The HR entrepreneur: The next step on the HR journey?


Chris, you're obviously right that the world has changed beyond recognition over the last 20 years, so one of the things that worries me about this is that it hasn't. A good business partner would ...

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The HR entrepreneur has the potential to be the next step on the HR journey to address the problems with the HR business partner

I spend the majority of my time speaking to groups of leaders around the world on how to be more successful, and only a little time with the HR community. The one advantage of this is the insights I get into what leaders think of HR. Much of the feedback is about HR not being focused enough on what the organisation needs to deliver compared to delivering the HR 'product'.

This is despite the HR business partner approach being around for nearly 20 years. The world of work has changed beyond recognition since then. You would have thought if it was really working then this problem would have been resolved by now. Or maybe it’s that the world has moved on.

The HR business partner approach fails to take into account the significant differences in HR's ability to be effective in different areas. So many HR professionals only have a small shortfall in their understanding of, say, strategic HR, but have a massive shortfall in their understanding of the workings of the front end of their organisations.

The HRBP model tends to allow people to ignore the greatest shortfall – deep organisational understanding. After getting insights from many in HR and organisations, I propose that the HR entrepreneur has the potential to be the next step on the HR journey to address the problems with the HR business partner.

HR must be as entrepreneurial as the sharp end of the organisation. It needs detailed understanding of operational, strategic and external factors. That might seem difficult, but it can be achieved via simple practical actions – from briefings to shadowing to customer visits. Even junior HR team members should be able to do a credible SWOT analysis of their organisation.

This isn’t an untried concept. During my time as global head of talent and leadership at UBS we developed entrepreneurial leadership within the client-facing parts of the businesss. It quickly became clear that the support functions needed to have an entrepreneurial approach to match.

Some senior HR leaders might say that they are being HR entrepreneurs already. But as with entrepreneurial leadership its impact is limited if only those at the top are doing it; everyone in HR needs to understand and live it.

So what steps can you take to enable your HR business partners to become HR entrepreneurs? The HR entrepreneur focuses more effort on understanding the organisation than it does on understanding the technicalities of HR. And the title is important as it sets the mindset of those holding it, encouraging them to seek to be more entrepreneurial when they are shown how to.

The focus needs to be enabling all in HR to understand the basics of how the business works: the financials, the detail of what is happening at an operational level, strategic level and externally in the market with competitors and market trends. This gives them a breadth of insight that allows them to be entrepreneurial as they see the big picture and can identify opportunities.

Having that understanding then enables HR to share the mindset used by entrepreneurs and SMEs, as they have to be business-savvy or they don’t survive, which creates a true HR entrepreneur. There must be total focus on end customer, everyone taking responsibility for success, optimising not minimising risk, belief in the purpose and future of the organisation, understanding how the organisation really works, simplicity and efficiency, and everyone being a proactive brand ambassador. People aren’t brand ambassadors unless they both understand the brand fully and believe in it.

The HR business partner has had 20 years to prove its value. But in today's organisational world the HR entrepreneur meets needs better, is what organisational leaders want, and presents an inspiring future for HR.

Chris Roebuck is visiting professor of transformational leadership at Cass Business School


Chris, you're obviously right that the world has changed beyond recognition over the last 20 years, so one of the things that worries me about this is that it hasn't. A good business partner would already be doing all of this so don't we perhaps need something less recognisable if we're going to call the approach something new? I also suggest that the reason business partnering tends not to have worked that well over the last 20 years isn't the approach or even the way that it's implemented but that people and organisations think they can implement an approach, rather than really working out what their businesses need, and then delivering this. That's what you suggest of course, but I'd also suggest this perspective should be applied to the approach, not just what the approach is used to do. This becomes even more important as people become more strategically important - strategy is always about differentiation, not doing the same. (I think that relates to your experience at UBS where an entrepreneurial HR approach was needed because of the entrepreneurial leadership required within other parts of the business). I'd also suggest that as HR thinks through its approach that it infers what business leaders need, not just listen to what they say. Entrepreneurs create a need not just meet it and 'HR entrepreneurs' need to do this too. I agree that doing this needs to be based on a detailed understanding of business, though I'm not sure it's such a massive shortfall and that if it was, it'd take more than simple practical actions to fix it. Everyone understand the world we live in but few are entrepreneurial in improving it. The ones who do have a unique insight they bring to the world they see. Therefore, my own perspective is that we also need to get more focused on understanding people, the way they work, learn, collaborate and motivate themselves. That unique insight then offers us the opportunity to suggest new entrepreneurial / partnering opportunities rather than just meeting the existing needs of the business. Thanks for the provocations and my own responses that have been triggered by them.


John, Great points, and yes the implementation of a more effective HR response to business need is not just the implementation of a process, nor just building deeper knowledge of what the people we support need but as you say a better understanding of how they work, think and feel. Simply the rational process and information gathering is insufficient and we need the emotional understanding as well to optimise it. That all sounds rather intangible, which to some degree it is, but we humans have a great ability to pick up on these when we spend time with others. So in the end it's about good old face to face communication to validate and fine tune the process implementation to real need not just assumed need. Once that's in progress it then allows the opportunity to be entrepreneurial, as long as the culture/ leadership permission exists, as you say. Once you truly understand what's going on it then and only then you can identify new opportunities to improve. I think that even starting to think of ourselves as HR Entrepreneurs starts to change our mindset from just implementing the status quo, even if it is done well, to genuinely seeking what HR could really achieve. Chris


So no more CHROs All would be CEOs? HR should retain focus on people - Commitment, Competencies, and Culture.

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