5 Business Partner strategies to deal with competing agendas

Are you a Business Partner feeling ‘stuck in the middle’? Here are five Business Partner strategies to use

“Clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right. Here I am – stuck in the middle with you” (Steely Dan)


If you work in a function like HR, IT, Finance or Legal as a business partner, you may well recognise that sentiment — stuck in the middle! Of course, you are not likely to be between fools or jokers, rather find yourself caught between two stakeholders with competing, maybe even conflicting, agendas, requirements and requests of you. For some this is almost the very definition of what it is to be a Business Partner. This article explores five Business Partner strategies that you can employ when you feel “stuck in the middle”.

We at Future Considerations have many years of experience working with Business Partners at several levels, across all “technical” areas and in many different organisations, developing business partner strategies and skills. We see repeating issues, repeating patterns, irrespective of the technical focus (e.g. HR, Finance, IT) of the Business Partner, particularly in the relational and inter-personal domains. I have written elsewhere about some of aspects of what Business Partnering is but here I want to highlight some other perspectives using the particular lens of Barry Oshry’s systemic analysis.

As a business partner you are deliberately operating in that “middle” space between your Function (e.g. HR, Finance, IT, Legal) and the front-line business unit you are supporting. If you feel torn or stuck, then take a moment to reflect on what it is that you offer?

Are you an in-tray?

Receiving, carrying messages from one party to another and then carrying the reply, back again. Or are you a handshake? Building bridges, providing connections and explaining and translating each party’s world to the other using your unique viewpoint. In our experience, it is often the former where people get stuck and have the desire to get out of that “stuck in the middle” place.

Over the course of the last decade, we have worked with more than 2,000 business partners and witness this reoccurring theme of being “stuck”. We work at an individual level (to develop a set of Business Partner strategies and skills, both consulting skills and level of self-mastery) and at a systemic level.

Systems thinking is not new.

The pioneering work of Barry Oshry starting over 40 years ago, offers real insight into the often hidden patterns within any business (I am simplifying his work here). In his work (e.g. in “Seeing Systems”) the term “Middle” is a relational space within any organisation occupied at times by people in all “traditional hierarchical” positions. Those same people at different times and in different contexts will also occupy with Top, Bottom and Customer spaces. Oshry describes the world of a Middle as a world of “tearing” where the Middle “slides between” others e.g. Top and Bottom and takes on both of their concerns and typically oscillates between the two not adequately satisfying the needs of either and often exhausting themselves in the process. Does that sound familiar?

Oshry has some strategies for Middles dealing with that situation. I have taken his strategies and elaborated a little to identify actions that Business Partners can take that will help alleviate some common Business Partner dilemmas:

5 Business Partner Strategies

1. Take responsibility

…and in Oshry terms: Be Top when you can. Operate as though you were responsible for the outcome and take actions or cause actions to be taken by influencing those with power rather than vacillate and drift into a “not in my job description” retreat. We encourage Business Partners to adopt a mindset of “co-leader” in relation to the businesses they are supporting so that their orientation is to take responsibility and resolve matters that they can do themselves where possible, rather than passing the buck by looking to others for a resolution.

2. Translate context

…again, in Oshry terms: Be Bottom when you should. Rather than simply passing the message from one group to the other as a dutiful messenger, can you engage with your stakeholders to help them shape their message to have more impact by explaining the “other world” to them? Can you perhaps usefully challenge some assumptions that might be leading to unhelpful actions or proposals as a representative of the “other world” and thus prevent those unhelpful actions or proposals being transmitted? In that way you will be adding value to each of the stakeholders, shortening cycle times to effective action and helping both groups to better understand the other.

3. Be a Coach

For example, your Function may be about to launch an initiative that will adversely impact your business stakeholders and you are able to identify ways this could be improved. In this instance, you can “coach” your Functional colleagues by bringing your business insight and understanding of the wider context to encourage them to adapt their proposals to “land” better with the business units. Equally, you might witness the business about to react to proposals from your Function, which, with your coaching, their responses can be better tailored to get the response they want without unnecessary conflict or misunderstanding.

4. Be a Facilitator

Sometimes the best service you can perform in your role is to make connections either between your Function and the Business, or between different parts of the Business, or between other Business Partners supporting that business – maybe even between different parts of your Function! Making your relationships and network available to others can facilitate direct dialogue and again improve the effectiveness of the work you are all engaged in.

5. Integrate regularly with your peers

One key aspect of “Middle” world in Oshry’s analysis is their failure to connect with other Middles (as they continue the tearing and sliding between). He rightly points out that this is a significant missed opportunity with colleagues who are themselves, like you out and about across the territory of the organisation with often unique insights. Failure to connect to share these insights and learnings might be the difference between initiatives being successful or failing. So, look for opportunities to connect with your fellow Business Partners, from whatever Function they may come, in order to share your insights and learn from each other. We know that many issues and opportunities that arise for Business Partners are less to do with their functional focus and far more to do with relationships and business insight.

If these insights resonate with you then ask yourself, “Which of these Business Partner strategies should I focus on to start adding even more value to my role as a Business Partner?”

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