Let’s Create Great Partnerships Between HR and Business Leaders

Published: Oct 11, 2018
Modified: Apr 20, 2023


When HR professionals and business leaders have great relationships, the work they can accomplish is amazing. They can create an engaging and transparent working environment, achieve business goals, and develop programs and structures that add long-term value. But when these relationships are less than optimal, the organization and employees suffer.

So, what can human resources and business leaders do? Here are four areas to master to have a mutually beneficial and productive relationship:

Actively listen and truly understand. When a partner actively listens, he or she seeks to understand the meaning of what the other person is saying. And when that understanding happens, it translates into “I believe that you heard me and you are in it with me.”

What leaders can do:

  • Listen to your HR partner. This isn’t a one-way street—don’t expect to do all the talking without doing any listening in return.
  • Ask the “why” behind the HR recommendation. What are all the factors in play in the recommendation?

What HR can do:

  • Listen to the underlying reason for the leader’s request. Why does the leader want to promote someone, fire someone, or change the organizational structure?
  • Understand the goals and pressures that the leader is currently managing and how they impact requests.

Set goals and metrics. A good business relationship requires goals and metrics. HR and leaders need to have mutual goals they both understand. Otherwise, both sides make too many assumptions about the work the other is doing. Clarity and transparency lead to a healthy relationship.

What leaders can do:

  • Set expectations. What do you expect from HR?
  • Outline the HR success factors that are critical to your team.
  • Don’t sugarcoat and don’t pull punches. If you aren’t clear and direct, HR could be working toward goals at odds with your own.

What HR can do:

  • Ask the team leader, What are the business metrics you need to hit?
  • Identify or define how HR goals tie to the leader’s goals.
  • Determine the critical dates/milestones HR needs to achieve to help drive the business.

Follow through. No relationship does well if neither partner follows through on commitments. This is critical!

What leaders can do:

  • Follow through on talent actions.
  • Provide critical feedback. Take care of problems yourself—don’t expect HR to do all the dirty work.

What HR can do:

  • If you make a promise about getting something done, keep it.
  • If you cannot meet a deadline, let the leader know and renegotiate.

Be vulnerable. This could be the toughest one. All good relationships are based on sharing your vulnerabilities. We do this in personal relationships, and we need to share in business as well, especially between business leaders and HR. Sometimes HR is the only person a leader can talk to about talent and its impact on the business.

What leaders can do:

  • Share your concerns—especially what keeps you up at night.
  • Explain why you got into leadership. What is your driving force to come into work?

What HR can do:

  • Explain why you went into HR. What do you hope to accomplish at the organization? What motivates you as you partner with leadership?
  • What keeps you up at night? What concerns do you have for talent and leadership?

Developing a trusted relationship does not happen overnight. By making the effort to actively listen and truly understand one another, set goals and metrics, keep your promises, and be vulnerable, you are demonstrating your commitment toward forging a powerful relationship.

Imagine a wonderful working relationship with your leader or your HR business partner in which you alert each other to obstacles, barriers, and blind spots. A relationship in which each person has the other’s back and is open and transparent. We all want that in our working relationships. What’s stopping you from trying?

About The Author

Keri Ohlrich, PhD, is co-author with Monica Frede of The Way of the HR Warrior: Leading the CHARGE to Transform Your Career and Organization (LifeTree Media, 2018). She brings more than 20 years of success and HR leadership to her role as CEO and co-founder of the Abbracci Group, an HR consulting firm that helps companies and people reach their potential.