Depending on your organization and its opinion of human resources (HR) and learning and development (L&D), you either enjoy a strong partnership with the business or are perceived, at best, as an operational and slick processing function. Sadly, the misconception that seems to all pervasive is that all HR and L&D are capable of are administrative or tactical people processes. The reality is that a well-respected, powerful HR or L&D partner has the wherewithal to transform the organization in ways other departments simply can’t.

In the 1990s, David Ulrich proposed that HR needed to become a strategic business partner. Even then, the message from CEOs and the business community was loud and clear: HR teams need to focus on meeting the needs of the business, not merely improving their own processes.

Unfortunately, in acting on that message, we became hung up on the mechanics of Ulrich’s message and continued to believe that the answer was tweaking our organizational model. Spending time changing our name and moving the boxes on the organizational chart meant that we failed to see the bigger message. Years later, we have continued to interpret the need for “HR transformation” as “transforming the HR organization model.”

A New Mindset

You can have any departmental configuration you like, but if you don’t understand how the marketplace has changed or what the critical business drivers are, and adapt your decision-making models to address those changes, you’ll accomplish little. Becoming a formidable HR partner and creating a strong internal organization that is aligned with the business’ strategic direction requires more than changing the operating model. It calls for a new mindset and new and different capabilities.

What does this new mindset involve? What does it look like? To answer these questions, you may need look no further than your CEO for an example of the leadership perspective and mindset that we must follow.

Examine what your CEO pays attention to and the questions or concerns he or she spends time on, and build this information into your own decision-making and daily thinking. Your ability to prioritize what matters and make decisions will move from a mindset that guards the specialism of our function to one that embraces what the business needs. In other words, you’ll take on the partnership role that your leaders probably seek and have been craving for some time.

The most effective CEOs, chief human resources officers (CHROs) and talent leaders have similar traits that set them apart and make them destined for success in their leadership roles. They are driven to seek innovative ways to move forward, to develop leaders whom others want to work for and to create cultures that uphold the values that the company was created around.

Making an Impact

The future of thriving corporations depends on impactful HR partners — powerful allies who can propel and support the business. An impactful CHRO is found in the office of the CEO — not waiting for direction but, rather, leading the discussion around how to increase productivity and leverage innovation, discussing the current cost model and providing hard facts that go beyond people numbers, and focusing on how to increase the overall capacity of the organization.

Such HR partners have a viewpoint on how technology is changing the business landscape and how having five generations in the workforce requires new ways of working and leading. They aren’t concerned about staying relevant by showcasing their specialist skills; rather, they understand that their true value comes from being a partner who is responsible for the business of HR.

This mindset affords the opportunity to be invited into the “inner circle” of business circles, to be included in discussions about key issues. With this mindset, business leaders actively seek the HR partner’s voice and expertise and engage them in discussions from the start, when they can truly add value and contribute insight, and not at the end, when decisions and outcomes are preordained.

The role of a powerful HR partner is not confined to serving the interests of its leaders. To be effective, HR leaders must also engage with the board of directors. The impactful HR partner is an independent, trusted adviser who understands the role that the board plays and seeks to be a bridge between the workforce and the board. These powerful HR partners don’t demand a seat at the table; they earn their place through a track record of results. Powerful HR partners do not limit their input to the parts of the discussion that are solely about people. Instead, they’re invested in the business decision and participate as business leaders, first and foremost.

Powerful HR partners attend investor conferences. After all, chief financial officers (CFOs) and other leaders do it; if you have the same credibility and professional depth as they do, take the opportunity to be part of the bigger strategic conversations, demonstrating that you’re immersed in the inner workings of the company. You’re considered a valuable member of the leadership team and are trusted to display your knowledge at every turn.

Are You a Valued Partner?

Let’s pause for a moment. How do you know if you are a powerful partner? How can you tell if you occupy that seat at the table or if you are on the fringes, standing somewhere in the vicinity but not actively in the center. (Or are you not even aware of the fact that you should be more engaged?)

You’re an impactful partner when you’re a trusted sounding board, when the value that you bring to the table is indispensable. As a partner, you can engage in candid conversations, respectfully disagreeing and challenging without fear of damaging a relationship or of retribution. If you enjoy such a position, you feel confident in your ability to dissent when necessary and empowered to implement what’s right for the organization.

You’re a powerful partner if you know that conversations start with a discussion about the company, not about which decision or action should be taken by this person or using that individual process. When you have established your leadership brand, when your focus is on the overall outcome of decisions for the company, when your results are tied to meeting and exceeding company performance metrics … then you’re an impactful partner.

Being a powerful partner is the difference between being in the political mix and being outside the room, listening at the door. You are not last on the list on the budget conversation, and when departments are seeking funding, your argument makes good business sense. You know that you have the right, along with every other leader, to ask for support. Like any leader, you may not always receive the desired outcome, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. In most cases, you find that you are pulling rather than being pushed. You’re setting things in motion that have measurable impact rather than trying to handle things that are already moving without your input.

Want to be a powerful partner? Be willing to push yourself and your team. After all, can you think of a reason why you would you not want to? I for one, can’t.

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