No matter what their profession, the highest performing people are those that not only master their own craft but also understand their client’s world inside out.
I remember when I was studying for my HR certification, it was enough for an HR professional to just know HR, employment law, and the company’s policies and procedures. In those days, leaders didn’t expect much more from their HR rep and only went to them when they had an “employee issue” or needed to hire someone.
Anyone who’s been in HR for longer than the past ten years or so knows that the expectations of HR have increased significantly. It’s no longer enough to just know HR. HR Business Partners and HR Generalists are expected to know the inner workings of the business they support, whether that’s operations, finance, legal, marketing, or any other specific function in the company.
Plus, I can tell you from personal experience that speaking the department’s or business partner’s language gives you permission to get in their inner circle, a place where you need to be if you want to influence decisions. And, if you’ve been an HRBP for any length of time, you know the holy grail of this job is to be able to influence (not force) your client’s into doing the right thing.
Yet, unfortunately, there are far too many HRBPs and HR Generalists who struggle with learning the business. Some feel like it’s not that important, others feel overwhelmed by all the new information (and let’s be honest, there can be a lot!), and there are some who feel like they’re doing an effective enough job without knowing the details.
I remember several years ago, I asked a panel of senior HR leaders whether they thought it would be beneficial for an HRBP to have their CFA designation (Chartered Financial Analyst – a very difficult, lengthy certification process) along with their CHRL. They all but laughed at me. First, they told me that getting the CFA was too difficult and that it would be a waste of the HRBP’s time. Now, at the time I was supporting the Capital Markets group of a large financial services company. And it was a whole other world to me. I didn’t know much about that business, and the employees there didn’t really take me seriously. I mean, they respected me for my HR knowledge, but I never got invited to any deeper discussion. And fair enough, it would’ve gone over my head anyway! But what irked me was that these senior HR people were telling me that a CFA (a designation that 100% of the employees in this Capital Markets group had) would be a waste of time for an HRBP. Wouldn’t my job have been easier if I could speak the same language? And wouldn’t they involve me in deeper discussions if they knew I’d understand it?
Now, I’m not telling you to get a CFA if you’re supporting a Capital Markets business. What I am telling you is that you have to speak the language of your client’s business. I’m telling you that after working with hundreds of leaders over the past 12 years, I know that you will get more time of day when you understand the inner workings of your client’s organization.
The funny thing is, senior HR leaders all over know this. But there is no manual that teaches HRBPs how to “learn the business”. We all know it’s important to understand the business, but we’re left to figure it out for ourselves.
Over the years, I’ve had to fumble my way through learning my client’s business. I’ve supported clients in real estate, investments, private equity, capital markets, legal, marketing, finance, manufacturing, IT, engineering, insurance, sales, and operations. And I’ve had to learn the business pretty darn quickly to make an impact as quickly as possible.
Here are my 8 foolproof ways to learn your client’s business in less than 30 days.
Make it priority
You can’t learn anything without making it a priority. In the early days of taking over a new client group, you’ll have more time on your hands. I suggest you set aside 10 hours a week to ramp up over the first month on the job. Yes, it’s a lot, but the payoff is most definitely worth it.
Speak to people
One of the first things I do when I take over a new client group is set up meetings with everyone in the group, from the most senior person to the most junior person. I have a list of questions I like to ask them about what they do, who they report to, how their job fits into the department and the company, what they like about their job, and what’s the one thing they would change if they could. These questions give you a world of information. At first, you may not understand the nuances of everything they say but take copious notes. I promise that after the first few meetings, things will start to make sense. I also like to bring a copy of the org chart of the department so we can reference other people and functions as they come up in conversation.
Ask to be invited to team meetings
If you haven’t already been invited, ask the senior-most leader if you could be invited to their team meetings. I tell leaders that I want to learn the business so that I can provide as much value as possible. I also tell them that I’d be available to them if there was an HR question that came up. Sometimes leaders are skeptical, but if you present it in a way that makes sense, they almost always say yes. Again, take copious notes.
Organize Your Files
Look back at my last post about organizing your emails. Organize your physical files the same way. I have one file folder for each department or leader. You can do whatever makes the most sense to your business. When I return from my meetings, I file my notes into the respective folder. At the end of the week, I set aside an hour to read through my notes from all my meetings. I make note of any follow-up questions I have and any major themes that have emerged.
Ask clients for useful websites
Industry websites are extremely helpful in learning the basics of any business you’re supporting. For example, when I was supporting the various financial services departments, I found Investopedia to be invaluable. It broke down complex concepts into very simple terms. You can then use the concepts you learn to relate them back to the issues your clients talk about in your one on one meetings or team meetings. This way you learn the concepts and then learn the context within your client’s business. I would set aside 5 hours per week for this.
Share the information with HR colleagues
One of the best ways to solidify your learning is to teach it to someone. Share the information you learn with your COE partners and other HR Business Partners across your larger organization. If you’re a single HR person in a small company, network with other HR Generalists in your industry and share notes. Plus, there’s nothing more valuable than going back to your client’s with information on how others in the industry do things, or organize their departments, or other HR practices. Of course, it goes without saying that you need to be careful you’re not oversharing or giving away proprietary information. If you’re not sure what is proprietary, ask your business partners what is considered confidential or a trade secret. I would set aside 1 hour per week for networking.
Read Executive decks or Client presentations and pitches
Another really easy way to learn high-level basics of your client’s business is to read decks they prepare and send to external parties such as investors, clients, and partners. When I joined a private equity firm, I read through their deal documents to learn and understand the deal process. You’d need to ask your clients to share this information with you, and if you present it such that you want to learn to help serve them better, most times they’re more than willing to share.
Really for any 21st-century professional researching a topic, Google truly is your best friend. Set up Google Alerts for keywords that you learn in your meetings and through reading pitches and decks. Learn how to do BOOLEAN searches and zero in on really specific terms to get the most accurate and relevant results. I set up daily alerts for the first 30 days, then weekly alerts after that.
Follow the 8 ways above for one month and you’ll be well on your way to learning the ins and outs of the business you’re supporting. These 8 ways have worked for me time and time again and helped me build outstanding relationships with my clients. I’ve always been able to give my clients advice that most other HR Business Partners have not been able to give them. All because I took the time to learn their business.
I’d love to hear how you implement these steps and your success stories afterward. Are there any other tips that have worked for you? Comment below and let me know.
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