How HR can become a business superstar

For HR to become a business superstar, it’s critical to start speaking the language of numbers the business is familiar with, and linking it to softer aspects that HR is familiar with, says Jassy Tan, ex-divisional director of human resources for FJ Benjamin (Singapore).

The role of HR has evolved through the years. In the earlier days, HR was always being seen as an administrator and, in some instances, a policeman to policies and procedures.

In today’s context, increasingly HR’s role is moving towards being a business partner, where the role is steered towards HR playing an advisory role to the business, as opposed to order taking.

How then do we become a true HR business partner? A true HR business partner will infuse themselves with knowledge about their business and will need to take a hands-on approach in understanding the ground issues of the business.

However, more often than not, we hear that organisations still see HR as transactional, and it’s even more of a challenge to earn a seat in the board room.

Personally as I advanced upwards in my career, the transition correspondingly moved from transactional to strategic HR. And quite frankly, there have been many organisations who just did not buy into the notion of HR helping to shape the business, or be true business partners in helping the organisation get better results.

Like any major change, I have encountered resistance and sometimes downright rejection from the business in seeing our role differently. This has made my job as a business partner fraught with difficulties.

The point of differentiation

In my mind, as an HR business partner, the foundation lies in building credibility. One factor that differentiates one from just being a competent HR business partner from a superstar HR business partner is having sound financial know-how.

There have been many organisations who just did not buy into the notion of HR helping to shape the business, or be true business partners in helping the organisation get better results.

In the old days, HR professionals could focus only on the people side of the business and still get by. It was HR’s job to ensure that hiring and firing were done properly, that labour laws were followed, that employee benefits were properly managed, and so on. The better ones would stand out if they were able to throw out a few HR-specific financial metrics, such as the cost of turnover.

When financial discussions happen at business meetings, which can be as often as 80% of the time, that’s when HR became a passive bystander to this area of discussion.

Imagine the credibility you would gain if you’re able to participate actively in such discussions, where you are able to articulate financial metrics such as operating profit margin, return on equity, NPBT growth, EBITDA growth, TSR, WA, and others – relating them to “soft aspects” such as performance, retention and growth.

A good grasp of financials and numbers is crucial. Having a commercial understanding of the conflicts, constraints and demands on leaders and managers to achieve results within financial parameters is essential. If a business partner underpins every recommendation and solution with accurate cost and cost implications, this will definitely add credibility.

Sometimes a business partner gets hung up on what’s the “right thing to do”, and while this is always the starting basis, business managers would often point out that “doing the right thing” is not always feasible to the business.

The way to get around financial constraints is to determine the level of risk on any possible course of action. Sometimes, there is no option, but to take some risk. If a business partner is able to help the business ascertain a calculated risk, yet keeping within its financial parameters, they will undoubtedly win credibility.

Learning the language of numbers

Like it or not, finance is the common language of business. Whether it is something that comes naturally to you or not, the one thing every organisation has in common is numbers and how those numbers are tabulated, analysed and reported. In HR, you need to talk the language to be taken seriously and to communicate your ideas and recommendations effectively.

If a business partner underpins every recommendation and solution with accurate cost and cost implications, this will definitely add credibility.

One comforting factor is that financial intelligence is not innate, it can be developed. As with any new language, you may not have the confidence or be able to speak the language fluently at first, but as you gain more practice, along comes the confidence and thereafter the credibility.

Superstars in HR demonstrate a high degree of influence and personal persuasion with their business leaders. And they achieve this by building their financial knowledge steadily so they can be viewed as equal partners with them – all because they speak the same language.

In modern day organisations, the focus is shifting from the traditional outlook of HR to an integrated outlook and a partner in profitability.

So, if you really want to become an effective HR advocate, leader and business partner, and want to position yourself for positions of greater responsibility, be taken seriously and earn your seat in the board room, it’s simple – improve your financial competence and speak the finance language.

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