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Mike Losey Interview: Letting Loose on State of HR

June 28, 2012
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Mike Losey, former SHRM president and CEO

The Society for Human Resource Management has seen many leaders since its founding in 1948 when it was known as the American Society for Personnel Administration. It has grown from a small group of HR practitioners to a well-funded global organization with more than 250,000 members, but there have been growing pains. When former SHRM president and CEO Mike Losey took over in 1990 the organization was struggling financially but, by the time he left 10 years later, membership and revenue had skyrocketed and many credit him for the turnaround. Losey, along with several other former SHRM leaders, has been critical of current SHRM leadership. Losey talks with Workforce about the evolution of SHRM and of HR.

Workforce Management: How has the human resources profession evolved from an industrial relations focus to the more strategic role it plays today?

Mike Losey: HR is a relatively new profession. It started after the industrial revolution, and it's been evolving since. It became strategic when management needed to solve a very important problem—unions. Who do you think [Henry] Ford thought was important? It was the person who was going to keep the unions out. In the 1920s and '30s, prior to labor legislation like the Wagner Act, companies were fighting tooth and nail with the union. Why? Because people like Ford, the ones with their names on the building, feared someone coming and telling them what to do. That was the time of industrial relations, before the profession was called HR and after the Wagner Act. Then the laws changed and so did attitudes. You started seeing union-free environments. That's when the profession started changing. You had elements like IBM and other companies who started saying, "We don't need a union."

WM: What are some of the most dramatic changes that you've seen?

Losey: Up until the 1960s HR was dominated by men. It was very unusual to have women in HR. Why? Because the characteristic HR professional was a cigar-smoking labor relations guy at midnight sitting over a collective bargaining table. It was not a place for a woman. But as union membership decreased and the profession changed more women entered the profession, more blacks, black women. We've seen a transformation that is unbelievable. It started in the 1960s and '70s. You can see on a graph how union membership decreased at that time as well. That decline had a direct impact on the decline in influence of the HR or industrial relations person. Ask an HR person today a question about unions and they won't know anything about it.

Back then HR folks were the old codgers who got together in some dark room and talked about how they can screw the union. That was pretty gutsy stuff. Talk about a major change in the profession.

WM: HR is clearly a female-dominated industry, but is that a bad thing?

Losey: I happened to be at one the [SHRM] chapters in Toledo. If you look up their board of directors, out of 21 people there is one man. It's becoming a female business. And I don't think that's a good sign anymore than I thought it was right when I managed a staff of 50 people and had one woman. That was a male-dominated workplace and that wasn't normal either.

WM: How has the perception of HR changed over time? Is HR any closer to getting that seat at the table?

Losey: People come into HR for several reasons. Some, like me, thought it was a good profession and got educated in it. I have a master's degree in HR. Others go into it because they like people. I was teaching a course recently and a woman asked 'What is a blue collar worker?' Later she asked me, 'When a worker goes on strike do they get paid?' I thought I was going to have a stroke. That's the type of HR person who terrifies me. I have seen so many people who said 'I was the general manager's secretary and they made me the HR person'. In no other profession would that happen, but HR is seen as expendable.

WM: What stands in the way of HR getting into the C-suite?

Losey: We must continue to raise our standards. When I go on an airplane and that pilot comes on, I don't have any concerns. I see the pilot and the uniform and I know that I'm going to get where I'm going safely. But seat me next to an HR person and how do I know if they're any good? I don't. We don't have any test to pass other than a voluntary one. We don't have to undergo licensing like attorneys or doctors, so how do you know if the person is good? Who determines that? The CEO does. But the major problem with our profession is that the CEOs don't see it that way. They think that anybody can do HR. You've seen cases where line managers have been put into HR positions. Some perform well and some don't. I'm very concerned about the profession. I really am.

WM: What advice do you have for recent graduates interested in entering the profession?

Losey: I'd say here's a textbook, read it and then tell me whether or not you want to continue to talk. This is a profession, and there is a body of knowledge. You have to know this stuff. HR is becoming more and more global, and HR practices are becoming more consistent around the world. That's the future. So you need to study and learn.

WM: What role has SHRM played in advancing the profession and meeting the needs of its members?

Losey: You'll understand if I duck that question. If you want to ask someone that question ask Jose Barrios [chairman of the SHRM board of directors], ask Hank Jackson, the CEO who has never been in HR a day in his frickin' life. Ask how they recruited for a $500-$600,000 job for a whole year and didn't come up with an HR person. They promoted a financial guy. And we wonder why companies subordinate HR to finance, or to the administrative side? Another reason I don't want to talk on this is because, as you know, I'm highly involved in the SHRM Members for Transparency [a dissident group of former SHRM leaders]. You've got to assume that I'm very upset about the way SHRM is being run.

WM: You are credited with helping turn SHRM around at a time when it was struggling. Can you talk about your tenure as president and CEO?

Losey: At the time there were 40,000 members and revenue of $12 million a year, so it wasn't a small, insignificant organization. But it was a tough economy back then, and it was the first year they were going to lose money, and the membership wasn't increasing. I inherited all that, and to tell you the truth, I had no idea how much I was going to love it. I loved going to Congress and proving my knowledge of the profession. … I loved building the team and making people accountable. I worked hard. I went to so many chapters seven days a week. I went to chapters that hated us and turned them around. I loved it all.

WM: What is the most memorable moment of your career?

Losey: When I was 25 I went to work for this farm-equipment company, and I was at a meeting waiting to be introduced. I was in HR at a small plant. The executives were going back and forth arguing, and I thought, 'Boy I wonder if I'll ever be able to do this?' Just then the chairman of the company looks at me and says, 'What do you think young man?' And I said, 'Who me? I'm in personnel.' I knew instantly it was the dumbest thing I could have said. Like, 'Who me? What do you expect from personnel?' But he was so kind about it. He said, 'I just thought you might have some comment.' From that day on I sat through manufacturing meetings, engineering meetings, I went to dealership meetings; I just got involved in the company. And I really did learn the company. I was much more effective. And I became a personal friend and confidant to every department head. It made such a difference. The reason that's important is because then I became a CEO. We'd sit in budget meetings and I'd say, 'What do you mean you can't read a budget?' People would say, 'No one's ever asked me for one before.' We started from scratch. By the time I was done, I was so proud of everyone. It was just wonderful.

Rita Pyrillis is Workforce Management's senior writer. Comment below or email editors@workforce.com.

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