Business Partners play a critical role in many organisations, and some of the best I’ve experienced are those who are invited to the important discussions ahead of time to contribute to decisions. They aren’t left out until it’s too late…and then need to clean up the mess whilst thinking ‘why wasn’t I included in this conversation in the first place?’
Do those partners do anything special. Anything different? Well, yes, they do.
Let your experience and knowledge be your safety net
Firstly, they are competent in the area they specialise. That may seem like a no-brainer; but the role of a Business Partner is first and foremost about bringing specialised knowledge to the parts of the business that they support. Being knowledgeable and experienced also plays a special role in countries considered to be Individualist where the door to trust is opened through competence and delivering on what is expected of us. Those countries include the Anglo, Scandinavian and Germanic clusters of countries. But that’s only part of the equation. That’s the ‘what’. The ‘content’. What about the ‘how’…the means by which we deliver our knowledge and experience? This is where the difference lies between good and great Business Partners.
The difference between good and great Business Partners - curiosity
The ‘how’ has a couple of elements to it, but if we are talking about how we build trust to the point that we are actively engaging, and being engaged, in the business, then we really want to be focusing on the idea of building a rapport that, over time, creates a resilience in your relationship. Our safety net is our technical expertise, so relax on that front and take the time to get to know your stakeholders and their part of the business. Listen to their stories. Be interested without feeling the need to be interesting. And that right there can be one of the early mistakes of a Business Partner. We feel the need to push our knowledge, rather than seeing it as our safety net. The business, and your stakeholders know why you are there; so invest in being curious. Let your stakeholders talk, and leverage off their contributions. Listen for what is being said and what’s not being said. Often, it’s what’s not said that allows us to address a hidden need, or something that is bubbling away below the surface. And of course, as we hear their stories, we can be taking mental notes on how we can be aligning and suggesting how we can engage with the business. If we lead with interest, more often than not, that interest is returned; and the process of rapport naturally occurs. But there will be those we partner with who just aren’t interested in establishing a rapport and just want a service provider.
Or that’s how it seems on the surface.
Becoming a highly effective Business Partner
Highly effective Business Partners don’t assume that the business knows ‘how’ to work with them. And that is an important thing to understand. Sometimes we need to lead a little on that front and create some experiences that allow your stakeholders to see how the partnership can work. Even better, when you are first assigned to partner with a leader and their function, arrange an up-front meeting where you can iron out some of the ‘working together’ details. Share your expectations on how you see working together, including what good collaboration looks like and when you expect to be included in conversations. It’s better to create this shared awareness right from the start and eliminate as many of the surprises, and disappointments, right from the outset.
Play for the long game
Finally, play for the long game. Trust builds over time. In fact it needs time. It doesn’t mean you aren’t delivering, but it also doesn’t mean you aren’t creating any pressure for a relationship to build ahead of its time. In fact the more we try to force the development of trust over a short time (or just expect it to be there!) the more likely we are to push our stakeholders away from us and no one wins.
Author: David Morley
David is a developer of global-minded leaders, teams and organisations.
Business Partners exist right throughout an organisation. Some roles are explicitly named a Business Partner, whilst other roles carry the implicit expectation that they are partners. HR, Talent Acquisition, Procurement, Finance, IT and many more; the larger and more complex an organisation the more partners exist. And the demand for Business Partners to add value and enable their internal clients to succeed has never been higher. Under normal circumstances, we know that as margins reduce, and operating costs are squeezed, Business Partners are required to deliver more and demonstrate outstanding value for the business.
But what about today, in the volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA) world of Covid-19? Where teams are dispersed and managers are leading in new ways and ways that they may not even want to be leading. Where dealing with your supply chain has just become a little harder due to no access to raw materials or small suppliers closing down. When the requirements of your existing labour agreements don't quite fit the 'new normal'.
This is when the true value of a Business Partner is seen. And this can only be realised if the Business Partner understands that high value delivery is built on more than just their technical expertise.
Genuine Business Partnering success is defined by a number of factors, and in the fast moving pace that we are in today, there are two that stand out and play a vital role:
1. Developing high quality relationships
2. Moving from ‘subject matter expert’ to ‘expert collaborator’
Your technical expertise as a Business Partner is your safety net. That's what you are there for. What's more important though is how you deliver that expertise in a fast moving, uncertain and ambiguous setting. Below we explore the idea of quality relationships and being an expert collaborator in more detail.
Develop high quality relationships
This goes without saying, and unfortunately we know there are relationships that remain transactional at best allowing only a fraction of the potential value to be realised by both parties. You could say that a quality relationship is one where there is discretionary thinking and behaviour seen from both the Business Partner and the groups that they support. For example, a tendering team ‘wanting’ the Procurement Partner being involved at the very start of discussions regarding a possible bid to allow early planning, exploration and anticipation of possible solutions, rather than waiting until the tendering process actually commences.
In today's environment you will need to work smarter to build a quality relationship. That's a fact. It doesn't need to be harder, as there are many tools available for collaborating online and plenty of development opportunities available to help you pick up those skills if you don't have them. But you will need to be more disciplined and structured than previously, and not just rely on your technical expertise to get you through. Remember, you aren't meeting in an office environment free of distraction. You are working with colleagues who may be home-schooling their kids, dealing with reduced family income, fighting for space in a small home environment. Now more than ever, you are having to take the 'whole' person into account when developing a relationship that can deliver value.
There is one more factor that impacts on the quality of your relationships. Trust.
As mentioned above, in most cases there is no question about the technical expertise of a Business Partner. However if trust doesn’t exist, then the credibility of the technical message is diluted from the outset, which in turn erodes the quality of the relationship.
Trust in business partnering can be considered a bundle of many items. What and how you communicate, the intent of your relationship (see the next point), how you respect and build the relationship, your presence (looks, demeanour) and your track record for delivery. So think about all of these factors through a virtual trust-building lens. Your physical presence is limited, so should you increase the frequency of small touch points? And if you weren't a strong communicator before, then you will need find ways to work with this now. Explore the different mediums available to you. Be in touch with your own feelings and mindset to ensure you are communicating in the most effective way possible. If you are feeling down or frustrated, be aware of this and know that this will impact your communication. If you are not a morning person then don't schedule things for the morning unless you have to. Play to your strengths...and go out of your way to learn more about the 'whole' person you are partnering with to ensure you are aligning as much as possible.
Moving from ‘Subject Matter Expert’ to ‘Expert Collaborator’
In a VUCA environment like today, collaboration needs to be a central pillar to our way of operating. It is the most optimal way of getting things done when resources are as spread out as our perceptions on how things need to happen. Key capabilities that support this are:
This is also about how you approach your role as a Business Partner. Do you come from the ‘one up’ expert position, or are you ‘on the level’ with your internal stakeholders? A key question here is ‘why’ are you business partnering? Are you doing it to prove your worth (or show how much you know), or to add value to your client? Once you get that it is about adding value to your client (from an ‘on the level’ position), you will quickly see that your worth is being felt - whether it is remotely, or beyond today, in whatever form the future of work takes.
The most successful Business Partners are those who draw on the above factors and are able to transition from being a ‘subject matter expert' to 'expert collaborator'. This is about being confident in your technical knowledge to the extent that you can relax with your clients and build a genuine connection that allows you to identify real needs. Part of this relaxation also extends to being comfortable with who you are as a partner, and therefore being comfortable with the fact that you may not always get it right the first time. If we are completely hung up on those times when we make mistakes we fail to to the most important thing...learn from them. Really good collaborators are as tolerant of others as they are of themselves. If you aren't good at this, start learning how to do this sooner rather than later!
Now is the Time for Business Partners to Stand Up and Shine
Irrespective of whether you are a Procurement, HR, Legal, Talent or Audit partner, the role of the Business Partner (and its many variations), isn’t always easy and at times it can be frustrating for both the partner and the business. At the same time, the value offered by Business Partners who can build quality relationships is remarkable, and considered highly productive by both the Business Partner and their internal clients. And that was under 'normal' circumstances.
Today that value is needed even more. The Business Partner in a VUCA environment is a key contributor to decisions that are being made for the first time. And whilst they too are experiencing these conditions for the first time at speed, Business Partners are expected to be one step ahead and shaping the path for their client and bringing advice that makes a difference. Now is the time that Business Partners will shine. Now is the time of the VUCA Business Partner.
Click here to learn more about our VUCA Business Partner course.
There are two words that clearly define what it means to be a Trusted Business Partner; intensity and involvement.
Intensity and Involvement
You know you are achieving trust in the partnering relationship when you are experiencing a higher degree of discretionary involvement in key decisions, and mostly ahead of time. Discretionary because there is a willingness by the business to pull you into the conversations rather than you having to find ways to push your way in. The conversations are more intimate by nature and tend to be of greater intensity. In other words, moving away from the more ritualistic and transactional conversations to those that are more creative and strategic.
So where is the link with trust?
Quite simply, whilst ever your relationship is transactional and reactive, neither party is giving or receiving a great deal. You could say that it is a safe relationship, but not necessarily engaging for either party. The other end of the scale is a higher risk place for both parties; but the potential return for the relationship and the business is far greater. Rather than being reactive and pulled in at the last minute, or after the fact, and put in a position to make the most of the decisions that have been made around you, you are in the middle of the those decisions. A trusted relationship will see you invited to contribute to key decisions or to make recommendations ahead of time. The risk is greater because you are working to a certain extent with the unknown, and providing guidance that may not come off the way you plan. In other words you are putting yourself out there; laying your professional self bare by sharing what you think about something that quite possibly hasn’t happened yet. That can be a scary proposition for some people; and that’s what makes this a higher risk place to be. But anyone who has operated from this position will tell you the rewards are much higher – especially when things go to plan. And in those moments when things don’t go plan? You will find that the failure will be offset by the fact that you came from a place of experience and credibility.
So how do we reach the position of trusted in a partnering relationship? There are two dimensions of activity to be considered; our observable behaviours, and embracing the values of partnering.
Observable behaviours are the things we do or say that impact everything from creating first impressions, through to role modelling and reinforcing outcomes we are hoping to achieve. To move to a position of trust, there are a few key behavioural considerations to take into account:
How you ‘turn up’. Remember that first impressions count, and whilst you don’t want to be giving up who you are, there is an element of alignment that needs to occur between who you are, and who your client is (and where they are), to establish the first non-verbal elements of rapport. Really good business partners know that building trust and a relationship commences before they’ve even opened their mouth. An important element of your first impression is the ‘pre-first impression’. You may be meeting an internal client for the first time; but what reputation are you bringing with you? Are you known for a solid, dependable level of delivery or a hit and miss track record. Your reputation, and pre-first impression should be top of mind and this is especially true for internal business partners where the ability for your internal clients to connect, gossip and share experiences is much easier than it is if you were dealing with external clients. This all forms part of the package that will walk through the office door of your new client.
What you do. This is about the things we do to maintain a surface level of connection and credibility despite the way we may be feeling or what we think about a situation. There are many times when we may feel anxious about a situation, be highly excited or be strongly against a proposed course of action. However it is our ability to connect with what we think and feel, make sense of it, and then choose a credible behaviour that allows a constructive dialogue to continue that makes the difference. Too often I’ve seen business partners shoot from the hip with how they feel or what they think, only to see a situation sour, rather than taking a moment to acknowledge what’s going on for them internally and then decide a healthy course of action. Part of this element is about the consistency with which you do what you do; which feeds into the pre-first impression mentioned in the above point. There is a kind of relativity that exists between consistency and trust that we’ve all experienced. The higher the consistency in performance over time the higher the trust. The cumulative effect of consistent performance also means that when you have dips in performance, as we all do from time to time, they are just that…dips that are understood and more easily recovered from.
Embracing the Values of Partnering
This element drives ‘how’ you do what you do. Do you partner from a place of cynicism and suspicion or from a place of openness and transparency? Is your approach about one upmanship and always knowing better, or do you come from a position of collaboration and shared learning? Are you solutions-focused and proactive in your thinking and behaviour or do you wait until an issue arises to be pulled into a situation? These are all different ways in which Business Partners can be perceived, and they are all directly impacted by 'how' you partner.
How you do what you do is critical in building trust; you want to be pulling people towards you and not pushing them away. Whilst your observable behaviours certainly have a role to play in this, the core driver comes from your values. For this reason, it’s really no surprise that one of the best ways to develop yourself professionally as a Business Partner is to develop yourself personally; in particular developing your self-esteem and emotional intelligence. These two aspects of ‘self’ are fundamental to how you connect and work with others. As you develop these areas you will find it easier to drop your guard enough to trust that those around you don’t want to pick holes in your ideas or recommendations (and if they do that’s ok too because you can keep it about the task and not make it personal).
Role modelling is another aspect of values driven behaviour that builds trust in your relationship, and impacts your pre-first impression. The outcomes we achieve in business are often the result of how the transaction occurred rather than the fact that it did. If you have internal clients who are struggling to achieve the results they want in other parts of their role, your ability to role model different ways of thinking and behaviour may open their eyes to how they can create healthier relationships in other parts of their life. You then represent much more than a subject matter expert; you are a trusted partner - they have taken the risk of trying something different based on what you have brought to the relationship. That takes trust.
It Starts with You
The journey towards being a trusted Business Partner is one of growth and development in and of itself. The experiences you will encounter, both good and bad, are opportunities to be learned from and folded into your partnering tool kit. There will be times when the journey is tough; but they will pale against the moments of enjoyment and fulfillment that you will experience as a trusted partner. Above all, it starts with you; if you don't believe in what you are doing, your clients won't either. Trust yourself that you can make a difference - and your journey towards becoming a Trusted Business Partner has commenced.
Author: David Morley
David is a developer of global-minded leaders, teams and organisations.