Pillar 4: Leverage Relationships, Advice, and Process to Build Business Partnership

Radical Influence Business Partnership
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“You folks are joined at the hip”.

In a high-pressure turnaround situation, I once watched a CEO sweep his arm across his new desk in the corner office. It was stacked with nearly a dozen foot-tall piles of reports that had been produced for the prior CEO, who had recently been fired. The reports crashed to the floor. “I have no interest in the past, only the future” were his words. The maintenance crew had a big clean-up job that evening.

The new CEO had six months to show evidence of a dramatic change in results, or the banks would exercise a loan covenant clause, and effectively push the company into bankruptcy. The office mess was a moment meant to symbolize things were going to be different.

In an effort to save money, the new leader began rapid-fire sit-down reviews with each of the corporate functions. To my surprise, I saw a patient observer carefully extracting the nuggets of value from each staff function and ruthlessly eliminate the fluff.

For Human Resources, he limited recruiting efforts to just a few hard-to-find positions such as programmers and scientists and added training programs in customer service which had suffered high turnover.

In Finance, he eliminated all rarely used reports, centralized general accounting, and introduced several robotic process automation (RPA) pilot projects to reduce manual work.

For Procurement, he ordered the elimination of many small vendors and introduced aggressive strategic sourcing negotiations for all big-dollar categories of purchases.

When the changes were announced, the Division heads grew very concerned. They demanded a group meeting with their boss. Each Division leader was ready to explain how their division was going to be “injured beyond repair” if the staff they relied on was going to be disrupted this way.

As they convened, the new CEO indicated that he had one more recommendation to add and requested an opportunity to explain it before each leader had a chance to speak.

As the CEO introduced a new role, to be known as a Business Partner, that would ensure a communication channel for each functional area to address any hiccups that might occur due to the announced changes. He said that Business Partners were to occur in pairs, one in the function supplying the corporate service to the business unit, and one in the recipient organization that received those services. These were added part-time roles, not added people, so there would be no additional cost. Each of the partner pair were to be “joined at the hip” to make sure that business needs were met while balanced with functional excellence.

The CEO asked each division leader to select “trusted and capable” direct reports for each Business Partner role within HR, Finance, and Procurement. In turn, each of these three corporate functions had to identify “broad, knowledgeable, and curious listeners” to serve an additional part-time role of representing their function to a single division. A series of working sessions were planned to get the newly appointed Business Partners up to speed on their role and give them some structure and process tools to work quickly and effectively with one of the businesses.

Over the next months, I witnessed a few cross-wires and dropped balls between the corporate functions and the divisions. But to my surprise, each shortcoming was quickly resolved by the people responsible for making the new arrangement work. The relationships between the support staff and the line executive teams were even stronger than a year earlier.

The result was a stunning transformation of this business while building a more cohesive and collaborative organization. The company became much more prepared to weather the next downturn.

I share this experience because it was the first time witnessing a rapid deployment of a functional Business Partnership. It was a little primitive but illuminated the value of creating clear responsibility for using explicit communications channels between each division and its key corporate support staff organizations. I learned that the quality of the relationship, as well as the quality of the analysis and decision making, are what determines success at Business Partnership. I also learned that a successful Business Partnership involves organizational structure and roles, a mindset about how staff functions support line functions to enhance value creation, and that processes matter. The processes that define interactions across the interface between the two organizations help maintain clarity and roles so that each participant can add value in their unique way.

The fourth pillar, Business Partnership, is tied to the prior three pillars

Business Partnership is the tip of the spear for all the pillars of radical influence inside the organization. If there is no working relationship between executive teams and corporate staff functions, then no advice is given, and no value is created. The Business Partner relationship is the road that advice travels on. While dependent on individual relationships between the people involved, this working relationship is essentially a collective organizational capability that includes the processes for how information is shared and analyzed, priorities are decided, action is taken. It takes more than being buddies to be called a business partner. A protocol for sharing information, working through repeatable processes, and making decisions must be mutually shared and honored.

Business Partnership is a set of processes, defined roles, and personal relationships that produce working interactions that allow valuable advice to be put to action so that positive business impact occurs.

As the fourth pillar in this series, Business Partnership depends heavily on the prior three: Situational Awareness, Issue Management, and Value Management. Situational Awareness, which includes horizon monitoring, enables the assembly of context as a basis to dispense advice, as well as to crystallize issues that warrant monitoring or response. Issue Management and Value Management enable the prioritization of issues to feed the impetus for the organization to respond. Business Partnership is the method through which executives and influence functions relate, make or adjust decisions, take action, and judge results.

Business Partnership is both the way and a supporter of value creation

Influence functions can create value in a variety of ways regardless of their functional anchor. Government affairs, environmental services, public relations, social responsibility, and others all generate value in only a few ways. They primarily:

  1. Give advice. Advising businesses in their expertise area requires the ability to convey context, provide interpretation, seek input, institute the best practice, and provide tailored recommendations.
  2. Instigate strategic action. Since they have specialized knowledge, the function may have to educate the organization about the need for action and catalyze or advocate for an appropriate response to an issue.

These two items usually directly involve the Business Partner, but there are other areas that the Business Partner is not the direct delivery mechanism. The function may also add value by:

  1. Getting things done. Operational execution requires designing and executing projects or making an operational process hum. Public Affairs makes the Political Action Committee run smoothly and remain in compliance of government rules. Public Relations gets press releases out the door quickly and accurately. Environmental Affairs gathers data on emissions and reports them accurately, and so on with other corporate support functions.
  2. Checking for compliance. Some situations require data or expertise to determine if the process, rules, or policy are being followed, so the most knowledgeable are assigned to do the checking. The purpose is to control risk and protect reputation.
  3. Exerting technical control. Every functional area has its own knowledge taxonomy and set of standards or policies. Someone must keep them up to date and apply them appropriately.

In these areas, the Business Partner must remain knowledgeable about the entire portfolio of services of the function so they can fulfill their role. They do not need to be experts, but they need to know the essential basics so they can facilitate the process and assess the business’s satisfaction with the services involved. The Business Partner must have generalist interests and learning skills.

Some people find it useful to simplify the staff roles to that of Help, Control, and Operate. Help includes advice and recommendations, along with the new insights that the staff function brings to the relationship. Control refers to compliance and other attempts to standardize behavior across the organization. Operate refers to the repetitive work that falls to the staff to accomplish since there is no one better positioned to do it in the organization.

Stages of Maturity for Business Partnership

Building a strong capability for Business Partnership takes time. It needs a wide range of skills, good relationships, clear roles, a defined process of interaction, a plan that everyone buys into, and tools to help make decisions and set priorities.

The table below demonstrates four typical stages of maturity to guide you on your journey of improvement. Note that improving the effectiveness of Business Partnership does not solely rest with the support function, but also with the line organization with each of the businesses. There is a reason it is called “partnership.”

StageDescriptionOrganizationProcess and Other Comments
1. Traditional• No Business Partner role or process exists
• Informal working relationships are in place due to personal style or experience
• Corporate function viewed as a source of interference
• No formal guidance on roles or process exists, so the nature and quality of interactions are unsatisfying or highly variable
• Help and Control roles often compete or confuse internal customers
• Interactions mainly take place only in response to an external threat or opportunity
• No formal processes in place
2. Aware• Some informal Business Partner roles in place• Key contacts are named informally
• Some rough descriptions of Business Partnership might exist
• Interaction process might outline roles and establish general ground rules for when and how to interact
• “Heads up” alerts might be shared for major expected developments and issues
3. Practicing• Formal Business Partners in place for larger business units, or those with no embedded staff• Clear points of contact established
• Clear descriptions that delineate roles, process, and tools to use for Business Partnership
• Help and Control roles of the support function are clearly distinguished
• Support function exhibits an account management mentality for relating to business units (as unique accounts with different needs)
• Annual planning (usually issue-related) takes place for large business units
• Some tools might be used to structure choices and evaluate tradeoffs
4. Radical• Formal Business Partner role established and supported with a toolset for planning and decisions
• Active improvement cycle in place
• Roles on both sides of the interface are defined as more than points of contact
• Back-up positions named and succession training in place
• Help and Control roles are well balanced
• Mixture of central and distributed staff as needed to support businesses
• Account management behavior is widespread
• Ground rules are agreed to for how issues and plans will be shared, with periodic update discussions
• Annual planning corporate-wide covering issues
• Process and tools to support Business Partnership are used regularly

No two journeys to install Business Partnership will be the same due to organizational and content differences. Executives must be consulted and aligned to support some minor shifts in roles and responsibilities. Some guidelines need to be documented so everyone has a common understanding of what is expected. Key people need to be identified for the role, they must have high business acumen, be patient, curious, and responsive individuals.

Running a pilot for enhanced Business Partnership helps reduce some organizational resistance and allows you to fine-tune the capability once you see how things work. You need to decide if there are any full-time roles needed. You need to ask for feedback from all parties: the executives running businesses, the functional leads, the Business Partners themselves. Based on the feedback, making meaningful improvements is the best way to keep more feedback coming your way.

Our next installment of radical influence pillars is Cognitive Science. Just like Business Partnership is the road that a function’s advice travels on, Cognitive Science, is the road that an influence function’s communications and programs travel on.

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