The Human Resources Business Partner


The Human Resources Business Partner (HRBP) is a popular designation for many human resources professionals in today’s Canadian organizations. However, there seems to be no consistent definition of this role and its responsibilities. This article will attempt to describe the most common organizational structures or models used by HR departments to incorporate HRBPs and will review the strengths and challenges of these models. It will also illustrate the duties and the necessary skills of the fully competent HRBP and make recommendations for organizations considering creating HRBP roles.

Assumptions underlying the HRBP Model

At the heart of the Human Resources Business Partner (HRBP) model is the assumption that an HR professional should become a strategic partner with line managers to help fulfill business goals.[1] Its intent is to “help HR professionals integrate more thoroughly into business processes and align their day-to-day work with business outcomes. This means focusing more on deliverables and business results than HR activities.”[2]

A second assumption is that the human side of the business is a key source of competitive advantage. The HRBP model enables the organization to optimize its human capital by bringing human resources considerations into strategic plans.

The success of the HRBP model also depends on several other key assumptions, namely that the HR partner is sufficiently skilled and prepared for this challenging role, that the line managers being “helped” are willing to accept the new model, and that HR work is restructured so that other more traditional HR functions are also being performed adequately.

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[1] Ulrich, D. (1998). ‘A new mandate for human resources’. Harvard Business Review, 76: 1, 124–134.

[2] Ulrich, D. & Brockbank, W. (2009). ‘The HR Business-Partner Model: Past Learnings and Future Challenges’.  People and Strategy, 32/2, 5-7.

HR and Manager Partnerships: Building Accountability in the Workplace

Rayna had just received an interesting request. J.B., a recent addition to the front-line management team, had come to her following the division wide quarterly town hall update. The division president, Anne, had given a talk on accountability. She’d been firm in her resolve to increase division wide understanding of what it meant to be accountable at work. J.B. wasn’t questioning the directive. He was struggling with the meaning. What did accountability mean for him as a manager?

“Rayna,” he said. “In my last job we talked a lot about a culture of responsiveness. We gave a lot of lip service to building good teams, but in the end, it was really all about getting things done – fast. There was a lot of blaming; nobody wanted to be the one to holding the bag. It was about covering your backside – always.”

“Ugh,” said Rayna. “That must have been tough. We are trying hard to be different here. Anne is all about building a healthy workplace. She wants people to feel good about coming to work.”

J.B. replied, “I hear what she’s saying. It just doesn’t mean anything to me. I’m not sure I’ve ever thought about accountability at work. I know, it sounds crazy.”

“Anne’s talk got me thinking,” said Rayna. “I’ve been doing some reading and listening to podcasts on what accountability means. How about we set up some lunch dates to talk about what I’m finding?”

“Perfect!” said J.B. “Thanks, Rayna, I really appreciate you taking this on with me.”

Download PDF: HR and Manager Partnerships: Building Accountability in the Workplace

From HR Practitioner to HR Leader: Competencies Required

You have your CHRP designation. Now as you begin to climb the ladder to success, what else must you learn to advance your career? One start is to develop the competencies you will need to become a true HR leader. But here the confusion begins. There are many different competencies and competency models proposed by various academics and associations. If you cannot determine with confidence which to trust, how can you decide where to invest your time, money and development efforts?

This article aims to reduce the confusion as much as possible in order to make your decisions easier. Let’s begin by sampling the most important academic research into HR competencies.

Download PDF: From HR Practitioner to HR Leader: Competencies Required

Enhancing Your Strategic Value as a Human Resources Professional: Playing to Win in HR

The notion that Human Resource (HR) professionals need to be strategic and aligned with their organization’s strategy is not by any means new.  In their book The HR Scorecard published almost fifteen years ago, Professors Becker, Huselid and Ulrich noted that “traditional HR skills have not diminished in value, but simply are no longer adequate to satisfy the wider strategic demands of the HR function” (Becker, Huselid and Ulrich, 2001).  Since then strategy frameworks and the language of strategic management have evolved.  The question is has HR kept up with these, especially in the past year or so?

This article is written for HR leaders and explores the HR-related implications of strategy work drawn from a variety of sources but in particular work that grew out of the strategy practice at Monitor Company and subsequently further developed by Roger Martin, former Dean of the Rotman School of Business at the University of Toronto, and A. G. Lafley, former Chairman, President and CEO of Proctor & Gamble.  Their work Playing to Win: How Strategy Really Works (2013) was recently published by Harvard Business Review Press and won the prestigious Thinkers50 Best Book Award (Thinkers50 website, 2014).  “Playing to Win” is a down-to-earth, simplified approach to thinking about strategy that is resonating very well with many business leaders. The “Playing to Win” framework is practical, effective and efficient.

Download PDF: Enhancing Your Strategic Value as a Human Resources Professional: Playing to Win in HR

The Relevant HR Professional: Five Strategies to Better Engage with Senior Business Leaders

I’m always stunned when I hear a senior business leader say that their head of HR isn’t one of their key advisors; that the head of HR is often not at the senior executive table when major strategic or market initiatives are being discussed.

And yet, in most organizations, human resources are both the largest expense line in the profit and loss statement and the most mission-critical resource: it is only with good people that ANYTHING of business value gets done. For this reason alone, there should be a senior HR professional at the table for every strategic discussion.

So how can it be that in so many companies, the senior HR professionals get relegated to the kids’ table when the main meal is being prepared and served? Why are HR issues too frequently an afterthought? The reason for this comes from both sides; business line executives often feel HR professionals spend too much time on process and analysis and not enough on understanding and creating strategic impact; and HR professionals historically have not been trained or encouraged to find the necessary business skills to identify that impact and talk about it in language that excites and engages business leaders.

We have to earn our way to the table. Yes, it is critical for our own careers, but more importantly it is imperative for the business.  Outlined here are five strategies that any HR professional can employ to make themselves so relevant to the business and so engaged in its success that senior executives will demand that they are invited to join the senior executive team.

1. Understand your customer’s customer

To connect our value to what is most important to our customers – the senior executive team in our organization – we need to deeply understand our customer’s customer. What is happening in their market? What pressures are they under to differentiate themselves from the competition in their customer’s eyes?  What kind of skills will they need to achieve that differentiation? Dave Ulrich, in his excellent book HR From the Outside In: Six Competencies for the Future of Human Resources, talks about the need for HR professionals to reverse the way they view the world, to go outside and understand the motivations of customers, regulators, industry groups and competitors. (As a note, Ulrich’s book HR From the Outside In: Six Competencies for the Future of Human Resources forms the heart of the Queen’s IRC Advanced HR program.)

By going outside the business and looking back in from the customer’s point-of-view, we can directly connect to the challenges our business line executives are facing in forming and executing a winning strategy. With this knowledge we can then shape and focus the value we deliver to help our customers differentiate their offerings and capture and retain their customers. By doing this we earn the right to engage in the strategic discussions that take place at the senior table.

2. Learn how to “sell” your value

The challenge for any executive in today’s business environment – this applies to CIO’s, marketing directors, compliance and risk officers, product heads and CFO’s in addition to HR professionals – is that there are more good projects to consider for investment than there are budget dollars to fund them. To be relevant, we need to be able to show how any initiative we propose will directly improve the business. We need to “sell” our ideas, and to sell them we must connect them directly to one or more of three key business drivers.

  1. How can this investment help to grow revenue?
  2. How can this investment reduce or help to better manage our costs?
  3. How can this investment help to better manage our risks?

Revenue. Cost. Risk. To be relevant, to be invited to the senior table, we need to ensure that any idea we propose connects directly to one or more of these areas. To do this, we need to understand how money is generated, how it is spent and what risks are involved in creating a profitable, competitive company.

3. Answer First

In discussing or presenting an initiative, start by showing the answer. Get to the point – immediately! And then backfill information as it is needed or requested. There is a story that when Jamie Dimon, current CEO of JPMorgan Chase, went to Bank One to be their new CEO, the weekly management meetings went on for hours and hours (8 hours was the number I heard when the story was relayed to me). Mr. Dimon is a driver, confident in his own knowledge and comfortable making decisions; these meetings drove him crazy.

So he implemented a rule that was called “Answer First”. Any executive making a presentation had to summarize his or her presentation on one cover page, including the relevant numbers. If the one page story was enough, the executive team made their decision and moved on. If they needed more information, the presenting executive was asked to present more. The meetings went from 8 hours to 2 hours. The point is that senior executives can process information very quickly – they “get” it – without needing extensive details. Remember, they aren’t buying a 40 page PowerPoint deck or 100 pages of detailed research – they are buying a compelling business argument backed by realistic financials. Make the concise argument. Back up your argument with relevant research and realistic financial numbers. Do the research and analysis and have your backup material ready, but don’t turn the telling of the story into a painful, mind numbing experience.

4. How do we get from here to money?

In most HR change initiatives, we are asking senior executives to invest in a change that will bring strategic benefit to their business. To earn this investment, we must be able to show the key decision makers how the organization or department will get from here to the point in time when their investment reaps the predicted returns. How do we get from here to money? This is an act of imagination – and it is an act we can’t assume our executives will make or will make well enough to see the full benefits and green light our project. We have to show them – succinctly – how the change will take place, when the investment will be required, when they can expect a return on that investment and how the risks of implementation will be managed.

5. Change the Conversation

To look at HR value through a business lens requires a mindset shift. To achieve this shift we need to change the way we think and talk about our work – we need to change the conversation. And the first conversation we need to change is the one in our heads. We need to think about what we do in terms of ultimate value to the business and – wherever realistically possible – translate that value into hard dollar financial terms.  This conversation must be the start of our approach to any problem or project: What is the business problem? What financial measure or risk mitigation practice am I working to improve? How can I plan and implement this change that gets us from here to money with the greatest speed and the least risk?

Secondly, we need to change the conversation with our teams. When we are discussing, researching, defining and preparing our arguments we need to challenge each other to define the business impact and to express it – Answer First! –  in succinct business terms and financial numbers.

And finally, we need to change the conversation with our senior executives. Even if we don’t have strong numbers, we need to be willing to talk about the numbers, about business impact, about their stakeholders, about how their strategy can be strengthened and the implementation times shortened. We need to change the conversation – in our head, with our team, and with our customers.

Companies and organizations of all sizes and shapes need senior HR professionals at the senior executive table. With the coming shifts in demographics and the endlessly accelerating need for better technical and business acumen and skills, there is a chair waiting at that table to be filled. Take the challenge – make yourself relevant and engaging; execute these strategies to show the full impact that you and HR can have on your business.

About the Author

Jim Harrison, Queen's IRC Facilitator

Jim Harrison is an international consultant focused on strategy, sales and talent management for mid-sized to large organizations.  He started his career in financial services, working as a money trader for RBC/Dominion Securities.  He has over 27 years’ experience in consulting, training, and executive coaching. Jim is a facilitator on the Queen’s IRC Linking HR Strategy to Business Strategy program.  He also works with clients in North & South America, Europe, Australia, and Asia, and regularly facilitates strategy and training sessions for such well-known companies as IBM, Accenture, PwC, KPMG, Fuji, AGFA, the Toronto Dominion Bank, Deutsche Bank, and HSBC. He received his B.Sc. degree in Finance from Florida State University and a Master’s Degree in English from the University of California, Irvine.



Ulrich, D., Younger, J., Brockbank, W. & Ulrich, M. (2012). HR from the Outside In: Six Competencies for the Future of Human Resources. New York: McGraw-Hill

Rising to a ‘Seat at the Table’ for HR Practitioners: Continuous Learning Leadership

Today many vice presidents and other senior executives in human resources (HR) have earned a seat at the executive table by showing their organization’s senior teams that HR operations contribute at least as much as Sales, Marketing, Operations, Finance, IT or any other department. The key to this is continuous learning. Jack Welch, former 20-year CEO of world class GE, now an itinerant management guru, is often quoted: “An organization’s ability to learn and translate that learning into action rapidly is the ultimate competitive advantage.” Executives who aspire to lead organizations have to spearhead that learning first by learning steadily themselves and that is nowhere truer than for HR.

Welch also says point blank in his book Winning (Welch, 2005) and frequently on the speaker circuit, that HR is the second most important job (after CEO of course), and the only other role impacting every part of an organization. It combines the most complex set of tasks of any position. You need to know HR inside and out, but like a CEO, you also need to know a good deal about every other function.

Since it is impossible to know everything, the key becomes developing the ability to learn rapidly. The only way to learn this is by practicing for it constantly. In so doing, you accumulate a wide knowledge as well as a respect for the complexity of other positions, and an ability to talk to people in their language.

Each of us learns differently, but what distinguishes top colleagues at the senior HR level is they never stop searching for answers and asking questions. This isn’t something you tack on when you reach the next level, but a set of habits you need to practice throughout your career. It begins with powerful curiosity about how things work, not just in HR, but in all sorts of subjects, the wider the better.

Everyone asks if HR executives need prior experience to pave the path to the C-suite in HR. Clearly, not every successful HR executive has worked in other situations, but an ability to understand other roles, to put yourself in another person’s shoes and step into a discussion of their issues (without looking uninformed) is critical. Even a short direct exposure to business issues helps many managers recognize the value of understanding them, but it is possible to do this without direct experience if you pay attention and work at it.

My advice to ‘learn to learn’ isn’t just idle guidance for others, but something I lived (and still do). I was able to serve in senior HR roles over 23 years, 14 as the senior vice president of HR for one of the country’s largest companies. In those roles, I found that successful people do not take their knowledge for granted.

In my experience, there are four main ingredients to successful HR leadership that are interdependent. All involve continuously increasing knowledge of yourself and your surroundings.

Seamless HR Services

First you have to ensure HR delivers effective support services. This is a price-of-entry requirement. It means knowing what the best services look like and whether yours are performing at top levels. Today this may mean outsourcing some aspects to ensure up to the minute systems and procedures, but whether outsourced or not, you can’t lose touch with how these are managed. Information privacy and security, human rights, ethics, diversity and more have to be monitored and assured in addition to effectiveness of the actual service provided. Experts can help, but HR needs a continuing, updated grasp of requirements so nothing is overlooked. It’s a big, continual learning requirement.

A key goal today is developing a consistent employment brand around a core HR strategy, whether that is talent management, successor development or whatever. This requires looking at the culture from the employees’ view and assembling all the basic HR pieces so the whole is consistent and positive, and there are no glaring inconsistencies that make rules, pay, perks or promotions seem unfair or management seem blind to such key issues. Staff need to believe they will be supported with challenging tasks so they can grow. Inevitably one of your challenges is executives who think motivation means to pay more, offer more incentives, bigger titles or other perks; they don’t want to ‘waste time’ (or maybe they don’t know how to) coach and develop talent.

Some senior executives will never fully get it. They’re caught up in day-to-day hustle. As an HR professional, being able to explain and illustrate what works best and why is a key skill that requires you to present useful facts relevant to these other divisions in language they relate to. All that requires strategy, confidence, and understanding a good deal about other functions.

This brings us to the second interdependent requirement – strategy.

Understandable HR Strategy

Strategies are how you plan to get to the better future you set out in your larger vision. Larger has to mean larger than just HR or just profit-making. The overall organization needs a vision and these are often pretty anemic – increase sales or market share by 5%. There isn’t much there to appeal to the average employee or other stakeholder groups except perhaps shareholders, though today even they are learning it takes more than just sales or profits to support increasing value.

We all debate mission versus vision and the usefulness of big statements for either. The difference is simple: vision is where you’d like to end up, mission is what you plan on doing to get there. Google wants to ‘organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible.’ ( That’s a massive, positive mission for a vision of a goal that will never be fully realized. Visions are moving targets. And you need a vision/mission for your own life and work, and a plan to learn how to get there.

Google has been criticized for not expressing its mission in dollar terms – as in ‘earn billions for shareholders by making people pay for it.’ Somehow I doubt the dollar mission/vision would excite nearly as much effort or commitment from employees, the lifeblood of how you achieve results. Dollars flow in to organizations that have inspiring missions or visions that everyone wants to see succeed. They are more a by-product, a very important, necessary one for survival, but by-product nonetheless. The same is true of your own vision – getting a 10% raise is a by-product of some larger aim you pursue. What will that be? For me, business was a way to change the world. Trading partners are less likely to go to war, starve each other or worse. I might not have made huge progress, but I aimed for it.

Everyone says HR strategy should build around and align with the business strategy. That’s all well and good, but it has to go further than just supporting and being consistent with the need to make money. HR strategy helps lead and focus the business toward higher objectives than annual targets – the development and utilization of the full potential of every employee as well as a vision or mission they can be inspired about.

We want an engaged workforce because those will be our people who innovate. It’s their innovations that mean we can double, triple, quadruple the business, take it in new directions, into new products and services, new global markets, new alliances and joint ventures. As an HR professional, you learn to think ahead. Where’s your industry going? What’s becoming obsolete? This helps with workforce planning – what skills will the business need – but it also critically positions you as an HR business partner rather than simply a ‘support.’ You don’t take a year off to learn all this, you work at it diligently along with regular duties – learning a little at a time from every executive and expert you meet – if you pay attention.

Continuing Personal Growth

Others in the organization generally get very caught up in the financial by-product results, so HR has to know the language of dollars, capital investment, payback, ROI, ROIC and so forth and be able to show numerically some sort of connection with HR strategy.

Short courses and quick study materials are available for those who didn’t take business programs. You can’t talk with a CEO, CFO or an executive who aspires to these roles and has profit and loss targets to worry about if you don’t know what the words mean. Once you learn the language of business, then it’s straight forward to develop proof of how HR makes achieving them easier. You can’t find numbers in every case, but you can in enough areas to make very valid arguments. Today there’s mountains of research to present or adapt for such proofs.

Hesitancy in using numbers, doing statistics and calculating returns is widespread among HR executives with non-business backgrounds, but these can’t be excuses for not learning. Lots of people feared math in childhood, but adults have the ability to learn core skills when they need to, so old fears can, and should, be put aside. Strategy is fine, but without concrete, often numerical, evidence of progress, it won’t be effective.

In university, I took a couple of years of engineering, then finished with a degree in psychology and a Masters in counseling. When I decided to pursue HR, I knew I needed to know more, so I signed on for a night course in accounting and one in economics and I read a couple of books on both business and HR. I found that once you have the ground work you can look up the details. The math I needed was 99% arithmetic that all of us mastered in grade school. It’s rarely, as they say, rocket science. It’s knowing what to add, subtract, multiply or divide that is important.


If I have a regret about my years in the senior HR role, it would be that I spent most of it with a senior group that wasn’t really a team. Everyone operated fairly individually in silos despite weekly meetings. They knew what was going on, but didn’t coordinate in a true sense. The reason was the official leaders didn’t have the confidence to allow differing opinions to be worked through. Without that, true teamwork simply can’t be developed. Instead you have the boss’ opinion, modified in various individual ways to suit individual function strategies that don’t fully align.

Relying continually on pure command and control leadership – just giving orders – is a sign of insecurity and fear. It takes courage to run a collaborative operation. You can learn and become a model. If you can’t find an organization or develop a senior team to adopt this approach, the best advice is to seek the right ingredients elsewhere. I should have done this years before I finally moved on.

One of the greatest tests of anyone’s confidence is being able to hold back when your teams want to try things their way (since you may end up having to take the blame if they go wrong). You must ensure people can challenge your thinking as a leader in private or in meetings without fear of reprisals. Even if you react just with visible excess caution when suggestions are made, you won’t get feedback and ideas. Without input you are a lone soldier battling in the dark. No matter how good you are, you will never outdo competitors for promotions and you will lag in results behind those who utilize the full resources of everyone’s contributions.

It takes a lot of confidence to drive strategies for collaborative leadership and coaching-style development of successors throughout an organization against what is often steady, ingrained resistance. If you keep working at it, momentum can develop, making it increasingly easy as more and more executives understand the value.

I was lucky to have had some very intense leadership roles in jobs I volunteered for earlier in my career. I took those positions often without knowing I’d have to develop extra confidence to survive them. Volunteering for stretch roles that sound interesting is something I always recommend to anyone wanting to learn more and move ahead. As a super-shy child, adolescent, and young adult, I’d have been voted least likely to succeed in leadership. I ploddingly learned confidence in my skills one lesson at a time, as most leaders do, in the midst of struggling to make things work in tough jobs. Those who have read Geoff Colvin’s book Talent is Overrated or Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers will know that learning takes years to accumulate expertise, but there’s no substitute. Once you have the ground work though, you can speed up the promotion ladder very quickly.

Practice, trial and error and tolerance for your own mistakes are critical to learning. I’m a great example that this can all be learned if you persist in wanting results and taking some risks to get them. It would be hard to start with less self-confidence than I had. It develops naturally as you press forward, IF you press forward. Having a strategy for yourself and your work is essential, for then you can commit to the strategy and keep trying until you learn what it takes.

Even when there’s no additional pay immediately, it’s worth it to learn from challenging add-on roles to build a base for bigger jobs and the biggest incomes. In 35 years, I only asked for a raise once – and at that, it was a given I’d get one – it was just a matter of how much. Every other significant increase, big or small, came with taking on more responsibility in one way or another, most often without being asked. In 12 years that multiplied my pay by more than ten times from where I started in business. Fortunately I built the confidence to believe I could transition to a very different, more remunerative industry. Working at building confidence by volunteering for more difficult roles certainly paid off for me personally, as well as the organizations I did the work for.


All my HR work and attempts at influencing over the years were certainly made easier because of steady accumulation of interesting new ideas at every opportunity. I’m indebted to many fine staff who coached me in areas I didn’t have expertise in, which were many. It helped that I was an eager student for them, willing to listen, learn, ask for advice and share decisions.

It is easier and more necessary than ever to develop a tiered learning strategy today using many resources. With mountains of free material on the internet, and more companies encouraging senior managers to coach, lots can be obtained quickly and easily at no cost, no matter what learning approaches you prefer. Learn all you can on your own and free up precious development dollars to put toward high quality programs and sessions aimed not so much at certificates that look good on a resume, but for actual content to apply directly to your work whenever possible.

Simply learning all the time without applying much of it is of little value. At the same time we should never rule out learning things that aren’t immediately applicable if we see something intriguing that seems to have future value.

The more we develop a real enjoyment of discovering and applying new information, the more we will be prepared to keep at it not just once or twice a year, but daily, weekly, and whenever opportunities to ask good questions or check out something novel appears. A steady trickle beats an occasional flood every time. Learn to provide effective services, to strategize in all areas (personal and work) and the confidence to lead by example and by coaching even your senior team toward team-based approaches.

Don’t wait for anyone to invite you to focus on these areas for learning or leading. It’s never too soon to start investigating, thinking seriously through what you would or should do in the next role up… or two. That’s the route many of today’s top executives used to get ready for opportunities that hadn’t yet appeared.

Some years ago I attended a program where we were each encouraged to come up with a slogan to live by. After some pondering, the obvious line for me came to mind: Learn… and live!

My life and work have certainly been better for it.


About the Author

Dave Crisp, Crisp Leadership Strategies

Dave Crisp writes and speaks about HR strategy and high performance leadership based on 5 core principles he developed to succeed in seven diverse industries. Prior to 10 years of consulting as Crisp Leadership Strategies, he helped 3 successive CEOs at Hudson’s Bay lead 70,000 people to become a “best company to work for” despite 110 re-organizations, mergers and acquisitions – nearly one a month. Among other successes, he once negotiated $60-million on a $10-million contract, led HR for two major Toronto hospitals and started a $10-million Internet division in 6 countries in a few months while continuing to lead HR at HBC. He currently serves on the leadership team of an HR think tank and writes regular thought pieces for them, in addition to pieces for the Canadian HR Reporter as well as his own blog called Balance and Results.



Colvin, Geoff (2010) Talent Is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else. New York, NY: Portfolio Trade.

Gladwell, Malcolm (2008) Outliers: The Story of Success. New York, NY: Little, Brown and Company

Google (n.d.) Google’s Mission Retrieved from

Welch, Jack (2005) Winning. Boston, Mass: Harper Business.

Encouraging Collaboration in the Workplace: Lessons from the Government of Alberta

In 2009, the Alberta government's Connie Scott was a trailblazer, a forerunner in a new learning program that would change the way she and her community would look at their work.

Scott, now a manager of HR Strategies in Enterprise and Advanced Education, was in the first cohort of Queen's IRC HR Business Partner Certificate Program, a curriculum custom-designed for the Alberta government.

Scott was one of 25 students from three pilot ministries, and she was immediately struck by the tenor of the facilitators, their expertise and ideas, and their energy in the classroom.

"The instruction was fabulous. Françoise (Morissette) and Gary (Furlong) were amazing. The knowledge and experience they had was so obvious, they were just clearly highly experienced. Françoise was so exuberant, I'll always remember that," Scott said.

"And I loved that we were part of a cohort of people. I loved that I had this brand new network, and it's a network that I still keep in touch with."

Soon after she completed the program, Scott transitioned from Manager , HR Consulting to Manager, HR Strategies. She was able to apply what she learned from the IRC right away.

"It allowed you to think more strategically. You'd ask yourself: how will this or that impact another part of the organization? If you're implementing a workforce plan or a leadership framework or coaching services, you start to think about the business and how it will be accepted and who it will really impact and what's the best way to get it out so it will cut through the clutter," she said.

While Scott's first cohort only included three Alberta ministry HR department's, the new partnership between Alberta Corporate HR and Queen's IRC now enrolls participants from many of the Alberta government's 20-plus HR teams.

The leading-edge curriculum has five interrelated workshops designed to expand HR professionals' capacity to be internal business partners: Foundations for Internal Consulting, Change Management, Building Relationships and Strategic Partnerships, Coaching Skills, and Organizational Design. Other facilitators include former Queen's IRC director Carol Beatty, Sharon Parker, and Brenda Barker Scott.

The goal of the HR Business Partner Certificate program is to enhance the capacity of HR professionals to work as business partners; to develop them into trusted advisors who use the knowledge of business needs, organizational context and HR policy and practices to generate insight and influence decisions.

Barker Scott said she loves to hear stories like Connie Scott's, of HR professionals for whom the IRC training is the basis for a career-long shift in thinking.

"By the time people have been through the program, they've reflected on how they can use the tools, they've experimented, they've practiced," Barker Scott said.

"We've provided a base and a community. But it doesn't stop. We're planting seeds for them. We're tapping into what's already there. And then they return to their bigger HR community and use it. That's what's so gratifying."

Current Queen's IRC Director, Paul Juniper, said that balance of theory and practice, the hands-on experience, are aspects that help set IRC training apart in the world of HR professional development.

"Time and again, the evaluative feedback we receive from our participants is overwhelmingly positive," Juniper said.

"The IRC experience is about learning new ideas, reframing thinking, and acquiring tools and resources to be more effective and efficient in the workplace. Our advanced-level programming challenges participants to thinking critically and more deeply explore ideas and workplace challenges."

Connie Scott said another, subtler advantage of the IRC program is that it encourages collaboration, a central and oft-repeated focus of the Alberta government.

"Participants from my cohort still call me and ask: 'What would do you if…? And that's important, because collaboration is tough. Are you sharing information? Are you talking to one another? Are you literally sharing your resources? Programs like this help us to be a more collaborative organization," she said.

Connie Scott's favourite module was Building Relationships and Strategic Partnerships.

"Even if that's all you took, you'd have the tools to build your network, to consider how people interrelate, how to manage conflict, how people communicate," she said.

"Even how we 'sell' our service has changed in part because of this training. We're more diligent in how we develop our community. We now have HR consultants at leadership meetings. And they're not just there for the sake of being there; they're engaged, they're adding value."

Changing the HR Mindset from Transactional to Strategic: Lessons from the Government of Alberta

 Lessons from the Government of Alberta

For the Alberta government's Pauline Melnyk, the Queen's IRC HR Business Partner Certificate Program couldn't have come at a better time.

Melnyk was helping design a cumulative effects management system (CEMS) for her department, Alberta Environment and Sustainable Resource Development. As part of the system, which designs programs and processes based on the cumulative effects of development on the environment, the department itself needed to review its organizational design.

Melynk enrolled in the inaugural program hosted by the departments of Environment, Energy, and Advanced Education and Technology, and immediately saw how she could apply what she learned to the CEMS project.

"It was so timely," said Melnyk, an organizational learning and effectiveness consultant. "When we were learning about the IRC's Blueprint for Organizational Effectiveness that very much came to the forefront in my learning about what the CEMS system looks like.

"Because of the IRC program, I was able to ask more poignant questions, and dig deeper."

Melynk began working more deeply with a program called Partners in Resource Excellence, a novel approach for working with industry and building relationships with stakeholders to achieve better and more meaningful compliance with standards without resorting to regulatory tools.

"I specifically developed that project as a partnership model, delved deep into what we were learning in that area, and how we could transmit it across the organization," Melnyk said.

"And the IRC course helped cement that. It gave me legitimacy to test the models, and to challenge the process."

Participants in these IRC custom programs come from many of the Alberta government's 20-plus ministry HR departments.

The leading-edge curriculum has five interrelated workshops designed to expand HR professionals' capacity to be internal business partners: Foundations for Internal Consulting, Change Management, Building Relationships and Strategic Partnerships, Coaching Skills, and Organizational Design. Facilitators include former Queen's IRC director Carol Beatty, Sharon Parker, Gary Furlong, Francoise Morissette, and Brenda Barker Scott.

The goal of the HR Business Partner Certificate program is to enhance the capacity of HR professionals to work as business partners; to develop them into trusted advisors who use the knowledge of business needs, organizational context and HR policy and practices to generate insight and influence decisions.

Stephanie Noel, Business Development Manager at Queen's IRC, said leading edge organizations now receive the added value of HR operating at a strategic level.

"The Queen's IRC certificate series has been designed and developed to help prepare and transition HR professionals to become true internal business consultants," she said.

Current Queen's IRC Director Paul Juniper said senior leaders in organizations are increasingly calling on HR professionals to provide advice on organizational strategy.

"When the HR function is deeply embedded in an organization, HR professionals require not only a high level of technical skills and knowledge, but also business acumen and an in-depth understanding of their corporate strategy and design," he said.

"HR business partners, then, have the necessary skill sets to align HR strategy with organizational strategy, to think holistically and systemically, and to leverage the organization's human capital to maximize productivity and profitability."

Beyond the big-picture benefits, Melnyk said she loved the IRC facilitators' approach in the classroom.

"The beauty of it all is the experiential way of learning. I'll always remember that (the facilitators) used a blind square exercise, and the tool was to show that without information and without communication, you can't reach the other side of the square. You have to go back and then someone else has to try," Melnyk said.

"That was really valuable, but there were so many other neat components. We used clay, mind-mapping, story-weaving. It was so, so engaging. The days were long and challenging, no question, but they were chunked out in the right way."

Furlong, a long-time IRC facilitator, said the goal of the Building Relationships and Strategic Partnerships module was to give all participants a roadmap, a model for creating and sustaining effective partnerships and relationships.

"The course is a step-by-step field guide to putting an effective structure in place, one that will support people working effectively together for a long time."

Furlong said that when most people engage with other groups, they use a "Hope for" approach – they "Hope for" a good group of people who work well together. "Sometimes this happens, many times it doesn't. This workshop gives anyone tasked with making relationships work effectively a clear roadmap for delivering that."

Melnyk said she's encouraged that the Alberta government's HR community has invested in the IRC certificate program series.

"It says to me that they're headed in the right direction. It's such a solid set of tools for folks to use in the emerging world, and from changing the HR mindset from transactional to strategic," she said.

"We can complain that our partners aren't ready for us, but they need our guidance and our advice. And you need to approach it in a way that helps your partners feel strong. Regular practices don't help you have that conversation in that way. That's one key in this course; it changes the conversation."

"I saw a lot of my colleagues in the program grow. I think it gave them confidence. It sure gave me confidence to do it all."

Becoming a Trusted Strategic Business Partner: Lessons from the Government of Alberta

In 2008, when Mary Jefferies first consulted with Queen’s IRC to build a new program that would enhance the Alberta government HR professionals’ ability to be true business partners, she was not motivated by an industry trend, or faddishness.

The changing business of the Alberta government and of her department — then called Alberta Environment — demanded it.

“Our work was increasingly being seen on the international stage, whether it was in oilsands or in conservation. And we were being challenged to work in a more collaborative, more networked, more interactive way,” said Jefferies, now an organizational culture expert in the Alberta government’s Environment and Sustainable Resource Development department.

“We needed to give people capacity for systems thinking, facilitation, learning, and organizational development. We needed to respond to changes in the business, and in the expectations of senior leaders. We needed to think about emerging competencies in the workforce, talent management, and leadership development.

“And so we asked: What are the capabilities we need to be trusted strategic business partners? How do we get there?”

Jefferies knew precisely where to turn for the answers: to Queen’s IRC and to Brenda Barker Scott, with whom Jefferies had previously worked on an organization design project.

The Queen’s IRC team, including Barker Scott and Stephanie Noel, the IRC’s business development manager, were up for the challenge to develop an HR Business Partner program, first for Jefferies’ department and collaborating departments of Energy and Advanced Education and Technology, and then for the Alberta government’s HR community as a whole. Participants now come from many of the Alberta government’s 18-plus ministry HR departments.

The leading-edge curriculum has five interrelated workshops designed to expand HR professionals’ capacity to be internal business partners: Foundations for Internal Consulting, Change Management, Building Relationships and Strategic Partnerships, Coaching Skills, and Organizational Design. Other facilitators include former Queen’s IRC director Carol Beatty, Sharon Parker, Gary Furlong, and Francoise Morissette.

The goal of the HR Business Partner Certificate program is to enhance the capacity of HR professionals to work as business partners; to develop them into trusted advisors who use the knowledge of business needs, organizational context and HR policy and practices to generate insight and influence decisions. For example, the internal consulting workshop — about which Jefferies still raves — teaches a skills process, which shows participants how to diagnose challenges, collect and analyze data, design options and implement solutions.

For her part, Barker Scott credits the Alberta HR community for its foresight, and for recognizing that HR professionals need to bring thoughtfulness and a strategic perspective to their work.

“A true business partner is someone who brings strong depth and skills so they can facilitate change, so they can get good results from their knowledge of the business, so they can get really good energy and participation from their partners,” Barker Scott said.

Current Queen’s IRC Director, Paul Juniper, said his Centre custom-designs programs for clients like the Alberta government, a key differentiator in a crowded marketplace of HR professional development.

“The IRC’s programming is unique. Programs are designed specially for practitioners, adhering to adult learning principles and practices. Our facilitators are subject matter experts who draw on their own professional experiences, while weaving academic theory and key concepts into the program content. Each program incorporates a variety of learning strategies, including exercises that allow time to reflect on and apply the concepts learned in the classroom,” said Juniper.

“This experiential learning is a fundamental component of the IRC’s programming; it ensures opportunities for dialogue, discussion, and debate, so that participants can network with and learn from each other. The IRC has a long tradition of excellence and strives to ensure that our programs are relevant, practical, and provide the kind of learning that participants need to address their own workplace challenges.”

The result of that learning, Jefferies said, is clear: HR professionals who can better navigate increasingly complex situations.

The change Jefferies has seen in participants conjures to her a favourite quote — “A mind once stretched never returns to its original dimensions” — and a familiar acronym: VUCA.

“If you think about VUCA — about volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity — what we need in the HR world is the vision in the volatility, the understanding we can shape in the uncertainty, the clarity in the complexity, and the actions we can take in the ambiguity,” Jefferies said.

“To me, that is how you add value.”

For Juniper, the HR Business Partner program is about showing HR practitioners how to move beyond the traditional HR roles, and enlarge their perspectives on what the work is, and what it can be.

“HR professionals have become an integral part of HR management strategy. The IRC is proud to help HR practitioners gain the knowledge and skills they need to be successful in their roles.”

Linking HR Strategy with Business Strategy: Optimizing the Impact of HR practices on Business Results

We have moved into an era where traditional support services – HR, Finance, IT, Administration, Legal etc. – are under increasing daily pressure to produce a more direct impact on business results. The business rationale for this pressure is easy to understand. Organizations – both public and private – are being pushed by customers, boards of directors, analysts, and investors to do more with the resources they have or – in many cases – do more with less. Deliver more services. Deliver them faster and with more value in more locations. Customize the experience. Gather, analyze and integrate data in a multitude of ways to enhance controls and cross-selling. Provide 24/7 access. Allow flexible work hours. Provide life-long learning and work-life balance. Move everything online – and make it accessible everywhere, with full privacy and security.

You get the picture. And we well imagine that if you are reading this article you are – in many ways – living that picture.

To be taken seriously as HR professionals, we need to be relevant to our audience. To be relevant to the organizational leaders and C-Suite executives we serve, we need to understand and adopt the goals and objectives of the organization and make them our goals and objectives. To do this requires that we directly link our HR strategies to the strategies – and ultimately the success – of the business we are serving.

A strategy is an articulated plan that enables an organization to make optimum use of its people, resources and investments in order to achieve its goals and objectives. In this article we offer a small taste of what it means for HR practitioners to connect their HR strategies to those of the business leaders they serve. These ideas, mindsets, and skills are explored and expanded upon in a hands-on, interactive programs offered by Queen’s IRC called Linking HR Strategy with Business Strategy.

Where do you start if you are an HR practitioner who wants a relevant and impactful relationship with the leaders of your business or organization? We offer the following actions you can take to start to build those relationships and begin the journey.

1. Understand the goals and objectives of the business – and make them your own

To be relevant we must understand what our business colleagues are working to achieve and the strategies they are employing to achieve them. Read their documented strategies, mark them up, ask clarifying and challenging questions, and discuss the objectives and strategies with your HR team. Most business leaders love to talk about their businesses. Where possible, set up a monthly meeting to go through the strategy and the needs of the business unit. If you are embedded within the unit, analyze their plans and results, attend all the meetings and invite team members to coffee or lunch to soak yourself in what they are trying to accomplish and how you can help.

One challenge you may face is that your organization may not have a written strategy. If that is the case, then use the business ideas below to piece together those areas of strategic focus that will help you to create a deliver a relevant HR strategy. Every organization operates to some strategy, whether they state it or not. Sometimes our job as HR professionals requires that we figure out what that strategy is before we are able to serve it.

2. See your HR practices through a business lens.

Lens #1: The first lens focuses on key business drivers. As you work to understand and digest the goals and strategies of the business, remember that business goals can usually be directly connected to one of three primary objectives: revenue growth, cost control, or risk management.

By starting with these primary objectives, you can then trace back the HR practice you are recommending through the value chain to show how it directly impacts that objective. Let’s use the example of recruitment and how it might impact a growing sales force. The primary objective of a talented sales force is revenue growth. Our experience shows that a structured recruiting process that combines the candidate’s previous sales results with scenario testing and experienced-based interviewing, when conducted in partnership between HR and the sales leader, dramatically improves the sales success of new recruits and helps to drive faster revenue growth. In discussing HR practices, work to tie your story or recommendation back to one – or more – of the three primary objectives – revenue, cost or risk.

Lens #2: The second lens for HR professionals to look through is how a customer’s needs and how they make decisions are impacted by the business’s value proposition. To attract and keep customers, successful businesses create a value proposition designed to satisfy their targeted customers, deliver outstanding value, build loyalty and differentiate the business from its competitors. It is your job as an HR professional to enhance that value proposition with relevant and focused HR practices. For example, in a sales or service organization, compensation plans and training and development programs need to be tailored to specifically build the motivation, skills, knowledge and confidence of the front sales and service staff. In this way, the investment in HR practices can help those staff members execute the value proposition in a way that creates a unique and positive customer experience.

The leading HR expert Dave Ulrich says this is one of the fundamental mindsets that drives the impact of HR practices in specific organizations; that HR professionals must learn to look at the business from “the outside in”; that we must start with the point-of view of our customer’s customer and how those customers make decisions if we want to have a meaningful dialogue with our customers, the leaders of the business.

3. Make the connection: Link HR strategy and practices to business results

Once you understand the goals, objectives and strategy you can work to directly link everything you do to the success of the business. You build your strategy and execute your practices to serve the overall goals of the organization. This is true in commercial, union and public sector organizations. There are sound strategic reasons why the top organizations in the world execute a suite of progressive HR practices, including performance management systems, learning plans, organizational design, change management programs, and employee feedback and engagement initiatives. When they are well designed and professionally delivered, these programs enhance the overall value proposition of the organization and provide a key piston in the engine that drives success.

4. Talk their language: Numbers are the language of business

One of the biggest complaints we hear from business leaders about their HR support teams is that HR practices are rarely discussed in the same financial or numerical manner that other business decisions are discussed. If you want to be relevant with business leaders and C-suite executives, you have to speak their language and their language is numbers: numbers are the language of business.

Numbers come in two forms when looking at business decisions. The first and most obvious one is dollars and cents, the financial impact. Value is measured and decisions are driven by the financial impact that an investment or program can have on a business. We will acknowledge that for many HR practices it is hard to calculate a specific dollar benefit, but we have to at least show estimates and potential impact. Most executives are not draconian about needing a business case for all HR initiatives. They understand that the building of a strong, knowledgeable, informed staff is a key strategic need for success. But our willingness to at least estimate or wrestle with the financial impact of a program shows them that we understand what they wrestle with in making investment decisions; it places us on their side of the table in looking at the best use of the organization’s limited financial resources.

The other numbers you must be familiar with are activity and satisfaction surveys, and operational and change measurements. If your firm runs a balanced scorecard that identifies customer satisfaction, financial results, operational processes and change or learning initiatives, then take the time to study in depth how these numbers (or scores) are derived, how they link to the value proposition, and how the executives who run the business units are shaping their strategies to achieve top scores and thus strengthen the long term sustainability of the business. HR practices can directly influence the majority of the scores that make up a balanced scorecard. But to have an “informed” discussion about how the business units can best take advantage of those practices, you have to understand these numbers and how to impact them.

5. Who do you show up as?

Finally, ask yourself: “Who do I show up as?” for conversations with my organizations leaders. Do you show up as a well-informed business professional who is deeply immersed in their strategy and value proposition? Do you show up as someone who understands how your customers make decisions, and who is willing to have in-depth discussions about the measures of their success? Do you show up as a professional who can help them implement change in a way that maximizes effectiveness and minimizes risk?

For HR professionals, the challenge is to show up with compelling arguments to business leaders that show the positive impact of HR practices and programs on the results of the business or organization. But in order to make those compelling arguments and have a positive impact as HR professionals, we need to directly link our HR strategies and practices to the strategies of the business.

To be invited to the table, our programs need to have impact. To be invited back, we need to establish ourselves as trusted partners who understand the issues, can speak the language and can deliver practices and programs that have a direct and sustained impact on everyone’s success. It is an exciting challenge for all HR professionals, to be a key player in the work to grow and sustain a business, union or public sector organization. And the time has arrived when we all have to rise up to meet that challenge.


About the Authors

Paul Juniper, Director, Queen's IRC
Paul Juniper
Paul Juniper

Paul Juniper became the sixth Director of the Queen’s Industrial Relations Centre (IRC) in 2006. Paul is a leading and respected figure in Canada’s HR community, with over 30 years of experience in human resources and association leadership.

Paul is particularly sought for his views on the future of the human resources profession. He speaks regularly at national and international conferences on trends in human resources, and the ways in which individuals and their organizations can continue to raise the bar on HR. Paul developed and designed the IRC’s Advanced HR programming to meet the increasingly complex professional development needs of HR practitioners. His research focuses on the state of the HR profession both in Canada and around the globe.

Paul is currently a member of the Advisory Board for the Banff Centre for Leadership. He is also a member of the Board of Directors for the Global Organization Design Society. Throughout his distinguished career, Paul has served as Vice-President of Human Resources for national and international companies, and also managed a Toronto-based consultancy, focusing on strategic planning and recruitment. Paul was an interim CEO of the Human Resources Professionals Association of Ontario (now known as HRPA), President of its Board, and was instrumental in the adoption of a degree requirement for certification in human resources. He is a former member of the Board of Directors of the Canadian Council of HR Associations, and sat on its Independent Board of Examiners for many years. In addition, he has taught in both college and university environments, including the Strategic HR Planning course for York University in Toronto.

Jim Harrison, Queen's IRC Facilitator
Jim Harrison
Jim Harrison

Jim Harrison is an international consultant focused on relationship management, senior level strategy, and business development skills for large organizations. He has a background in financial services and professional writing, and has more than 18 years experience in consulting, training, and development. He teaches in North America, Europe, the U.K., Australia, and Asia, and has facilitated training programs for Manulife, Clarica, Deutsche Bank, HSBC, and Bank of Nova Scotia. He designed and delivered a sales and negotiating program for Group Insurance Representatives that supported significant increases in business for a major group life insurance supplier.

In recent years, Jim has focused predominantly on helping senior sales executives understand, plan for, and build trusted advisor relationships with senior business executives. There are specific requirements of building relationships in the “C-Suite” and Jim has chosen to refine his knowledge in helping others to succeed in this realm.

Through his continuing work with Accenture, Agfa, Deutsche Bank, and IBM, Jim has developed the expertise and focused tools to help account teams land large dollar contracts and to build meaningful long-term relationships. Jim has also helped structure and deliver strategic partnering workshops with long-term clients.

Jim received his B.Sc. in Finance from Florida State University and Masters Degree in English from University of California, Irvine. In addition, Jim has won the Canadian Junior Golf Championship and the Ontario Amateur Golf Championship.

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