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HR.com Employers of Excellence 2006 Conference

October 26, 2006
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Event: HR.com Employers of Excellence 2006 Conference
Date: October 24-27, 2006, Red Rock Casino Resort, Las Vegas

What: Canada-based HR.com says that "the conference inspires, educates and motivates through a unique blend of world-class keynote speakers, educational workshops, peer-to-peer networking, procurement services solutions and engaging debate and discussion on today’s hottest HR challenges and trends."

Conference info: For more information about the HR.com Employers of Excellence conference, go to www.hr.com.

Conference Notes, Day 4--Friday October 27, 2006

Too much conference, too far from the glitz? After four days in Vegas without losing my shirt, here are some thoughts and observations on HR.com's Employers of Excellence conference:

Four days is a lot of conference. SHRM's national conference is also four days long, but it draws 15,000 to 16,000 attendees. HR.com claimed 400 attendees, but my best guess is that they probably had no more than 350 or so. Why does the number of days matter? Well, with everyone so busy, a tightly packed, fast-paced conference can give participants a lot more bang for their buck, keep energy levels high and make for more better keynotes and breakout sessions with a larger numbers of highly engaged participants. The Conference Board, which puts on the best events in a day-and-a-half format, has it down pat. One day less would have made this a much more energetic conference.

How do I get to the Strip? The Red Rock Casino Resort is beautiful, but it is way out in Summerlin, a good 20-minute drive from the Las Vegas Strip. That kept people away from temptation and focused them on the conference, but I heard lots of comments from attendees who wished they had easier access to some of the more famous Vegas hotels and casinos.

News at HR.com about HR.com: CEO Debbie McGrath used the Las Vegas conference to announce that HR.com would be launching a new HR job board in the first week of November. She also said that HR.com would be launching HR Marketplace, an eBay-style system where people could bid on HR products and services. McGrath didn’t give a timetable for this except to say that it would be launched “soon.” And there’s a beta version up now. Finally, she talked about an increased focus on community within the HR.com Web site, with more contributed content and the ability for users to build personal “My Space”-like pages. McGrath gave few details on how this might work or when it would be launched, but she touted it as a major shift in the company's business model. Stay tuned.

Morning keynote, Day 4: Steven Levitt, co-author of Freakonomics, spoke on “Redefining How We View the Modern World.” Levitt, an economist and University of Chicago professor, gave an old-school presentation: no slides, no PowerPoint; just him telling interesting, funny stories to illustrate his points. It’s difficult to convey his details and color, but the basic theme was this: Simple arguments are the most convincing, yet in business, people rely on complicated models and spreadsheets that frequently miss the point and don’t make the case as effectively.

Power problems: The afternoon keynote was actually a panel, “Changing Leadership Behavior,” with executive coach Marshall Goldsmith and three executives he has worked with: George Borst, CEO of Toyota Financial Services; author and consultant Frances Hesselbein, former CEO of the Girl Scouts of America; and Rudolf Messinger, chief of the United Nations Children’s Fund. It could have been a good session, but halfway through it, the speakers and audience had to move to another room because a worker outside the hotel hit a power cable with a backhoe, knocking out power to the casino and limiting electricity in the hotel and conference center. Without a sound system, it made for a disjointed presentation that was hard to hear.

Final keynote, Day 4: In attendance for Dave Ulrich’s talk, “The HR Value Proposition and the Journey Ahead,” was an audience that had dwindled to no more than 75. It was Friday on Day 4 of the conference, after all. Ulrich, who is about as close as HR gets to having its own strategy rock star, had an earlier breakout Q&A session that was more personal and let him have a lot more interaction with the audience. Still, it begs the question: How did a great draw like Ulrich get stuck with the last spot on the last day of the program when most of the attendees had already gone home? I’ve found that Ulrich always has great things to say. He deserved a more prominent spot in the program. As he himself said, tongue firmly in cheek, “I LOVE being the last speaker at the conference.”
--JH




Conference notes: Day 3—Thursday, October 26, 2006

Morning keynote, Day 3: Former New York Times reporter Tony Schwartz kicked off the third day of the conference with a very interesting presentation on "Energizing Your Workforce (The Way We're Working Isn’t Working—The Science of Sustainable High Performance)." Schwartz, who is currently president and CEO of the Energy Project, made the case that to sustain your performance, you must balance energy expenditure with intermittent energy renewal.

Schwartz focused on the personal things managers can do to increase their energy and performance, so this was more of an individually oriented presentation than most of the other keynotes and breakout sessions at this conference. But he also offered up this sobering stat that ripples through the entire workforce: Last year, workers gave back $17 billion to employers in unused vacation time. And, "employers lost out in the bargain," he said.

His solution: We all need systemic training to renew our energy. He's written a book about this with Jim Loehr (The Power of Full Engagement: Managing Time Not Energy) that explains all the ways you can do this, but his bottom line is that everyone needs to find systems to renew their energy. When you do, "you get done more done in less time with a higher level of energy and a better quality of time."

Kiss your performance reviews goodbye: Here's a session that grabbed a lot of people: "We Abolished Performance Appraisals—Now What Do We Do?" Ken Barry, former senior vice president for human resources at Move.com, gave this provocative presentation to a packed room of people who seemed sick of their current performance review process. Barry's answer? Managers need to ditch the regular performance reviews and instead build a "conversational organization." This is not something that tech companies selling performance management systems will be happy to hear, but Barry's take is that no one on either side of the process is happy with the way it currently works.

Having an ongoing dialogue instead of a formalized review process, he said, helps both managers and workers to be more productive and effective, and get specific, timely feedback. One note for those tech companies with their performance management systems: My quick survey didn't find a single HR person at this session who was currently using an automated performance appraisal system. Maybe that's another answer to Barry's provocative question.

Afternoon keynote, Day 3: Attendees got a break today—only one afternoon keynote speaker. It will be a short-lived break, but author and consultant Ram Charan was the beneficiary of the single-speaker format. This meant he got a full 90 minutes to make his pitch, and Charan, who is a staple of the business speaker circuit, used it wisely to really engage the audience. His keynote on "The CEO's Perspective" focused on what CEOs are looking for from their HR leaders. His answer:

  • That they think of themselves as a leader, no matter what their function or background.
  • That they learn the business and talk in business terms, not HR jargon.
  • That they link the needs of the business with the HR function.
  • That they have a solid succession plan for the board of directors.
  • That they put systems into place that clearly link compensation to performance.
  • That they make sure they have the right people in the right job throughout the organization.
  • That they fix the HR organization and build it for the 21st century.
  • That they clearly add strategic value to the organization.
—John Hollon

Conference notes: Day 2—Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Team work: Patrick Lencioni, founder and president of the Table Group and author of management books such as The Five Dysfunctions of a Team and Death by Meeting, kicked off Day 2 with a near two-hour keynote. If you know anything about Lencioni, this is not a bad thing. I've heard him before at the World Business Forum and he is both smart and entertaining. That's a tough combination to beat and definitely someone to start a conference day.

Like most management speakers, Lencioni imparts wisdom in lists, including the five dysfunctions of a team:

Absence of trust: The fear of being vulnerable with team members prevents the building of trust within the team.

Fear of conflict: The desire to preserve artificial harmony stifles the occurrence of productive, ideological conflict.

Lack of commitment: The lack of clarity and/or the fear of being wrong prevents team members from making decisions in a timely and definitive way.

Avoidance of accountability: The need to avoid interpersonal discomfort prevents team members from holding one another accountable for their behaviors.

Inattention to results: The desire for individual credit erodes the focus on collective success.

As engaging as Lencioni is, if you have heard him once, you probably would be better off getting some of his books than sitting through another one of his presentations.

Math lessons: Jeff Higgins, vice president for compensation and benefits at the Irvine Co. in California, led a breakout session on using human capital analytics to make decisions and better manage the workforce.

His point was that HR people need to embrace numbers and analytics and use turnover, recruiting and cost figures over multiple years to better make their case to C-suite executives. He offered these statistics to make his case:

  • Turnover in all industries has increased steadily at about half a percent per year since 1990, to a mean of more than 21 percent in 2004.
  • The typical U.S. company spends nearly 50 times more to recruit a $100,000 professional than it will invest in annual training after that person comes on board.
  • Employee costs are a typical company's single largest expense, yet most companies don't even know how many employees they have.

The trouble with late-afternoon keynotes: As was the case on the first day, the second day ended with two keynote speeches. They were tougher to get through after a full day of sessions and presentations. The first was given by Beverly Kaye, author of books including Love 'Em or Lose 'Em: Getting Good People to Stay. Kaye, founder and CEO of Career Systems International, had led an earlier roundtable session, and frankly, she had more time at the breakout to really make her case for why companies need to work harder to retain and develop talent. Her keynote, at 40 minutes, was just too short to do justice to her topic.

As tough as it was for Kaye, it was even tougher for the second afternoon keynote speaker, Libby Sartain, chief people officer at Yahoo.

Sartain was in the unenviable position of being the only thing between the attendees and getting to dinner and the casino. Her topic, "Eight Essentials to Emotionally Connect Your Employees to Your Business," is a good one, and she made a good case for linking people to their company's brand. Unfortunately, a lot of attendees bailed out and missed what she had to say. There's a lesson here for conference attendees and sponsors alike: Too many speakers, especially late in the day, may be too much of a good thing.

—John Hollon


Conference Notes, Day 1—Tuesday, October 24, 2006

First day, first thoughts: This is a long conference spread across four days with 12 keynote speakers, 50 breakout workshops, 51 sponsors and, by the sponsor’s estimate, more than 400 attendees. That's a lot to digest, even without the siren song of Vegas in your ears.

Fortunately, the Employers of Excellence conference is being held at the new Red Rock Casino Resort Spa on the east side of the city, well away from the Strip. It's a beautiful venue, and although it does have the obligatory casino, its somewhat remote location limits the ability of conference-goers to run for the neon of the Strip when they burn out on speakers. Still, it remains to be seen how disciplined the attendees will be.

Twin keynotes: Despite the late-afternoon start, there were two keynote speakers.

First up was Lance Secretan, a management consultant and author of 13 books including Inspire: What Great Leaders Do.

Secretan’s talked about his CASTLE principles, a mnemonic device for courage, authenticity, service, truthfulness, love and effectiveness. Secretan's "recipe for leadership" includes a lot of focus on "oneness" and the happiness that comes when people (employees) feel part of the whole. It was an interesting presentation, if for no other reason than it was so different from the typical management consultant-speak you get at events like this.

Then came Margaret Wheatly, president of the Berkana Institute and author of Finding Our Way: Leadership for an Uncertain Time, among other titles. Wheatly focused on leadership in today's tough and turbulent global environment.

She lists her four principles of leadership (which she says leaders need to tattoo on their arms):

  • People only support what they help create.
  • People only act responsibly when they care.
  • Everyone is an expert about their own context.
  • To create health, you need to create more connections.

She adds that people contribute their best when:

  • They care about the work.
  • They are free to make decisions in the moment.
  • They have good relationships.
  • They are trusted, and trusting.

–John Hollon

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