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Sue Meisingers Parting Advice Enough Table Talk, Already

June 22, 2008

I’ve attended a number of SHRM conferences and heard a lot of SHRM speeches, but through all of them, one thing has been constant: I’ve always had a hard time getting a fix on where SHRM president and CEO Sue Meisinger was coming from. Her farewell address here in Chicago was no exception.
Meisinger is retiring from SHRM next week, and the 60th annual conference here in Chicago is her swan song, her last act, her final bow. I thought her final speech before the opening general session would be similar to what she said in her resignation memo and generally list her accomplishments and proudest moments while also saying goodbye.

    And although she did a little bit of that, she also told the crowd that she was going to say something surprising—and she did.

    "Please stop asking for a seat at the table," she told the 14,000 SHRM members and conference attendees. "Everyone wants a seat at the table, and everyone wants the CEO’s time and attention. … The point is to add value and become essential … so that seat at the table has your name engraved on it." When you do that, she added, "you’ll have a seat at every table."

    This is the kind of thing I wish Meisinger had said before at this conference, because it bears repeating. Too many human resource people talk about wanting that all-important seat at the big table,but getting too focused on it is a sure way to keep from ultimately getting there.

    Meisinger’s counsel to her membership is right on the money. Focusing on what your business or organization needs from you, and how you can anticipate and give them what they will need in the future, is the real ticket to the top. Given that I am a proponent of the philosophy that it is never too late, it was nice to hear Meisinger say these things, even if she did wait until her last annual conference to do so.

    Maybe Sue Meisinger’s speech reflects a change in priorities for SHRM, a change in focus that reflects the very real fact that neither SHRM nor any other organization can be all things to all people all the time. And maybe the speech is a little dose of pragmatism, an acknowledgement that the post-Meisinger SHRM will be less focused on building its war chest and more on addressing the very real concerns of the HR profession.

    I hope that’s the case here. SHRM really needs to focus less on the money and more on the needs of the great mass of human resource professionals who are trying to figure out just how they can make themselves essential and invaluable to their organization. There’s no clear path to get there, no single way to the top, but just getting some practical advice, counsel and training on how to better balance the demands placed on a modern HR professional in the 21st century would be a good start.

    So farewell, Sue Meisinger. Good luck and safe travels. I didn’t always agree with you, but you never failed to surprise and amaze me—even to the very end.