Being an Effective Business Partner – What Gets in Your Way?


“I’d be a great business partner if it wasn’t for…”

There is an old joke that people in business used to tell, ‘Things would be great around here if it wasn’t for our customers.’ Many Business Partners we help develop say ‘It would be easier to be an effective Business Partner if it wasn’t for our clients.’

Simply put, your job as a Business Partner is to help other people in your organisations make effective business decisions. That sounds straightforward but in reality, even when you have read the books, attended business partner skills training and reviewed all the tools and structures that are meant to help, there are at least four factors that may still stop you in your tracks:


1. They already know what they want to do

Your client has already made their decision by the time they involve you. As far as they are concerned, they just need you to get on and implement their solution (preferably without asking too many questions). The trouble is, how do you know if they have made the right decision? Have they taken all the appropriate issues into account? Are they aware of what else is going on in the business? Do they have evidence that applying this decision will deliver what the business actually needs at this point?  You cannot help them make an effective decision if they are not prepared to share their thinking. Perhaps they don’t really understand what a business partner is and the value that you can bring? Perhaps they don’t understand how they need to relate to you as a Business Partner and they just see you as someone who will help them implement their decision.


2. No time to discuss it

Your client might say “I need this implemented by Friday. Can you spare 10 minutes this afternoon?” Or, your client might be open to talking through the issues in depth, and would normally appreciate your help in thinking things through, but they are pressed for time and they only have five minutes for the conversation. Many managers find themselves constantly firefighting, and struggle to set aside the time to solve the underlying issues that are ‘starting the fires.’ There are some straightforward requests that your clients bring to you that make sense to just implement, but with more complex scenarios, when we put our Business Partner hat firmly on, we need to allow time for a quality conversation. No matter how experienced you are, good Business Partnering conversations take time and can’t be squeezed into five-minute slots.


3. Assumptions on both sides

We train our Business Partners to always start their business partnering conversations with a systematic ‘Entry’ conversation. This reminds them and their clients of the bigger picture surrounding the problem or opportunity. Without a shared backdrop, either person might make assumptions about what background is or isn’t important. To quote one of our course graduates, when asked about what she’s learned in her BP role, she said “We think we know our client’s context… but do we really?” Sometimes, 15 minutes into discussing the context of the issue, you pull out a key bit of information that is a game changer. Your client didn’t think it would be relevant so it wouldn’t have occurred to them to mention it if you hadn’t asked – but it is the very factor that, if missed, could have seriously limited what is achievable. A few examples of this from my experience are:

  • key members of staff that are leaving
  • digital transformations or process redesigns on the horizon
  • significant changes in scorecard figures that forewarn of business changes or restructures


4. Self Doubt

Sometimes the thing that gets in the way of being effective is in our own head. “This person is really senior; will they really get anything out of talking to me?”  “How can I ask them to retrace the steps in their decision making?”  “They know so much more about finance/communications/ data analysis/systems design than me.”  “I don’t think they are going to take me seriously.”  These doubts can occur even for more experienced Business Partners.


So, how do you overcome these obstacles?  Here’s a six-step strategy

1. Be proactive.  Schedule regular catch up conversations with your clients so that you can keep abreast of changes in their function. Build your relationship with them and your credibility by demonstrating your interest and understanding of what is going on. That way, when issues arise, you will catch them at an early stage before they have committed to a solution.

2. Take charge of the conversation.  Just because someone has us in their diary, doesn’t mean they have planned the conversation. Just because they are more senior than us, doesn’t mean they have an agenda. In fact, the more senior someone is, the more likely they are to have come straight from another meeting or conversation and won’t have given us much thought ahead of time. Assume that they haven’t had time to give the conversation a lot of thought and take the initiative. Be really clear about what you think the conversation is about (see our earlier resource on PEA) and where you need to be at the end. Then spell out the areas that would be useful to cover to get them to their endpoint.

3. Sell the advantage of having a business partnering conversation.  Be clear what benefit you can bring to the issue by having a more focussed conversation that explores the wider picture as well as the specific problems and needs.

“I can work with you to ensure that we only have to address this issue once” 

“Let’s get this one right first time”                                                                             

“I can help you think through the issue and ensure that you select a strategy that is sustainable and aligned with our other business priorities” 

 “I can help you ensure that we get to the bottom of the problem and come up with a fix than ensures we aren’t having a similar conversation in six months’ time”       

“I can help you resolve this in a way that the team are going to feel engaged and committed.”


4. Negotiate how much time you will need with them to address the issue thoroughly. In our experience half an hour is never quite enough “We need to set aside an hour to go through our approach on this one.”

5. Always remember that your Business Partner approach can add tremendous value, whether or not you are a subject matter expert. Giving someone the time to slow their thinking down and asking them a range of systematic questions to help them explore the issue will add huge value. Rushing to a solution when the stakes are high is a risky approach and you can help them create a valid business case for the right solution.

6. Use the tools and structures you have learned in your Business Partner training. We use them all the time with our clients and they never let us down. They are flexible enough to adapt to the most complex of situations, and they make you look professional and competent!

Remember that you cannot be a Business Partner on your own – it takes two to make the partnership work. If your client doesn’t want to involve you, or can’t give you the time needed to help them, you cannot force them. Find colleagues who are open to making good use of your skills. Or if you lack confidence, find a colleague who is open to you practicing with them in the early stages.

Posted by Shona Ward

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