable employee information that guides personal development and improvement plans. It provides a rewarding opportunity to not just improve the organisation as a whole but also the individual resources to build their careers.
Secondly, it is exciting to be at the pulse of business, at all stages, and be involved in new roll-outs and business initiative launches since they usually have major HR implications and components. The job never gets routine and this drives your passion and flexibility.
In the end, the number of opportunities you have to create your own interpretation of the role, fill it with life and partner with business is a big plus. You’re not stopped by taking on initiatives and driving topics which, in turn, creates job satisfaction that is hard to find in a different role and position.
Articles or other resources you can check out:
- HRBPs quarterly – Gartner Page – CEB Corporate Leadership Council – focus on the HRBP’s evolving role and what is really like to be an HRBP today, making Change Management work and key implications for HRBPs.
- KPMG articles on Business Partnering: The role of the strategic thinker and business partner, how cultivating a strategic partnering capability can drive effective decision making and improved business performance, KPMG 2018 en, Peter L. (2015). Toward a New HR Philosophy.
- Bersin, Josh (2016) – Human Capital Trends Report
- Bersin, Josh (2016) – The Future of Work is Already Here and It’s Not As Scary as You Think
- Bersin, John (2014 – What’s in Store for HR in 2015
- Burton, Diane and Flynn-Ferry, Beth (2016) – CAHRS Working Group : HR for HR
- Kochan, Thomas (2015): Shaping the Future of Work: What Future Worker, Business, Government and Education Leaders Need to Do for All to Prosper.
- McKinsey Global Institute (2015). Digital America: A Tale of the Haves and the Have-Mores.
- Morgan, Jacob (2014). The Future of Work: Attract New Talent, Build Better Leaders, and Create a Competitive Organization. Wiley Publishing.
- World Economic Forum (2016). The Future of Jobs. (pdf)
- Gartner article, The HRBP in 2025 – What’s In? What’s Out? by Meg Day
 Source, MetLife, CEB analysis, 2014
 ScottMadden Management Consultants: “The Evolution of the HR Business Partner Role”, 2018
 CEB: The HRBP Playbook for Enterprise Talent Management, June 2014
Silke Karin Pilger is an HR Business Partner (HRBP) and lawyer for a Big Four company in Saudi-Arabia. Silke was seconded from the German practice as a Senior Manager and HRBP to the organisation in Saudi Arabia. Prior to this, she worked in the Consulting Area (People & Change, Public Sector) for more than 13 years.
She was in charge of managing large scale transformation and change management projects before she took on the internal role as HRBP for the Big Four company’s Advisory practice. Other key consulting practice areas she has experience in include HR process management, organisational design, organisational development and OD intervention planning. Silke has worked on assignments and with clients across multiple countries including Switzerland, the UK, South Africa, Poland and Saudi-Arabia.
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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