Partner people first
HR has begun to deify the business partner role1; the rudimentary knowledge of business that goes with it is revered no less than the Eleusinian Mysteries were in their day. Supporting the business to achieve its goals, which should be the simple price of admission and continuance in a company, has become the summum bonum of HR’s existence and the business fundamentals any self-respecting MBA should know when passing out are placed at the apex of competencies senior HR leaders are expected to possess. Clearly, this is a cop-out we can do without.
If my years of observing a vast range of HR professionals has taught me anything, it is that what marks out truly exceptional HR leaders from ones who are just very good is the dedication and skill with which they partner people. For some of these models of excellence, people-partnering comes so naturally that they don’t even realize it is what sets them apart from their peers. Others have grown into the people partnering role consciously and sometimes painfully (partly because of the trade-offs it demands). It is from observing and conversing with the latter type that some of the pointers in this column have evolved. But first let’s nudge the business partner role, that currently occupies the entire stage, a bit to the side – where it deserves to be.
Supporting business is not sufficient for HR
Colonial literature (and reality) was replete with tales of brown sahibs mimicking the mores of their white masters and demonstrating unquestioning loyalty to them. Try as they might, this would never suffice for them to gain acceptance as equals among the majority of the expatriates. The wiser ones among Indian civil servants and businessmen instead gained enormous respect by developing their own unique blends of deep local empathy and insight with the modern thinking necessary to uplift the condition of Indians. Those who took the easier alternative of being sedulous simulacrums became the butt of humor both for their own countrymen and the rulers they tried to mirror. Such are the risks of aspiring to partner with people who clearly consider themselves your superiors. I am not suggesting that all (or even most) CEOs consider themselves superior to their HR partners but many of them do snigger at the pretensions of HR to outdo everyone at the top table in sheer business acumen and capability. And yet a growing number of HR professionals feel their 'Mini-Me' partnering with the business leader is the A and B of their existence, with people partnering being relegated to a distant C.
There is also a supply side explanation for the business partnership preference demonstrated by HR. It points to the diffidence several HR professionals have in the depth of their HR competence. Compared to keeping up with the latest behavioral science research and other cutting-edge thinking, paddling in the shallow pool of business understanding (no more is expected from the HR business partner) is child’s play. True professionals need to expend continual effort to build both well-developed HR knowledge-skill muscles and (when needed) business-independent backbones. HR people who don’t know their own onions cannot hope, through a cursory glance at a neighboring function’s vegetable patch, to improve the crop yielded on their own. This neglect of functional competency acquisition is no less reprehensible than the demand side reason of bowing to the powerful.
Being a business partner is, in any case, not unique to HR and every function and its uncle is queued up to partner with the boss.
The constituency with which HR can partner uniquely is people. In fact, no other function can make such a strong claim for partnership with an identifiable group. Marketing and Sales are possible exceptions but, for all the talk about customer centricity, the customer is outside the firm’s boundary and the tension arising from this fact can never be totally eliminated.
In case anyone gets me wrong, let me reiterate: supporting the goals of the business and partnering with the leader are certainly essential for HR practitioners: they are the price of admission for getting their jobs and retaining them. But getting admitted can’t be the end of the road for an active participant. It would be like relaxing after getting selected for the final race. Or goofing off after making it through the entrance exam of a prestigious educational institute. The best performance has to be put in after earning the right to enter the arena. HR practitioners who win the people partnership race, after entering the tournament grounds based on their business support record, are the ones whose names will be recorded in the HR hall of fame.
Why and how partnerships work
Partnership is a rather loosely used term so it might be worth our while to delimit its outlines. The advantages of joining forces with another person, group, or larger social entity are too obvious to bear repeating. What is not so evident is that every successful partnership requires some sacrifice of objectives, freedom of action, or physical resources by each party.
A partnership is premised on shared goals that couldn’t have been achieved so quickly, efficiently or at all, by one partner alone. Since it is very rare for all partners to have total congruence between their objectives, it becomes necessary for both (or all) to set aside some of the goals that fall outside the overlap area or retain them but in return for accepting similar non-common goals of the partner. The goodwill and honesty with which such a deal is committed to and maintained is an infallible indicator of the future health of a partnership.
Obviously, it is not necessary, or even desirable, that partners bring the same capabilities to the table. However, it is important that there should be rough equality in the effort-reward ratio the partners enjoy. Similarly, it is rare that partners are equally powerful or resilient. It is critical, however, that the more powerful partner does not take advantage of the other. Otherwise, the partnership can easily slip into a patron-client arrangement. The Delian League was formed under the leadership of Athens, initially to unite Greek city-states in meeting the Persian threat. However, once Athens began using the League's funds for its own purposes and lording it over the rest, there was murmuring among the less powerful members and then open conflict with them. Athens’ heavy-handedness finally led to the Peloponnesian War and the eclipse of that great city’s fortunes. As a general rule, powerful exploiters of unbalanced partnerships don’t remain unscathed in the long run.
To prevent imbalances of power as well as other misunderstandings and disagreements leading to the dissolution of partnerships, it is important to have decision-rules, mechanisms and forums for raising and resolving differences. The veto is an example of power voluntarily ceded by the more powerful to the less, so as to prevent the latter from being steamrollered in critical moments. Regular face-to-face meetings are useful for heading off misunderstandings before they become unbridgeable chasms. Neutral third parties that can be trusted to mediate or even arbitrate are also last resort before partners become foes. As Idries Shah wrote: "Enemies are often former or potential friends who have been denied – or think that they have been denied – something."
The people-HR partnership
Let me start with a simple ground-rule that should be blindingly obvious but which is decreasingly practiced.
You cannot partner with people unless you meet with a cross-section of them regularly and with an open mind. Yet this simple pre-requisite is "More honored in the breach than the observance".
I don’t blame HR managers for preferring to have endless meetings in air-conditioned conference rooms with other HR people and business heads and then transfer their bulky backsides to their equally well-padded office chairs rather than walking around the shop-floors and open offices (how to achieve this in the post-COVID-19 Work From Home world will have to await another column), talking and listening to people who face the greatest problems and perhaps have the keys to the best solutions. As I said, I don’t blame HR managers for this preference – I condemn them. Spreadsheetphilia and peoplephobia might be assets in certain functions (that shall remain unspecified with a view to retain my Finance friends!) – not in HR. What is worse is the wholesale effort to off-load whatever face-to-face contact that comes by way of discharging routine HR jobs to line managers, a central shared service, or an outsourcing partner. I have devoted an entire column to this malaise2 so I won’t go beyond insisting here that there can be no partnering without regular interaction and contact between the partners.
The other pillar necessary before laying the arch of a lasting people-HR partnership is basic fairness in people dealings. No partnership can work if one partner deceives, exploits, or shortchanges the other. 'Unfairness' is a single word that conveys all the 'don’ts' to be avoided if a partnership is to be effective and last. I have written extensively elsewhere about the building blocks of fairness in organizations3 and will limit myself just to listing those elements most important to an employee population:
- Having a formal code of fairness, communicating it, reviewing what’s actually happening, and revising the code from time to time.
- Complying with the spirit of the laws and not expecting employees to find or use loopholes.
- Honoring commitments, whether formal, verbal, or implied. For instance, facilities and benefits cannot be withdrawn without adequate replacement or compensation.
- Taking affirmative action to recruit and grow disadvantaged people including those from deprived sections of society, minority communities, and women.
- Implementing policies, practices, and treatment that demonstrate people are valued.
- Sharing gains and pains equitably across levels and geographies.
- Encouraging dissent, being patient with deficiency but ruthless about shortcomings of integrity or other deviations from the code of fairness.
The keystone of the arch connecting these two pillars is the pursuit of aggregate employee happiness which should be the prime priority for HR and the key to cementing its partnership with people. There is an entire column dealing with the decision consequences of such a mindset.4 Happiness in this context is far more than simply hedonic enjoyment. The eudaimonic happiness that should be HR’s goal to facilitate for employees is well described by Alan Waterman: "… eudaimonia can be considered related to, perhaps synonymous with, a number of cognitive-affective concepts that have been used to refer to optimal psychological functioning, including the feelings accompanying intrinsic motivation (Deci & Ryan), flow experiences (Csikszentmihalyi), peak experiences (Maslow), and feelings of personal expressiveness (Waterman)."5 He goes on to specify that eudaimonia is experienced only in connection with activities that advance one's highest potentialities, either in terms of aptitudes and talents and/or purposes in living, and from one's active strivings for excellence. The development of all individuals to their full potential is an integral part of the happiness HR must play a part in realizing for people.
CHRO as people advocate
For a CHRO to play the people partner role, it may be most useful if s/he visualizes it as being the CEO of a dedicated people resourcing cooperative. What are the consequences of such a visualization of the CHRO role? In an age of increasing automation, outsourcing and GIGgling, it’s up to the CHRO to 'sell' to the company a durably employed and highly trained workforce that outclasses less permanent or less humane alternatives by way of productivity and creativity. This requires three sub-roles which may be suitably divided by structure or double-hat allocation down the line.
The CHRO who plays the part of the CEO of a full-range staffing company must first work out a strategy and a long-term sourcing and manpower-flow plan. In doing so, the CHRO, being privy to the future plans and strategic competency demands of the main business, is naturally at an advantage compared to an outside sourcing firm. Further, as a cooperative, the aim is not to maximize profits but yield returns (in terms of salaries, rewards, and benefits) to cooperative members but not let them become so high or so differentiated as to derail cost-competitiveness and teamwork.
Perhaps the greatest change from the currently prevalent business partner model would be the people partner’s attempt to market the resource for which s/he is primarily responsible to other members of the top team. The present scenario, where the HR business partner argues for contractualization or other means of neutron-bombing durable employment, is as if the representative of turkeys were arguing for roasted versions of the bird being served on the first of every month, in addition to Thanksgiving. Any wonder that the declining population of permanently employed turkeys does not trust business partner HRs? As the CMO for people, HR will, of course, begin with the customer need, interface with the product developers and producers (staffing and sourcing) to meet it, and then support it after delivery (employee communication and grievance resolution). Obviously, at no stage will s/he de-market the resource s/he represents.
Delivery of competent people is something HR departments already do well under the business partner model. The question is whether the people that are positioned under its aegis can ever be truly committed to the organization when their tenures and non-contingent compensation and benefits are constantly under threat. The people partnering alternative should make a significant improvement in the sense of commitment and belonging employees have.
Whatever role the CHRO plays at the executive table, s/he has to be the face of the top team for the majority of the employees in the organization. And, in this capacity, s/he has to both be the guarantor of what the company has promised its employees as well as demand that the other partners (the people in the organization) keep their side of the tacit bargain.
What HR does for people has been elaborated under the section titled 'The People-HR Partnership'. The organization’s commitment to its people can also be summarized in the language of servant leadership. "In servant leadership, leading others is about providing leadership and service to followers simultaneously and helping them to accomplish their tasks, visions, and goals, where serving means to offer time, compassion, and care to people and leading means to provide clear vision and purpose where foresight is central to the leadership provided. Moreover, in servant leadership, the focus is on others and their growth..."6
There can be many ways to express the expectations from the people side of the partnership. I find it simplest to demand three 'I's from employees:
- Integrity (both financial and inter-personal)
- Initiative (including self-starting and the ongoing dedication that is also called commitment and engagement)
- Innovation (for improving products, processes, and people-happiness)
None of these can easily be measured but they really are central to what an organization can expect from its people.
When both HR and people become servant partners of the other, a far healthier organizational relationship is born.
- Fotios V Mitsakis, Human Resources (HR) as a Strategic Business Partner: Value Creation and Risk Reduction Capacity, International Journal of Human Resource Studies, Vol. 4 No. 1.
- Visty Banaji, HR is a Contact Sport, People Matters, 7th April, 2020.
- Visty Banaji, Fairness is Fundamental, NHRD Network Journal, Volume 7 Issue 4, October 2014.
- Visty Banaji, HR’s business should be happiness raising, People Matters, 24th September 2019.
- Alan S Waterman, The relevance of Aristotle’s conception of eudaimonia for the psychological study of happiness, Journal of Theoretical and Philosophical Psychology, October 1990.
- Sigurdur Ragnarsson. Erla S. Kristjánsdóttir and Sigrún Gunnarsdóttir, To Be Accountable While Showing Care: The Lived Experience of People in a Servant Leadership Organization, SAGE Open research Paper, July-September 2018.