Editor's Notebook, Workforce

An Understandably Understated Farewell from SHRM’s CEO Hank Jackson

Musings and notes from SHRM in New Orleans.

SHRM’s Society for Human Resource Management’s CEO and President Hank Jackson is winding down at his last SHRM conference.

I wasn’t necessarily expecting a first-line parade to recognize Hank Jackson as he winds down his decade-long tenure as the Society for Human Resource Management’s CEO and president. But we are in New Orleans for SHRM’s annual expo and conference after all, and a hint of excess and pomp would have been absolutely acceptable.

But then considering Jackson has been rather reclusive — at least to the media — and the fact he’s a finance guy, personal indulgences likely aren’t his modus operandi.

But on the conference’s opening afternoon Jackson talked to HR practitioners from around the globe in a two-thirds full hall before Kat Cole delivered her warm, engaging opening keynote address.

His 15-minute talk touched briefly on his tenure as SHRM’s boss, but focused heavily on what awaits his successor, Johnny C. Taylor, who was in attendance. (We were told he was only there for the afternoon and would not address the crowd or the media during the annual State of SHRM.)

“We have changed the conversation on what HR leadership looks like,” Jackson said. “Our focus shifted from process to problem solving.”

HR is ready to lead during this decade of human capital, Jackson said. “Business now understands human resource management as driver of success.

“Throughout my career, I’ve been aware of having right people in the right place at the right time, and I knew HR was responsible for that. And I think most CEOs understand that now.”

Toward the end of his talk, Jackson took a moment to reflect on his tenure.

“I made a commitment to you,” he said. “I’m pleased to be part of transformation from partner to leader. Let’s make sure to lead rather than adapt, lead and shape our organizations.”

Later at the afternoon press briefing, a relaxed Jackson made just his second appearance before the assembled media at SHRM. He joked with SHRM colleague Wayne Cascio and reflected on the controversial and surprising decision to initiate SHRM’s certification.

Jackson also recalled his initial forays into political circles.

“When I first took the job, I went to the Labor Department representing SHRM, and they said, ‘Who?’ Now they know who we are.”

And for the first time Jackson took questions.

I asked him about SHRM’s decision to pull their advertising off Fox News in the wake of the Bill O’Reilly scandal.

“It wasn’t much of a decision,” he responded. “There are certain values we adhere to, and we have to live up to those values. It was an easy call. It didn’t even get to me.”

Jackson was visibly frustrated by the political gridlock in Washington, noting that the pressure will fall on states to take action on workplace issues if Washington doesn’t become more productive, which would “be bad for business.” Reading between the lines, Jackson does not appear to be a fan of the current administration.

Finally, he was also asked to reflect on his tenure.

“I believe we changed the conversation of what HR is. We’ve become leaders in business. I’m asked to speak around the world. There is respect for what the U.S. does. Whether or not you want to be a leader, we are.”

And with that Jackson was off to preside over his final SHRM conference. No first-line procession, no pomp, not fanfare.

Maybe the second line will follow Jackson out the door when the conference closes Wednesday.

Then again, probably not.

Odds and Ends: In 2009, the last time SHRM was in New Orleans, the Crescent City was still reeling from the effects of Hurricane Katrina four years before. That year SHRM participated in a volunteer day to help rebuild the city. As I recall there were 50 or so SHRM members who participated the day before the conference kicked off. It remains one of my greatest memories from SHRM.

Kat Cole, the CEO of Cinnabon, was the opening general sessions speaker for the conference.

Surprise Hit: Kat Cole is the best opening keynote speaker SHRM has had in the years I’ve attended. While others gave boilerplate, and frankly, boring talks, Cole was engaging, warm and tremendously personal.

She talked honestly of growing up with an alcoholic father, and after her mother left him they survived on a grocery budget of $10 a week.

Her mantra as CEO of Cinnabon was, “If you want to win the war on talent look in unexpected places.” As a college dropout, former employee of Hooters and child of a broken household she honestly said that she would have never gotten through the screening process of most HR departments sitting in the SHRM hall.

“But one company looked past that and I became their president at 31 years old,” she said.

And, she added after a round of applause, the clapping “should be for the progressive HR team that looked for someone different.”

Finally, some advice from her mother (ironically, on Father’s Day): “Don’t forget where you came from but don’t you dare let it solely define you.”

Do This: Trumpeter Irvin Mayfield kicked off the conference with his list of do’s and don’ts in New Orleans (I never knew there were don’ts in this city, but OK …). My favorite: “Do fight the urge to count calories.”

I heeded his advice several hours later. To great extent and enjoyment.

Heard in the Hall: 

Woman One: “Are you going to the concert tomorrow?”

Woman Two: “Absolutely. Harry Connick is so cute.”

And I thought it was about the music. Silly me.

Rick Bell is editorial director for Workforce. Comment below or email editors@workforce.com.