What Does A Truly Commercial HR Business Partner Do?

This is the last of six articles on how to identify HR candidates who are truly commercial. In these articles, I explore the difference between those who are just strong on delivery and those who really understand what difference they make to the company. Previous articles can be found on www.paskpartnership.com

This month, we look at the HR business partner.

As you can imagine, I’ve interviewed many HR business partners (HRBPs) and I’ve come to one simple conclusion about the difference between the truly commercial candidates and the rest. Being commercial is about choices. Choices about how you spend your time and what is going to have the biggest impact on the business. It’s not about the design of the role or the job title or it’s position in the hierarchy.

I’ve met candidates who call themselves HRBPs but in fact are HR generalists and trouble-shooters. There are HRBPs who report to the CEO or Divisional head but where the relationship is anything but a partnership one and more like a subservient one. The truly commercial HR business partner has earned the respect and status they have but their influence on the business may not be obvious from their position in the organisation. Instead, I look beyond this to the way they have conducted themselves.

Let’s start by exploring how HRBPs choose to spend their time.

The biggest choice I have observed the commercial candidate make in their career is over what work they get involved in. Are they an HR generalist, a jack-of-all-trades who can turn their hand to anything from handling disciplinary cases to facilitating team meetings? Or are they a business leader who focuses on how to create the conditions for high performance or on how to build the workforce of the future?

I’m deliberately describing this as a choice because those who try to do both, invariably have less impact on the business. The more time they spend doing the jack-of-all-trades work, the less time they have to add real commercial value.

Making this choice isn’t easy. There is a prevalent myth to contend with here – that HR needs to get the basics right before they earn the right to do the strategic stuff. This has more than a grain of truth in it – if the basic security and welfare needs of employees are not being met, then the organisation is failing in it’s duty of care and will ultimately lose the loyalty of its workforce. If these basics are missing, nothing could be more commercial, or strategic, than putting them in place.

But this doesn’t mean that the HRBP has to meet these needs personally. They do, however, need to ensure that the processes, services, systems and behaviours are in place to deal with these issues. The myth is thinking that, once these are in place, they have to “keep their hand in” and provide some of these services themselves to their senior colleagues.

So they first key factor I explore with candidates is what they choose to spend their time on.

The second is what impact they have had. The messages from my previous articles on how to measure commercial impact apply equally here:

  • how did this improve the revenue or profit margin of the company or reduce risk?
  • what commercially valuable behaviours resulted from this intervention and why was it the best way of achieving this?
  • what other options were available to you and why did you reject them?
  • what outcome where you trying to achieve and how did this directly relate to the business strategy?
  • how did you measure the impact and what was the level of improvement over time?
  • what was the relevance of using best practice or applying external benchmarks in this company and how did these drive the achievement of the business strategy?

Clearly, these two factors are interconnected. The more time spent on strategic issues, the more opportunity there is for having a commercial impact. The more time spent on service delivery, when there are other ways these needs could be met for less cost, the more missed opportunities there are for commercial impact. What differentiates the truly commercial HRBP is not whether they can demonstrate commercial impact – it is how they free themselves up to deliver more and more commercial impact.

If you need any advice on your search for your next truly commercial HRBP then please contact me on 07760 777 931 or via email debbie@paskpartnership.com

1 reply
  1. Anton Fishman
    Anton Fishman says:


    What a sharp, incisive and informative article, [and series, now that I’ve read all predecessors]. Its so unusual [if not unprecedented] to see so clearly what a search consultant is looking for, and more importantly why. Your emphasis on choice and impact is illuminating. Will recommend others read this.



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