The Challenge Ahead

June 24, 2008

There’s been a lot of talk here in Chicago about it being SHRM’s 60th annual conference, and outgoing president and CEO Sue Meisinger spent a little time before Doris Kearns Goodwin’s keynote Tuesday morning reflecting on how much the organization has changed since the first get-together.

    There’s a lot to reflect on. For one thing, SHRM wasn’t SHRM back then. Back in 1948, it was the American Society of Personnel Administration, with just 21 members. The first annual conference took place in Cleveland.

    Today, the organization has evolved into the Society for Human Resource Management. And that little band of 21 charter members has grown into close to 250,000 members in more than 575 chapters and offices in some 140 countries around the globe.

    SHRM has a lot to be proud of. For all I have written about the things I believe that the organization could do better, I am absolutely convinced that SHRM has played a huge role in professionalizing human resources. Without SHRM, HR might not even be in a position to seriously argue for that much-discussed "seat at the table."

    But amid all the celebration here in Chicago over SHRM at 60, there’s an uncertain undercurrent about where SHRM is going. Meisinger retires at the end of this month, and the search for her successor continues. It’s unfortunate that the search couldn’t have been concluded by now, because the organization would have greatly benefited from a very public changing of the guard. Sue Meisinger could have said goodbye and, at the same time, passed the leadership baton to the new CEO. That person could have then outlined a vision for the SHRM’s future before the largest annual gathering of HR professionals.

   I’m not sure why SHRM couldn’t get a new CEO named in the five months since Meisinger announced she was stepping down, but in my view, the organization missed a great opportunity to smoothly transition to the future. There’s a lot the new SHRM leader needs to do, and I talked about this in my Business of Management blog in Januarywhen I wrote: "With Meisinger’s announced departure … SHRM’s board of directors has an opportunity to reinvent the organization yet again. In my mind, its new CEO must be someone who can build on the strong financial position the organization is in and perhaps use some of those funds to help HR people everywhere deal with the very real issues that pop up in the workplace every day. In fact, SHRM’s board is planning a strategic review of the organization this year, according to Meisinger’s memo, and it would seem to offer a perfect opportunity for the world’s largest HR organization to really focus on what HR people need to do to be strategic business partners in the 21st century—and how SHRM can help them to get there."

   Nothing that has happened since then has changed my opinion. In fact, I feel even more strongly about this today. SHRM needs to have a sharp and singular focus: to help the great mass of midlevel human resources professionals develop into indispensable business partners who can help organizations everywhere grow and nurture the single most important resource that they have—their people.

    So happy anniversary, SHRM. And farewell and good luck, Sue Meisinger. The past has been fruitful and rewarding, but here’s hoping that the best is yet to come.