Speaking the business language

Business acumen is one of the most important skills for HR practitioners to have, writes Pallavi Srivastava, Asia-Pacific Talent Partner, Global Technology Services, IBM.

  "Pursue excellence and success will be compelled to follow."

Success is defined differently by different people, but looking at it from a very basic professional perspective, it means excelling in your area of work and moving to roles that give you the mandate to make a significant impact on the business and its future outlook.

HR’s strategic value to business is no longer debated, and former HR leaders such as Mary Barra of General Motors and Lisa Weber of MetLife have even become CEOs, clearly showing that HR professionals can rise to the highest levels of an organisation. These leaders carried the mindset that HR is a business function just like any other. It just happens to deal with people matters, which are the most critical resource for any company – whether it is a car manufacturer or a technology consulting firm.

It therefore follows that one of the most important skills HR professionals need to develop is business acumen. This enables us to understand the drivers of organisational success, and speak the same language as the business. Only when we in HR understand how our business makes or loses money, and what internal policies or processes influence our ability to satisfy clients, will we be able to truly partner with the business and make an impact. That is equally so for both the organisation itself, and for our own career progression.

However, developing business acumen has to be a deliberate process, since HR professionals do not deal with external clients or markets on a day-to-day basis. While there are many ways to build this capability, I have found personally that my career growth has been enhanced by using these approaches:



Be best friends with the Chief Financial Officer, Chief Operating Officer, and other business colleagues.

About the author

As the Asia-Pacific and Greater China Talent Partner for IBM’s Global Technology Services Unit, Pallavi Srivastava is responsible for leveraging talent analytics to define and execute strategic initiatives, and foster a high performance culture.

In order to partner well with the business, it is extremely important that we understand business review terminologies, and listen for performance cues that we can act upon. Why a business is losing revenue or profit, how many sellers have not met targets, or which competitors are changing their product mix are things HR professionals also need to understand. Simply having regular discussions with other functional colleagues, and attending finance or sales review meetings as active team members can help enhance our understanding.

An example would be an HR Business Partner or a recruiter participating in a sales discussion of a potential project. An HR colleague with a business mindset will listen and pick up cues about the timeframe of project delivery, and then make proactive assessments of the skills needed. They will also be able to call out risks to resource needs or the hiring timeframe, and have a plan ready to deliver before the deal is closed.

An unaware or disinterested HR colleague would be a passive participant, wait for the business to reach out and prescribe the project requirements, and then initiate actions leading to loss of speed in delivering to the client’s needs.

The perception of HR as an active strategic driver comes from the former approach whereas the second leads to the perception of a lagging support mindset.

During my own career journey, I took a Business Finance certification to augment my understanding. It helped me actively participate in business discussions, listen for the need, and design HR solutions that were aligned to a specific outcome.


Build an outside-in focus

Business acumen can never be developed by looking only internally. In one of my international assignments, I was fortunate enough to work with the global head of HR while preparing a paper on the future of corporate healthcare in the US. The research needed for this helped me not only understand the nuances of American corporates; it also helped to build an understanding of how corporate policies get influenced by economic forces, both current and future.

That learning then helped expand my thinking and ability to look at my own organisation as an external person would: the outside-in view. Therefore, it is critical that HR professionals:

  • Evaluate their employees’ aspirations in the context of a competitor’s employee value proposition
  • Evaluate the efficacy of their HR interventions, practices, and programmes in the context of market best practices
  • Evaluate the HR performance from the perspective of the organisation as a whole

A related requirement is to look for opportunities to build an external HR network and keep updated on the latest research and trends in our profession.  This can be easily accomplished by meeting with HR colleagues in other firms (including from the competition!), joining compensation or recruitment clubs, and seeking every opportunity to connect with future talent for the company: career fairs, campus meets, or similar forums.

Within my organisation, we have several online forums and partnerships to connect with the latest HR trends and research. And we are encouraged to self-learn through external webinars and podcasts.


Develop consulting and analytics skills

Building consulting skills and a “seller mentality” in every HR function is extremely important in order to leverage the expertise you have as a strategic advisor to the business. A recruiter needs to convince a prospective hiring manager on the recommended external candidate through factual market mapping; a compensation professional needs to seek buy-in for budget allocations with salary survey data, and a talent professional may need to convince the Chief Financial Officer to invest in a creative training programme with proof of concept roadmaps.

All of these need the ability to articulate a compelling business case; present it; and negotiate with internal clients with convincing data, facts, and insights.

Irrespective of which function you belong to, the ability to create a value proposition for your programme or advice is critical. HR professionals should invest time in learning consulting tips and tricks, and take some extended courses to augment their skills in HR analytics, and in creating business cases.

“Good ideas only remain ideas unless they’re articulated well for execution”

In a recent conference, Dave Ulrich, considered the father of modern HR, said: “HR is not about HR, but the value it provides”. This would be a good motto for all HR professionals to internalize, when building their capabilities for excellence and career success! 


 This article originally appeared in the July-August 2018 edition of HRM Magazine Aisa.

Read the issue online here.


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