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The Last Word: SHRM's Lon O'Neil, International Man of Mystery

June 28, 2009
Related Topics: Benefit Design and Communication, The HR Profession, Featured Article
Here’s one thing to remember: I’m not your typical SHRM annual conference attendee.

I don’t attend so that I can take away great wisdom from the speakers, or network with other HR professionals, or even to go on a wild swag hunt in the exhibition hall. I come with a different agenda: to get a better sense of what the Society for Human Resource Management is doing for HR professionals and how well the organization is doing it.

To that end, I arrived in New Orleans really wanting to hear what new SHRM president and CEO Laurence “Lon” O’Neil had to say. This is his first annual conference as SHRM’s leader, and I wondered if he would build on the foundation left by former chief Sue Meisinger or, perhaps, do something entirely different. O’Neil has seemed like a bit of a mystery man to professional SHRM watchers like me, and I thought that surely between his speech at the opening General Session and his “State of SHRM” remarks at the annual Sunday news conference, I would get a better fix on where he is leading the organization.

Well, so much for what I was hoping for. After hearing O’Neil’s brief and relatively general remarks on Sunday before Jack Welch spoke, I came away with the following conclusion: Lon O’Neil, like Austin Powers, is an International Man of Mystery. I think I understand him less now, after hearing him speak, than I did before.

I’ve frequently been critical of SHRM in past years, although I came to appreciate former CEO Meisinger the more times I heard her speak. It always seemed to me that the organization was more focused on increasing revenue than really doing much for HR professionals, and the fixation on high-profile, low-value activities such as spending big bucks with an ad campaign branding SHRM during the presidential debates last year is a perfect example of this, I’ve argued.

But I grew to appreciate Meisinger over time because: a) she was a visible, unrelenting voice for the SHRM organization and the HR profession; and b) she got more pragmatic over time, telling SHRM attendees in her farewell address at the Chicago conference that HR people should “stop asking for a seat at the table” because “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.”

You could take a few swipes at Meisinger—and as a frequent SHRM critic, I did—but she was clearly the leader of the SHRM pack. I may not have always liked what she said or what she did, but I never, ever doubted that she was the one in charge.

I wish I could say that about Lon O’Neil. He was pretty general in his 10-minute (maximum) speech on Sunday, and his comments were broadly about SHRM “adapting to meet your needs … during these tough times.” The only real specifics he listed were SHRM’s new social network, support for members around the world, and the organization’s pledge that it would “seek out new opportunities to better collaborate with other organizations.”

Normally, you could drill in on some of those generalities during the news conference after the opening General Session, but for some reason, O’Neil opted out of that. The official reason, SHRM says, is “scheduling conflicts.” Such a non-appearance was something Sue Meisinger would never do.

Look, I know every leader operates differently, and I don’t expect Lon O’Neil to be a clone of Sue Meisinger, Mike Losey or any other SHRM leader. What does surprise me, however, is that O’Neil isn’t the front-and-center leader and visible presence that Meisinger was. For example, it was COO China Miner Gorman who went up to Capitol Hill to joust with Congress over the paid sick days bill earlier this month, and it seems to be Gorman who is out front on many different SHRM projects (like the new push on social networking) that used to be the province of the CEO.

Last August, I questioned the long delay in hiring a new CEO to replace Meisinger, and despite what SHRM board chairman Robb Van Cleve said on Sunday, I don’t believe that Lon O’Neil was the “clear” choice of the SHRM board to take the helm of the organization.

I’ve thought for some time that O’Neil was a compromise choice and a transitional figure that the SHRM board picked to buy the organization time to figure out just what kind of leader it really wanted. If not, why else would they choose someone in his 60s, with no apparent real passion for being the visible, out-front leader that an organization like SHRM needs?

Don’t get me wrong; I’m sure Lon O’Neil is a solid leader, but the sharp contrast between his approach to the SHRM CEO position and that of Meisinger and Losey make me wonder if he’s really in it for any extended period of time. In my book, the choice of O’Neil to lead SHRM is similar to the choice the College of Cardinals made in elevating Joseph Ratzinger to become Pope Benedict after the death of John Paul II. Both, it seems to me, were short-term choices made to buy time while the organization formulated a long-term solution.

Nothing that I have seen from O’Neil this past year makes me feel any differently about that, and his lack of a visible role at this 61st annual SHRM conference makes it clear to me that whether he is an International Man of Mystery or temporary pope-like figure, leading SHRM into the long-term future probably isn’t really in the hands of Lon O’Neil.

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