How to Become a Strategic Partner

Since I teach a graduate class in Strategic Human Resources Management at the University of Cincinnati, I am often asked: “How can Human Resources become a strategic partner with top management?” There is no generic answer to this question because each organization’s culture is unique. Therefore, I typically answer people that ask me this question with a variety of options and help them identify which one is the most appropriate for their culture.


To have an ounce of potential of becoming a strategic partner with management, there are a few competencies that you must master. While I have seen numerous lists detailing these competencies, I like the list that Dave Ulrich provides in his book, Human Resources Champions (if you haven’t read this book, it is a must). Three of the key competencies he detailed are:

• Business Mastery

• Personal Credibility

• Human Resources Mastery

Now, I know everyone has really pushed this "Business Knowledge" competency but it is important. The only expectation of the competency is that you understand the various aspects of the business from products and services, to competitors, to the financials, to the strategic goals and objectives. If you don’t completely understand any piece of your organization’s business, take the time to learn about it. Also, be sure that you are staying up to date on all new business developments both inside your organization and within the industry.

Having mastered the business knowledge will mean nothing if you don’t establish credibility with others in the organization. This means you need to be responsive (answer your phone and return calls in a timely manner), keep commitments (show up and be on time to meetings), share insights on issues being discussed (even if your view is different), demonstrate the value of human resources activities (we can be a cost saver too), interface with management whenever possible (build those personal relationships), and need I even say it - be ethical!

The last competency listed was Human Resources Mastery. Not much needs to be said on this topic other than to be sure that you have complete command over most of the human resources skill areas. Management is going to look to you for expertise and you need to be able to demonstrate it at all times.

Making it Happen

Okay, now that we are clear on the competencies required to become a strategic partner. Let’s talk a little more about how to make this happen. We have all heard the various ways that human resources is typically viewed: the policeman, too costly, unresponsive, slows the business down, etc. Well, now we have to figure out ways to change these perceptions. The first step will be to demonstrate mastery of the competencies discussed above; the second step will be to align human resources with the business strategies.

The best way to do this is to develop a performance plan for human resources based on the business strategies. This will mean you need to take the list of business strategies and develop a list of the human resources strategies that would support each one. This will help demonstrate that human resources does indeed add value. For every activity that human resources performs, you should ask, “Which business strategy does this support?” If you can’t answer the question, ask yourself "Why not?" or "Are we missing a business strategy / goal?"

Once you have aligned the human resources strategies with the business strategies, your job is not over. First of all you, will need to constantly revisit this connection, especially as the organization and business changes. In addition, it is advisable to take additional steps to ensure that you are positioning yourself to be viewed as a strategic partner. Some ways to do this may include:

• Get involved (participate on employee task teams)

• Participate in the organization’s strategic planning (invite yourself or offer input)

• Walk the talk (be a company champion)

• Volunteer to lead a company wide activity (not just the company picnic)

Make a Difference !!

Hopefully, these brief tips will help get you energized to make a difference. The suggestions in this article definitely won’t be all the homework you will need to do. You may want to talk to an outside, neutral third party (i.e. a consultant like me or even another HR colleague) to help you figure out the most appropriate tactics for your culture. Also, you should do some additional research. In addition to Dave Ulrich’s Human Resources Champions, I'd also highly recommend Christine Keen’s Effective Strategic Planning.

In our current soaring economy, it is undeniably a competitive advantage for an organization to capitalize on its Human Resources expertise as a significant component of the strategic management team. It is your job to help your organization first realize this advantage, and then, as Nike says, "Just Do It." Good luck!!!!


Robin Throckmorton, MA, SPHR is the President and Executive HR Strategist with strategic HR, inc., a human resources management consulting firm located in Cincinnati, OH. Strategic HR, inc. was a winner in 2008 and 2009 of the Regional Cincinnati Chamber of Commerce Small Business Excellence 10 under 10 Award and a finalist in 2010 for the Small Business Excellence award. Robin has been a generalist and consultant for nearly 20 years with healthcare, manufacturing, service, and non-profit org...

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