What follows after Ulrich’s Business Partner Model?

Enter the HR Entrepreneur

The Business Partner model has been around for about 10 years now. It has improved both transactional and transformational HR delivery, but this has not led to improving organisational performance to the satisfaction of many CEOs.

This leaves HR with a problem.

Are you assuming what is needed?

Having attended Dave Ulrich’s Michigan course, I know that the Business Partner model is often not implemented properly; primarily by failing to, as a first step, ensure HR really understands what the organisation and their line counterparts do.

This lack of understanding leads to HR using “assumed” need rather than “real” need and the subsequent delivery of “HR best practice” which the line doesn’t need or want.

This lack of understanding leads to HR using “assumed” need rather than “real” need and the subsequent delivery of “HR best practice” which the line doesn’t need or want. Further, the lack of clarity between the roles and responsibilities of line managers, senior leaders, HR and individuals relating to managing people and improving organisational performance inevitably leads to critical deliverables being ineffectively implemented , eg performance management.

Even where HR enthusiastically tries to “serve the business better”, it is sometimes counter-productive.

Delivering to the operational and strategic agenda

What operational line partners want is not always what the organisation needs most. There is frequent lack of alignment between operational and strategic objectives at mid and lower levels.

Being “responsive” doesn’t mean always doing whatever the business wants if it doesn’t add value.

If HR delivers to the operational, but not strategic agenda, it won’t add full value. Further, the lack of clarity around roles, objectives and priorities between the line and HR causes confusion. This leads to complex HR strategic initiatives for senior management and HR “sticking plasters” at operational level, neither of which align to each other nor to the delivery of key organisational objectives in a prioritised way.

Being “responsive” doesn’t mean always doing whatever the business wants if it doesn’t add value. The result of this is a potential underperformance by most organisations of between 15 – 25%.

The Business Partner model must be significantly adapted to ensure that critical elements which deliver this organisational performance improvement are either emphasised more or added if missing.

The key things here are focus on business driven prioritisation, alignment to key objectives and delivery with clarity and simplicity. It must take a proactive, not reactive, approach as a key part of the business not a separate “partner”.

Many insightful CEOs say this is what they need, and if HR can’t deliver, they will get someone who will.In reality, CEOs don’t care about HR best practice – they just want the best bottom line or to achieve whatever their performance benchmarks are.

HR must reflect this by thinking and delivering in an innovative business future-driven perspective, not a traditional risk averse HR process/ legacy-driven one.

We must be HR Entrepreneurs, not just Business Partners.

Who is the HR Entrepreneur?

The HR Entrepreneur is an individual, at any level or location in HR, who :

  • has good professional HR knowledge;
  • has good non-HR business knowledge, eg task delivery management, budgeting, customer service;
  • understands operational activity nearly as well as the line managers they support;
  • understands the wider organisation and its strategic objectives possibly better than the line manager;
  • understands the environment and market within which the business operates;
  • is constantly looking outward, benchmarking the organisation not just against last year’s performance but at least peers and possibly best in class standards;
  • has an innovative and entrepreneurial mindset to :
    • be proactive in identifying ways to drive better business, not just HR, performance by looking for opportunities to improve external delivery;
    • suggest lean initiatives which deliver maximum ROI for minimum resource and manage risk effectively by reducing process where possible; and
    • focus on delivering what the organisation needs strategically to sustainably improve for the future.

This change is important as it matches the development of the Entrepreneurial Leader within world class organisations where a proactive, innovative and flexible approach to business leadership is being developed.

It is vital that HR reflects this by building business savvy. However, the HR Entrepreneur can function even without the line being entrepreneurial. HR Entrepreneurs can be a catalyst to help develop entrepreneurial line management.

The HR Entrepreneur is not another level above transformational HR. The HR Entrepreneur’s single objective is to support the maximisation of sustainable organisational performance; that must be the benchmark for all activity.

Over complexity is a risk in itself

So Entrepreneurial HR principles have to be applied everywhere, in both transactional and transformational activity. Further, we must be prepared to remove HR activity that does not add optimum value to the organisation even if it is seen as “best practice”.

There is no “best practice” only the “best current outcome” and this will vary between situations, organisations and times.

There is recent research that indicates complexity in organisations that exceeds the need to deliver objectives and manage risk has significant cost and impact on engagement.

As entrepreneurs, HR must focus on outcomes – not roles, titles or process for process sake. Everyone in HR has to think as an Entrepreneur, accurately assessing the situation, innovating, being flexible and taking managed risk to drive better business bottom line.

There is no “best practice” only the “best current outcome” and this will vary between situations, organisations and times. This matches service delivery to organisational need.

How can HR become entrepreneurial?

To start, a set of simple steps sets the overall agenda. These can be developed in a proactive way simply and quickly with the right approach.

Step 1 – Gain understanding, not just awareness

Before you do anything ensure that you understand, not just be aware of :

  1. The operational activity you support in depth;
  2. The strategic vision, objectives and values of your organisation in detail;

iii. The market environment together with the challenges the organisation faces in detail, its competitors, and the future prospects, including being able to do a credible SWOT analysis;

  1. The key research and principles around the improvement of organisational and individual performance, eg around leadership, engagement, project management, process design and delivery, quality customer service and brand development.

Step 2 – Assess your service delivery

Review current service delivery, in both transactional and transformational HR.

  1. discuss with the business where the process could be improved to produce better outcomes, be made simpler or use less resource;
  2. review those areas and, bearing in mind, risk management requirements, make changes to :
  3. reduce the complexity, time or effort required; and
  4. add more value.

iii. review whether current service delivery is aligned to the achievement of critical strategic objectives or just operational objectives;

  1. prioritise work of strategic benefit with senior leaders, then align operational activity to support that. Take a holistic view;
  2. ensure clarity of responsibilities between HR, line and senior management;
  3. don’t announce that you are an HR Entrepreneur – just deliver the service.

Step 3 – Assess the wider objectives

Review the organisation’s current strategic and operational objectives and identify additional potential support that HR could provide that would enhance the delivery of those objectives based on the knowledge gained in point 1 above.

Step 4 – Choose the right filter

Constantly review what is being delivered through the filter of improving organisational performance and customer service – not the HR “best practice” filter.

The organisation doesn’t care what HR people are called as long as they get things done. So the HR Entrepreneur should be an internal aspiration of what good HR people do and not just a new title.

Entrepreneurial HR is the key to the future

The reactive implementation of the Business Partner has helped us on the journey but it’s now time for all in HR to move up a gear, become HR Entrepreneurs and show what HR can really do for their organisations. If you don’t, someone else will.

Entrepreneurial HR Basic Model








Everyone in HR no matter what their level should have all of the above developed proactively by their organisation using internal business faculty and external support.

Headline image courtesy Rowan Heuvel@unsplash.com.



Author: Chris Roebuck

Chris Roebuck advises major global organisations on improving performance through developing entrepreneurial, engaging, ethical and effective leaders – Mach 2 leaders. This has been described by a leading Professor of Psychology as a “breakthrough” in leadership thinking and which Harvard Business Review have interviewed Chris about in Beijing. From global banks to Governments, UK National Health Service to the Red Cross and the Chinese Space Corporation to law firms, Chris inspires leaders with his insights, experience and new ideas to help them rapidly become truly effective, inspiring and respected. He is Visiting Professor of Transformational Leadership at Cass Business School in London and has held senior roles at UBS, HSBC and KPMG, has served in the British Army, and is one of the top 15 Human Resources (HR) thinkers in Europe. As Global Head of Leadership at UBS, he helped deliver leadership and development strategies, resulting in one of the most successful recent corporate transformations which is now a Harvard Business School Case Study. His book “Lead to Succeed” shows leaders and organisations how achieve sustainable success.

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