Driving mountain roads can be very tricky. With the exception of those who drive a super-powered something able to negotiate a significant vertical climb, mere mortals learn that reaching the top of the mountain requires learning the skill of turning switchback corners. Go too slowly around the curve, and you run the risk of the vehicle stalling in the climb. Go too fast, and it can be a kissing-the-guardrail moment, or over the edge you go.
I love mountain driving, but I've also learned to be very respectful of switchback curves. Just the right acceleration and your right hand on the wheel keep the vehicle on the road. Rounding a corner without going over the edge brings you to a whole new "aha" moment. There is a vista there that you could not see ten minutes ago. The mountain was in the way. The corner had to be negotiated to take in what was waiting around the curve. Signs point the way and tell you the speed at which to take the corner, but they cannot possibly capture what is waiting around the bend.
Moving from one level in an organization to the next is a lot like negotiating switchback corners. Go too slowly, and you can stall out. Go too quickly, and you can go over the edge. For the HR professional moving from a Specialist to a Business Partner role, learning to negotiate the switchback curve is critical. The road tells you what you need to know as you make the turn. It is a matter of paying attention and learning to be aware of what all your senses are telling you at the same time.
In the book, The Leadership Pipeline (2001), the authors describe passages, or bends through pipelines, as one moves from one level of the organization to the next. Each of these passages, they assert, "represents a change in organizational position – a different level and complexity of leadership – where a significant turn has to be made"(p. 6-7). These turns, they contend, "may involve a major change in job requirements, time applications and work values" (p. 7).
From this writer's perspective, there are several significant changes in skill sets, values, and how time is spent that must be learned for a highly skilled Human Resources Specialist (no matter the area) to successfully meet the requirements of a highly skilled HR Business Partner. In the IRC's Advanced HR program, we talk about this shift of moving into an HR Business Partner role as learning to lead in a more advanced area of HR. The complexity of the Business Partner role changes significantly and the capability and skill set requirements are dramatically different than those of a Specialist role. It is a "coming around the mountain curve moment" in an individual's career.
The Scenery Ahead
The first–and perhaps most poignant–shift for most individuals moving into an HR Business Partner role is that the space within which they work changes. This can be as simple and complex as changing their physical location in the company. Many organizations require their HR Business Partners to move into the business unit, to be one with the everyday comings and goings of that part of the organization. Preparing to move from a centralized "everybody thinks and talks like me" HR unit requires a downshifting pause. The Business Partner is moving to their business unit's space, culture, and group, complete with all its interesting dynamics and quirkiness. It is entirely possible that you will look like a complete stranger whom your colleagues are not so sure they want in their midst. At best, on first arrival you may appear to be an accidental tourist to the locals who are very comfortable in their own environment.
From my mountain driving experiences, it is like coming around a curve, only to see ahead a herd of mountain sheep standing on the side of the road. To this day, I still stop the car, pull out whatever photographic device I have with me and get as close as I can to the critters to observe and snap a photo or two. The locals, flying by in their vehicle of choice, either smile and wave with an "ain't it grand" kind of air or do some other version of hand signaling to indicate their displeasure that I've pulled off the road for my own look at the local wildlife. From their perspective, my need to see and be with the critters results in yet another traffic element to be attended to on the drive up the mountain.
Learning to live with the locals, while taking in the interesting sights, is a skill set that can be developed. I've learned it in mountain cafés, listening to the conversations around me. Yes, I am a flatlander, I'll never be one of them, but I am respectful of what they know, who they know, and what they can teach me. Showing up as some sort of expert is not helpful–for any of us–as we learn to be together in what is my new place in their space.
David Ulrich and others (2012) describe this learning to live with the locals as becoming a Credible Activist (p. 88). In describing this competency, he states, "credibility comes when HR professionals focus their time and attention on issues that matter to the business" (p. 87). Further, he states, these same HR professionals, must "do what they promise, meet their obligations and commitments, communicate effectively and build relationships of trust with line managers" (p. 87).
If a move to a business unit is part of your next role as a Business Partner, learn to see the space as they see the space. You will never be one of them; that is not why you're there, but you can learn to see and hear what is important about the unit and what drives their part of the business. The first responsibility in this new space is yours. Yes, they should welcome you, but no, they may not.
Enter their space respectfully. Learn to see what they see. Learn about what they value–what's important, what is not important, how they think, and how they gather as a group. As a Specialist, you were part of a group who understood you. Accept that your new neighbours may never completely understand you. With a little time and patience, you can win them over to accepting the flatlander in their midst. Breathe a little and learn to enjoy their space. Your credibility depends on it.
Jam Sessions on Friday Afternoon
There is a certain kind of music that happens in mountain cafés. Someone starts pickin' on his guitar; another just happens to have her concertina accordion in the truck. Someone else grabs a pair of spoons and you've got music. The next thing you hear is "Hey Lila, call down to the house and have Joanna Rae bring her fiddle up here!" Fingers and toes start tapping out the beat, a couple starts dancing, the kids are clapping, and even the cook starts humming along. Just like that, you're making music and the whole place is involved.
Finding and keeping good talent is an accountability that belongs to everyone in the organization. Yes, the hiring manager needs someone capable of doing the role. Yes, the group VP is always on the lookout for the next rising star. Yes, the HR Recruiting Manager is overloaded and knows which university or agency is the best for sourcing good talent. No, the organization does not always take time to document the full extent of internal talent. And you, the HR Business Partner, are right in the middle of it all.
Developing the skill set to know that Joanna Rae and her fiddle would make the music even better is another key to coming around the corner on a mountain road. In HR from the Outside In, Ulrich and others (2012) describe this competency as an "innovator and integrator domain" (p. 164). The factors involved in that domain include: working with managers to understand the talent requirements of the organization, assisting in developing that talent, hearing the needs of the various managers, and integrating the search for talent. Often, it may also include helping to construct the compensation systems and packages for finding and keeping talent.
Moving from the role of a Specialist, highly effective in a particular area, to one of Business Partner , requires a whole new framework for making music. The move, as Ulrich describes, requires the HR professional to "move from the outside in" (p. 8). You are living and breathing strategic planning, talent development, and day-to-day challenges with the business unit. You are now seeing up-close the benefit of having the right talent in the right place. You are living, right along with the rest of the team, the pain of having someone who is not quite right for a role. In the constant search for talent in the organization, you are in a linchpin role. You are the one who can work with the manager to ensure the right person is in the right role, as well as coordinate the work with the HR Specialists.
The skill sets, turning this mountain corner and coming into a new view, require savvy and sophistication. You are doing multiple things at multiple times–listening to the individual players, hearing the tune as they play, how the music comes together, and where to go for help if something is missing. With this coming around the curve, you move from being an expert in guitar pickin' to the guy or gal who hears the whole tune. And, you have learned where to go for help in finding what the group needs to make the sound even better. It's about the music, not just your own particular tune.
Becoming a Mountain Muse
Part of the mountain experience is learning to navigate the trails. As Specialists, we are part of the outfitter's team. We know where the boots and poles are located. We can help program the GPS and make sure the climbers have the right trail map. We know that the bears wake up hungry in the spring. We know the sound a magpie makes when angry, and we know that bull elk can get aggressive in the fall.
When moving into a Business Partner role, we join the climbing group. The manager is always (hopefully) the leader. The group is climbing the trail. They see the trail in front of them, but they cannot always see the whole mountain. They're on it, living in it, and working toward a collective goal to get to the next place in the trail.
On the climb, our role as Business Partner is an interesting combination of medic, muse, and encourager-in-chief (especially on the high country trails). As Specialists, we learned how to serve as medic and encourager-in-chief. We know how to triage a painful situation. We know how to encourage someone having a tough time. We train others, we know how to plot an organization map, and we are experts in the (employment legal) environment.
At the risk of taking Greek mythology to a whole new meaning, it is the muse role that is the new learning for most HR Specialists, as they move into a Business Partner role. The handy Oxford American Dictionary (1980) I keep in my writing desk has two definitions for muse, useful in this framework. The first, muse as noun, is "one of the nine sister goddesses in Greek and Roman mythology, presiding over branches of learning and the arts... a poet's genius" (p. 587). The second useful definition is in the verb form. To muse is "to ponder" (p. 587.)
If you accept that managerial leadership is both a science and an art, it is in that creative artist place of "musing" that we can be great partners for line managers. Sometimes, the managerial leader just needs someone they can talk with to get their ideas out of their head; someone who can hear what they are trying to do, and frame it in a way that the team can understand. In my own work as a consultant, I find that managers at all levels of the organization often just need someone who will listen and help them paint and frame what they are thinking about and how they envision leading their team. Individual members of the team each have their own goals while working to meet the group goals. They are also subordinates, and as such, it may not be appropriate that they serve as a manager's muse or thinking partner. Done well, an HR Business Partner can serve a huge role in an organization, by learning to help managers think through and create what is important for their unit. This is not about the strategic planning process, although strategic partnering is a critical component of this skill.
This role of muse is more about listening and helping the creative learning to come to the forefront. It is a matter of moving away from "I have to be an expert at (insert HR Specialist area here)" to "I am becoming someone who is respected for her listening, thought organizing, and framing skills." If active listening is tough for you, if you have a high need to inject what you think the speaker wants to hear before they have finished their thought, you will have a tough time going around this mountain curve. You acquire the skill set to listen, summarize what you've heard, and ask the next "just right" question to successfully navigate the curve. Anthropologists do this well, clinical psychologists do this well, and kindergarten teachers are the true masters (as in, Bobby... "I think I just saw you put your paintbrush on Jen. Is that really what you meant to do?").
Becoming a mountain muse to a group of creative managers climbing their own mountains is not about you expounding on your own expertise. They know you have expertise; you know you have expertise. When they are climbing the mountain, sometimes they just need someone to listen and ask them when they might be okay pausing by the side of the trail for a rest. They need someone who can help them hear what is happening with everyone on the trail. That is, who is lagging, who is holding back to take their own photos, and who is itching to run ahead. Learn to listen–to individuals, the group, and the mountain. They need to know that you see it, get it, and will help them create the next opportunity.
Remember to enjoy the view...
The organizations in which we work face many challenges. We live in dynamic times, with constantly shifting expectations. We have big mountains to climb. We have switchback curves to navigate. We have climbing teams who need us to listen, hear, and experience right along with them. Learn to do these well and you will be respected as full partner on your team. Good luck and watch the curves...
About the Author
Sandi is president of Conrad Associates based in Omaha, Nebraska. Sandi consults with both profit and not-for-profit organizations applying accountable management principles in structuring, talent management and improved managerial practices. She has over twenty years experience in management, human resources, organization development and internal consulting.
Sandi has been vice president, human resources, and director, human capital development for a major national financial services organization. In her director role, Sandi served as assistant-to-the-president and worked with executive leadership teams to implement organizational structure and roles needed to meet future business needs, providing clarity in the development of key accountabilities and managing "right person, right role" concerns. During her tenure in this role, she led the internal consulting team for a five-year business unit merger project that resulted in significant structure change, role clarity and increased profits.
She was corporate human resources director for a major manufacturing firm responsible for recruitment, selection, employee relations, organizational development and training. Her experience includes senior merchandising and management positions in several major department store groups and product manager for an importing company. These positions required extensive travel throughout the USA and abroad, including the Far East and India.
Sandi's work with not-for-profit groups includes the recent Girl Scouts Spirit of Nebraska Council merger of five area councils into a statewide organization. She assisted the CEO and Leadership Team in developing the appropriate structure, roles and talent to meet the strategic vision for the emerging council. She has also worked with the CEO of the Institute for Career Advancement Needs (ICAN) in developing structure and roles to meet strategic expansion goals for the future.
Sandi brings practical management and human resources experience to her consulting work. She is known for her ability to integrate high-level conceptual frameworks for the executive level, assisting them in breakthrough thinking in the application of accountable management principles. Sandi is well respected for her ability to simplify complex principles and practices for mid-level and front line managers through her teaching and consulting style. She has over ten years experience teaching accountable management principles and practices to all levels of managers.
Sandi has presented at national and international conferences on topics including managerial leadership, talent management and using accountable management principles in managing process change. She teaches in the Executive MBA program at the University of Nebraska at Omaha using a curriculum focused on the application of requisite organization theory and accountable management principles in change management.
Sandi earned both Bachelor's and Master's degrees from the University of Nebraska. She is a Fellow of the Global Organization Design (GO) Society and a Certified Coach Practitioner.
Charan, Ram, Stephen Drotter, and James Noel. The Leadership Pipeline: How to Build the Leadership-Powered Company, 2nd ed. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2001.
Ehrlich, Eugene, Stuart Berg Flexner, Gorton Carruth, and Joyce M. Hawkins. Oxford American Dictionary. New York: Avon Books, 1980.
Ulrich, Dave, Jon Younger, Wayne Brockbank, and Mike Ulrich. HR from the Outside In: Six Competencies for the Future of Human Resources. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2012.