HR Iceberg Model: What You Need to Know to Add Value for Clients

Gary A. DePaul, PhD (he/him/his)
5 min readMar 29, 2019
This image is an infographic showing an iceberg w/ tactical & transactional tasks above the water

HR Iceberg Model

The value of Human Resources isn’t in order-taking. Order-taking occurs when clients — such as business executives, department heads, and other levels of business management — ask HR professionals to implement solutions. In the HR Iceberg Model, this is seen above the surface of the iceberg: a nonstrategic perception of HR.

For HR clients to benefit from your services, you need to work at a richer level than order-taking. In the Iceberg Model, what’s below the surface is how serious HR professionals contribute to the business. There are three areas of the iceberg below the surface: Add Value by adopting six principles, client coaching, and prioritizing their own ongoing development.

Iceberg Area One: Add Value

HR professionals add value when they apply six principles to their performance. These principles are shown in the HRBP Business-Driven Methodology.

Image of 8 principles that collectively are the HRBP Business-Driven Methodology

The principles guide you as you collaborate with clients to solve serious problems. The principles enable cooperation between you and your clients and help you with your client to develop a deep perspective for resolving business and performance gaps.

Iceberg Area Two: Client Coaching

Let’s face it: clients tend to rush to problem-solving and mistakenly fail to appreciate the need to understand problems better. Ravi Shankar, in How to Increase Creativity in Problem solving, describes this phenomenon:

They straightway enter into the “problem-solving” mode without entering into the “problem-understanding” mindset. This reduces every brilliant solution to a sham. A quick fix to be implemented, a monkey to be pushed off the shoulders. Problem-solving finally ends up into problem pushing and shoving under the carpet.

In Contrast, if people spend more time in developing a full understanding of the problem, comparing what they currently know about the problem with what they need to know in order to get a complete picture of the situation. they are more likely to derive successful solutions.

Frequently, HR professionals deal with clients who bring to them requests for some type of solution — whether it is training, hiring more people, restructuring, or increasing salaries — clients tend to be solution-focused. To help clients solve their problems, HR professionals need to coach clients to two areas:

Results-Focused: HR professionals need to coach their clients to shift from being solution-focused to results-focused and being solution-neutral. By doing so, they help clients analyze their employees’ performance gaps and ultimately business gaps. Only after seriously considering the gaps can clients consider proposed solutions. Without the gap analysis, clients throw out random solutions that most likely are baseless.

Systemic Thinking: To really help clients manage their processes and people better, HR professionals need to coach clients to think systemically. Not only should clients consider how their decisions affect their processes and people, but they also need to consider how decisions affect other parts of the business, processes, and teams.

Rummler and Brache, authors of Improving Performance, explain that clients need to learn how to perceive their organizations as a system that follows fundamental laws. For example, they state one of these laws in the following way:

When one component of an organization system optimizes, the organization often suboptimizes.

[For more, refer to my summary of the Six Fundamental Laws of Organizational Systems. NOTE: link to be added when this blog is published through Medium.]

Iceberg Area Three: Ongoing Development

If they want to be effective, are serious about their role, and want to add value to the business, HR professionals need to continuously develop two specific areas:

Analysis & Diagnostic Capabilities: Getting and keeping a seat at the business table hinges on their ability to analyze and diagnose. These are the necessary capabilities for discussing needed results and finding optimal solutions. Learning the basics and then relying on on-the-job experience isn’t enough to be effective problem-solvers. This capability needs regular development to keep current and to capitalize on analytical and diagnostic improvements.

Business Intelligence: While this includes business acumen, this is more than that. Business intelligence involves the following (to name a few):

  • Your organization’s industry changes specific to the marketplace, competitors, suppliers, investors, technology (to name a few)
  • Your clients’ specialization (such as auditing changes for a client who manages the auditing department)
  • The big picture of how your organization does business including what the main process is and how supporting processes contribute to it
  • Changes within departments that you don’t support

This requires you to continuously network with your HR peers and your client's management team. It requires you to read and view publications about your industry, organization, and client’s specialization. It also requires you to monitor HR metrics related to your clients and the whole organization as well as the same metrics that your clients monitor.

Summing It Up

To be an effective HR professional, you need cannot learn from only on-the-job experiences and using trial-and-error learning. First, there is a wealth of evidence-based methods for strengthening how you work with the clients whom you support. Keeping current is critical to staying relevant. Second, I can’t stress enough how critical it is to continuously develop your business intelligence. Like all of us, clients have blind spots and make mistakes. As HR professionals, we bring insight into performance and share the human element of how the organization operates. Our contributions raise awareness of client blind spots and enable them to think systemically while being results-focused.


The 2022 HRBP Report

About the author

Gary is a Leadership Author, Researcher, Consultant, and Podcast Guest. His latest book, What the Heck Is Leadership and Why Should I Care?, is available in paperback, eBook, and audiobook. You can learn more about Gary and his other books at