Is the Ulrich model right for your company?

Bless Dave Ulrich

And bless all those followers in the HR community, who seized upon the Ulrich model and attempted to push it through their companies, possibly thinking it was the greatest idea since sliced bread, or thinking that in adopting yet another HR operating model, they would finally secure the greatly desired but frequently unattainable respect from business leaders

As specialist search consultants within the HR Profession, we’ve noticed some particularly interesting and alarming by-products as a result of the Ulrich model (and all of its variations).

  • Many HR generalists find the business partner role boring.  They like getting involved with all of the ER/C&B/recruitment as well as the day to day coaching and process improvement and policing.  Other professionals mistakenly think the HRBP role automatically allows them to abandon the transactional work and focus on strategy. We always know when a firm is adopting the Ulrich model because we see a spike in HR exits immediately before its adoption, and another exit spike 6 months in.

  • We have bred new generations of HR professionals who don’t have any of the fundamental knowledge or skills that have been the traditional bread and butter of HR.  Seriously, we have HR Managers today (aka HR Business Partners), 10 years into their career, who have never seen a salary review in action, who have never handled a D&G, who have never coordinated a full cycle recruitment process – because they’ve grown up in corporate worlds where “centres of excellence” have handled all of these things for them.

  • Business leaders aren’t buying it.  And this makes sense.  Why, as a director of any operational or support unit, do I bother building a relationship with you, my “go to” HR specialist, when you’re just going to refer me onto 3 or 4 effective strangers who handle C&B or recruitment or L&D or whatever – I just want to deal with one person as my trusted HR partner.

  • HR Business Partners haven’t gotten any closer to the business.  Fancy title yes, but we continue to see HRBP’s who don’t know how their unit’s business plan fits with the overall company strategy; who don’t know the pressures on their unit’s P&L; who still don’t get “a seat at the table”.  Many HRBP’s are in fact just very well paid co-ordinators, just shunting their clients about from CofE to CofE.

  • It hasn’t saved any operating costs for the HR function.  By the time you’ve lost all the intellectual property from your long serving HR team who have decided to bail out, spent a premium to hire new specialists, interrupted delivery of service to the business whilst you raced about promoting the service delivery changes (then iterations 2, 3 and maybe even 4 whilst you ironed out the bugs, which always seems to take at least 3 years)….

Be very sure of why you’re considering this model, how it really fits to the business strategy, and how viable it will be in the long term as a solution for your company’s needs – note that I stress the company’s needs, and not the needs of the HR function.   Certainly don’t adopt the Ulrich model because you’ve read that it is the ultimate in best practice HR or because it is so fashionable and widely used.  We thought that about flared trousers and macramé bikinis, and they didn’t last for so long either. 

Before you go barrelling into any variation of the Ulrich model (or if you’re there already and struggling) consider the following:

  • If you split out the specialist work how will  you keep the role interesting for the HR generalists?  Are the improvements you’re expecting from the Ulrich adoption worth the loss of existing HR team members? 

  • Can you implement a rotation program to make sure each of your team of HRBP’s and specialists cycle across HR disciplines to improve their knowledge, keep the work interesting, and allow them a better understanding and empathy of the pressures that other team members are facing?

  • Is the premium price of hiring external specialists worth it, or do you have generalists whom you could get training & coaching for, to up skill them with specialist knowledge?

  • Consider adopting the model only in part – just like one size doesn’t fit all, so too then that one solution doesn’t apply to all.  Maybe you can just outsource or segment the C&B component for example.

  • Try having the HRBP present for every specialist interaction with the business leader.  The leader will appreciate having their trusted HR person on hand when a specialist CofE guru needs to be called in.  The HRBP can translate any jargon or contextualise any information immediately to avoid embarrassment for the leader, and the leader won’t feel they have to spend time educating the CofE specialist on their specific requirements, politics, history and challenges.

  • The “Business Partner” title is the key.  Think, talk and act like a business leader.  Who just happens to have deep HR knowledge.  You should know the ins and outs of all of the pressures on your business unit, internally and externally.  People who don’t know you, should be convinced that you are one of the operational leaders.  Your knowledge and advice should be so valuable and integral to the running of the business, that few or no decisions are made without you.  Then you’ll  have the business buy in and respect you crave.

Most of all.  Be sure of why you’re changing your existing model at all.  The Ulrich model is unfortunately no guarantee or holy grail that will catapult HR successfully into the much craved boardroom.  Changing titles and reporting lines won’t fix core problems of non delivery or zero business buy in.  Get those things right, and the respect will follow, regardless of your HR operating model.