After more than 20 years as a Society for Human Resource Management executive, Sue Meisinger has plenty of annual conference anecdotes from which to draw her most memorable moments.
What stands out for her, though, is not a specific speaker, dinner or session. Instead it’s the atmosphere created when about 15,000 HR professionals gather.
For a function that is often characterized by silence surrounding sensitive office matters like personnel moves and salary determinations, the annual conference provides a demilitarized zone where its practitioners can speak freely and know that that they’re not alone on the HR front lines.
"The high point has always been the sense of community when you walk into conference," says Meisinger, 55, who is retiring at the end of June following six years as the organization’s president and CEO. "There’s an energy to it that I just love."
Meisinger’s role at the conference has evolved as she has moved from being a vice president to COO to CEO.
As SHRM’s chief executive, she’s in constant motion. Going from event to event means traversing hallways full of friends from her career at SHRM and in the government. Her assistant is always at her side, keeping her on schedule and not letting her linger too long.
"I’ll stop and catch up until the cows come home," Meisinger says.
Her peripatetic approach has both drawbacks and benefits. It can be physically draining. But getting out and about also provides opportunities for rewarding interaction.
"It is not good for my feet, but it’s great for my spirit," Meisinger says.
She also has gotten a charge out of meeting the keynote speakers for the opening sessions. Former Secretary of State Colin Powell, who appeared at the 2006 conference in Washington, stands out.
Powell combined a confident military air with a down-to-earth personality. "He made sure he shook hands with everyone behind the stage—all the crew, all the staff," Meisinger says.
Another keynoter, Bill Cosby, spoke at the San Diego conference in 2005 on Father’s Day. When Meisinger was talking with her dad, the comedian walked over, asked for the cell phone and began chatting with him.
"For my father, who was in his 80s, that was great," Meisinger says.
Meisinger’s impact on the conference goes beyond meeting and greeting. She has added elements that help make a huge conference a little smaller by creating more networking opportunities for first-time attendees and more educational events for HR executives.
The first Masters Series session more than a decade ago drew about 2,000 people. Standing in the room, Meisinger says she felt that "we nailed this one. This was a direction that was welcome and effective for our members."
Meisinger will have "mixed emotions" while in Chicago for her last annual conference as SHRM chief executive. "It’s been a great run," she says.
At future shows, she says she will "probably have more fun because I’ll be able to chat and catch up" with friends. She’ll still have to do a lot of walking.