Earlier this spring when I met with new CEO Johnny C. Taylor Jr. at SHRM’s offices near Washington, D.C., I asked him what his inaugural speech to conference attendees would look like.
“It’s like coming to a church revival on Sunday,” he said. And sure enough, on the opening day of the Society for Human Resource Management’s 70th annual conference and expo, Taylor did not overhype the atmosphere. Taylor’s 30-minute talk with 15,000-plus SHRM attendees in the cavernous McCormick Place hall (Taylor is pegging overall attendance at 20,000 this year – by far a record) had a bit of revival meeting sermon laced with plenty of motivation.
Taylor also recollected when he took his SHRM certification test. “You know how they tell you to skip the question when you don’t know the answer? I realized on number six that I had passed on the first five.”
Ultimately Taylor passed his SHRM test.
But there was a bigger test to pass on Day One of the conference. Like a new pastor addressing his congregation for the first time, he had to prove himself to SHRM’s assembled members.
Judging by at least five rounds of applause and audience members within my earshot enthusiastically agreeing with him, Taylor set himself apart from past SHRM leaders with his inaugural speech.
There was the expected mantras like “set audacious goals for ourselves” and his admittedly grammatically incorrect “only us can save us.”
He also selected the tale of Benaiah from the Bible’s Book of 2 Samuel, who chased a lion into a pit, then jumped in with the beast. And he asked his assembled HR masses, “What’s your lion?”
It was a decidedly interesting turn from past SHRM leaders’ opening day speeches. As I recall they never lasted more than 15 minutes, and they were largely warming up the crowd for the opening keynoter. While it was not immediate past CEO Hank Jackson style, it’s safe to say no preceding CEO ever stirred the crowd the way Taylor did on Sunday.
There’s an old adage in show biz that you never want the opening act to steal the show from the headliner.
Jeb Bush’s talk was enlightening and engaging, but it’s Taylor’s speech that’s still likely ringing in SHRM attendees ears. I was expecting a typical “fireside chat” speech from Bush, where Taylor or someone else conducts an interview. To Bush’s credit he gave a solid, thoughtful 45-minute talk on talent management, education and immigration and how it ties into talent acquisition.
“Immigration is a catalyst for sustained growth,” Bush noted. “Stop using it as a political wedge on both sides.”
And though it was only Day One, immigration seemed to be a topic on the minds of many during this year’s conference.
Rick Bell is Workforce’s editorial director. Comment below or email editors@Workforce.com.