What is a Business Partner?

Have you been told that you need to operate more like a Business Partner? Do you have the words ‘Business Partner’ in your job title? Are you wondering what on earth that means?


So, what is a Business Partner?
How is it different from other roles

For me, a Business Partner is a specific mode of operating, in the same way as Expert and Advisor are modes of operating. You may be in a role that requires you to operate as an Expert on some occasions, an Advisor at other times and a Business Partner in other instances. The key is to work out which ‘hat’ you need to wear in which situation.


In my experience, a Business Partner is someone who works alongside their clients (internal or external) to develop solutions which improve business performance, rather than working for them or offering advice and expertise. A Business Partner’s primary focus is on investing time, energy and effort into developing long term relationships with their clients, so that they are able to work with them rather than for them.

Now, that sounds like it could apply to other roles, so how can we further distinguish the role of a Business Partner? The answer lies in the way that the Business Partners work alongside their clients.

Let’s take the example of an ‘Expert’ – we’ve all got areas of expertise and hopefully we’re respected for our technical knowledge and capability, whether it’s in IT, Finance, Marketing, HR or another area. When we’re operating Expert mode, we tend to:

  • have a narrow area of focus, probably limited to our area of expertise
  • provide information and ‘know how’
  • give advice and guidance
  • tell others how to fix their problems
  • or even fix their problems for them!


A Business Partner, on the other hand, operates more strategically. When we operate with our Business Partnering ‘hat’ on, we meet and talk with our clients regularly so that we develop a thorough and ongoing understanding of their bigger picture. This doesn’t simply mean, for example, understanding their IT set up, who uses the equipment and how they use it, but also understanding the wider context in which the client works.

So, when I work with my clients, I like to find out about their business, their strategy and goals and the climate in which they’re operating, as well as the external pressures they face and current operational challenges. I also find it helpful to know about the people working in their part of the business. Who are the stakeholders and what are the key relationships, both internally and externally, that are critical to business success? How well equipped are the staff to handle the current challenges? What’s morale like? What are customers saying about them and how does this influence their decision making?

All of this big picture information helps me to understand the context in which the client operates and therefore be in a better position to add value. Of course, the temptation is to simply share my wisdom (Expertise) but without that background information I could be suggesting solutions that just won’t work in their world. So, I’ve learnt to hold back on the Expert bit and help them explore the specific problems they’re facing, the implications these have and the outcomes they need to achieve.

Together, we’re then in a much better position to come up with appropriate, practical solutions that will fix the problem, achieve their outcomes and fit within their business context.


However tempting it is to work with my Expert ‘hat’ on, I’ve learnt that it doesn’t give me credibility in the eyes of the client. Just because I’ve done something similar somewhere else doesn’t mean it will work for them. Only when I can ‘talk their talk’, demonstrate that I understand their world and can help them anticipate likely challenges along the way, will I be a credible Business Partner.

I know from my own experience that it’s much easier to work in Expert mode, because it’s safe, I know my stuff and have the confidence to share it with others. However, I also know that expertise alone doesn’t cut it with clients. They expect me to apply that expertise to their situation, their challenges, their people and their world.

Working in Business Partnering mode is much more challenging, and can be quite nerve racking because I have to step out of my comfort zone and talk about things that are not familiar to me and that don’t fit within my area of expertise.

It also involves time and investment in the ‘long game’, working at the relationship and working at understanding the complexities of my client’s business. I also know that ‘getting it right’ is really rewarding. There’s that moment when you know that you’ve really helped someone to come up with the right solution for them and they’ve been involved in its creation.

I feel like I’ve been on a journey to become a Business Partner; I think I’m a long way down the road but haven’t yet reached the destination.


Although I did feel that I was really getting somewhere when a client said to me “You don’t always give me what I want but you always help me work out what I need.”

You’ve heard the phrase “Rome wasn’t built in a day”, well neither were most Business Partners!

So, what’s your mode of operation? Are you an Expert, Advisor, Business Partner or some other role?

Or, like many people, do you have a number of ‘hats’ and you have to make a conscious choice about which one is needed in each situation?

We’d love to hear your thoughts on what makes an effective Business Partner – just add them into the comments box below.

Also, take a look at our other blogs on Business Partnering:

Business Partnering – How to Develop Your Credibility
Business Partnering – How should you weigh up your Client?

Look out for next month’s blog on The effective use of questions

Posted by Julie Turner

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