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It’s business partnering season again – Dave Ulrich is offering more new advice to HRBPs in a couple of different HR publications – and on 10th November it’s Symposium’s Successful HR Business Partnering conference again.

Ulrich’s advice this time is all about relationships.  He tells a wonderful story about his wife suggesting she knew what she wanted him to get her for Christmas, which he thought was wonderful after having been married for 40 years.  She then told him that this was a  weekend in San Fransisco which also sounded great.  But it turns out this was to attend Susan Johnson’s ‘Hold Me Tight’, a couples retreat which didn’t sound quite as lovely (basically a weekend of apologising to his wife!)

Transforning the Organisation

Click here to see Transforming the Organisation training on 2/3 November 2015

However Ulrich being Ulrich, he obviously spent much of the weekend reflecting on what this all meant for HR and reports having an epiphany.  If your family isn’t getting along there’s a tendency to invest in something nice like a new couch or a new chair but this generally doesn’t help.  So you might take it further and remodel the whole house which won’t help either.  In fact nothing is going to change until you focus on the problems in your relationships.

Ulrich suggests it’s the same for HR.  When we have problems in our role within a business, we tend to think we need to invest in new technology or a new operating structure, but neither of these are likely to introduce much change.  Developing an HR organisation should be really simple – we need to match this to our business and then make our relationships with the rest of the business work.

He writes about John Gottman who you may know of, or might have come across in Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Blink.  Gladwell explains that Gottman has created a list of twenty specific emotional affects and analyses videos of couples attending his love lab, categorising each second into one of these affects.  If he analyses one hour of relating it enables him to say with 95% accuracy whether the couple will still be married in another 15 years time!

Ulrich notes two of Gottman’s suggestions for helping couples to connect.  Firstly, there should be a five-to-one ratio of positive to negative comments in the relationship.  Ie you can criticise your partner as much as you want, as long as you then praise them even more!  Ulrich suggests that for business leaders there needs to be at least a three to one ratio in what they say.

Secondly, Ulrich refers to Gottman’s concept of love maps which is a way of describing your knowledge of your partner’s life – the major events in their personal histories, their goals, worries, hopes and dreams. The key here is to keep these maps up to date – so that when things shift you can still hold on to the knowledge of what this really means for each other.  Ulrich isn’t suggesting that we exchange HR and Finance love maps with the CFO, but clearly having a good understanding of our stakeholders’ personal as well as business agendas is a very good idea.

 It’ll be interesting to see if this theme about relationships comes out in Symposium’s conference this year.

But to me, Ulrich’s new advice isn’t a huge revelation.  We already know that organisation structure is one of the least impactful areas of organisation design.  In my training on Organisational Transformation which I undertake for Symposium I often refer to structure change being a bit like moving the deckchairs on the Titanic – it makes everything prettier but if you don’t change something more fundamental, you’re still going to hit the iceberg and sink.

I talk about the McKinsey 7S model and the greater importance of the other elements of an organisation model, and I also suggest that McKinsey’s framework should now be updated to an 8S – with the inclusion of social relationships too.  In today’s collaborative economy, relationships are now a key factor of any organisation design.

And in the training on Getting to Grips with Business Partnering we already spend quite a bit of time looking at relationships and reviewing the skills and other attributes which HR needs to make our own relationships work.

However, I still think it’s the relationships which have been added in the broader organisation model i.e. which we need to see develop in the rest of the business, outside of HR, which are the most important thing.  HR can increase its impact by developing better relationships with its business stakeholders, but this is never going to result in as much improvement to its impact as helping to develop the relationships existing within the business i.e. between these stakeholders themselves.

This is what I’d suggest is the big new agenda for HR business partners, and is something which might be a useful topic of conversation at the Symposium conference as well.


Jon Ingham works as a strategic people management and organisation development consultant and trainer for Symposium. He regularly speaks and provides training in Europe, the US, the Middle East and Asia and has also lectured in strategic management, change management and human resources on executive MBA courses in both West and East Europe.

Jon is also the author of ‘Strategic HCM: Creating Value through People’ (2006) and is currently completing a second book called ‘Social Advantage’. He also posts regularly to blogs with these same titles and has recently been recognised as the top global online influencer in talent management.

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