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Why Actual HR Directors Don't Speak at the Annual SHRM Conference..

If you do the math, the vast majority of speakers at every SHRM National Conference are vendors and consultants, not practitioners.  Why is that?

The topic came up when I was reading a post yesterday by Tim Sackett over at Fistful of Talent on What I Wish I Learned at SHRM10.  Tim did a nice job of breaking the conference down and moaned a bit about the lack of practitioners presenting at SHRM.  I hit him up in the comments and asked him why he thought that was the case, year after year.  Here's what Tim pointed to regarding why there aren't any practitioners speaking at SHRM:

"1. Process to speak is a year in advance - most HR Pros are fighting fires daily and it just doesn't come to mind to fill out a form to speak a year from now. Plus they don't have the "past" experience necessary to make it thru the SHRMAudience vetting process. Maybe a good idea for SHRM would be to have Practitioner Track - where so many spots are only given to active HR Pros to speak - at least you'd know what you're getting.

2. Unless you're "in" the speaking circuit - you really don't know how to become involved. I didn't get started until someone invited me to speak - I thought that was how it worked - it doesn't.

3. The majority of HR Pros I know - great HR Practitioners - would be afraid to speak in front of a large audience - it's a very small percentage that would - then even a smaller percent that would actually have something wise to say and be entertaining. My guess is about .01% of HR Pros could be successful speaking - but that still leaves thousands that aren't putting in to speak.

4. There is a WIIFM issue - HR Pros struggle to see the greater value for them is engaging in their practice of HR and becoming more involved. The Speakers and HR Vendors who do speak clearly have the WIIFM answered - and it's why they come in droves to present.

5. The majority of people don't think what they have to say is important - that's just a fact - and it holds people back. Some of my best learning at conferences comes in one-off's with a fellow HR Pro who is very talented but would never put their ideas out to the masses.

6. No recruitment committee by SHRM to go out and get top HR Practitioners to speak. You and I both have been invited to speak at a number of events - and once invited, it's very hard to turn down."

Tim's right on all his points.  Still, there's a mixture of responsibility here.  SHRM can do more to seek practitioners out who would be effective, entertaining speakers, and this just in - HR practitioners have to be open to stretching themselves in this way, especially if they've got the credibility/communication skills to make it work.  Two way street - both SHRM and you (yes, I'm talking to you if you're reading this) can do more to step up.

Not many practitioners have the skills to speak at SHRM national - but some are. If you’re seeking credibility as an HR pro, you not only need to know more about the competencies of HR than that blowhard VP of engineering at your weekly meetings, but you also have to be willing to engage him in front of others when it comes to talent topics. Dave Ulrich calls this the "credible activist" competency, and it means you step forward and advocate for your position on any topic related to your function. You’re the expert, so talk! Engage! Fight!

Public speaking is a good way to do that.  Stretch yourself at least once in 2010 by speaking to a group outside your company. You may never present in the big room at SHRM - you might not be good enough. Who cares?  The Rotary Club is a great place to get your credible activist game on. 

Just do it. Small steps.

Comments

Jkjhr

I agree that the Trench HR voice is sadly missing from most large (national or state) conferences for many of the reasons Tim listed. Another great place to start your speaking “life” is at local SHRM chapters. A lot of them are looking for speakers on some form of HR expertise. Come up with a topic, develop a presentation (that can get HRCI credit) and start shopping it around.

Levyrecruits

In most instances, the "trench HR voice" (which I've known for nearly 2 years) is simply not interesting or creative to warrant speaking. The trench voice is really...average...which means they pretty much get the job done give or take a few bumps, bruises, and lawsuits.

Many friends are long term heads of HR who have done great things not by being overly creative but by being more knowledgeable about business - which includes a heavy dose of finance. Years of knowing the business brought them into the enterprise strategy realm which allowed them to tell the key people what their poor people skills and policies were doing to the business - and engage them to develop and implement HR solutions that worked.

Is this interesting enough to speak about for 45 minutes at a SHRM conference - depauperate of the "reauired" bells and whistles and buzzwords? Probably not...

The unconference model IMO works better because it is less rigid and more fluid in terms of the level of engaged interactions. Obviously it is tougher to pull off because it requires track leaders to be really good facilitators in addition to having stories to tell. At this juncture, it's way outside the SHRM comfort zone save for someone like China G.

Why not try an afternoon of "speed talks" - 10 minutes max presentation, 5 minutes Q&A - where practitioners in the trenches walks about their situations and the 1-2 significant lessons learned from practicing HR in their company? No buzzword scripted BS, no fancy phrases that sound great on paper but work like shit in reality.

Just the business of HR...

Charlie Judy

I'm glad to see more and more of this theme emerging. and levy is probably right - historically the appeal has not really been there. but i think chris' recommendation is that we start doing it so we get better at it (more interesting, entertaining). none of this is a "flip the switch" kind of exercise, but it has to start somewhere. and it's also about balance - we need the pundits, the expert speakers, and the #TrenchHR pros...

Levyrecruits

Charlie, has the mass of HR been beaten down so much that they simply believe they have nothing of value to talk about? I'm thinking that it's like (and I apologize for using these as examples but they just seem to fit) the POW and Battered Women Syndromes - HR as a whole has been beaten up so much that it cowers...

-Steve

Leanne Chase - @LeanneCLC

Ummm - isn't this what ERE does twice a year at their Expo? Actual practitioners speaking either in large rooms or to smaller more intimate groups at their conventions. And it becomes a conversation between the audience and the speakers, practitioners all...or mostly all. Yes, there are thought leaders there, too. But there are actual HR practitioners who have wrestled with issues, succeeded or failed at solving them, talking to each other.

It's not rocket science...it's good conference/event-planning.

Tim Sackett

KD -

Another thought I'm having as I read through the responses is HR Leaders within organization sometimes struggle to gain respect/credibility amongst their peer leaders in other functional areas - it might just be from the lack of speaking up at the right times/right situations. The competency of presenting and public speaking helps cure this ill very quickly - so this should be on most peoples personal development plans.

I've frequently heard from people "well, he's a silent leader" or "she's like to process" and I can tell you from having development conversations with executives, that they don't necessarily see this as a strength - when one doesn't speak up and present within the broader function of the organization. It can be "perceived" as weakness.

I'm just sayin...

JP Elliott

Guys - let's stop talking and start doing...tomorrow is the deadline to submit a proposal for SHRM 2011. The link is below.

http://shrmcfp.appspot.com/conference.html?conference=11ANN

It took me 15 minutes to submit my topic in 75 words or less and the one sentence on what a participant will get out of the session. Even if it takes you a a few hours to think of topic and fill out the form - this is well worth your time for all the career enhancing reasons mentioned above.

And for those of us who say we don't have the time to prepare a presentation, you won't find out if you were accepted until Nov 30th and then have until next June to practice speaking skills...


Jim D'Amico

SHRM is kind of a weird animal as far as events go. Speakers have to try and hit notes with an audience with wide skill and experience levels. Sadly that often necessitates a "watered down" presentation, and many practitioners present at a more focused level. I've spoken at several national and regional events designed for folks in the staffing specialty, and I think because it's more specific it's a great place for practitioners to speak.

Nathan

Kudos to JP for the encouragement to submit a proposal. Unkudos to SHRM for setting the bar so high.

While none of us want to hear poor conference speakers, SHRM's statement that "[t]hose with a track record of speaking at large, national conferences will be given preference" eliminates most practitioners. The HR pros I want to hear aren’t on the speaking circuit because they are busy running HR shops that push their companies to new heights. In the end it depends on what type of party SHRM wants to throw; we’ll vote with our attendance on the question of its value.

Holly MacDonald

Get out your salt grains...I am not a member of SHRM, and not likely to ever attend their conference, but I think that @levyrecruits is right - switching up the approach to a conference would open more options to "actual" HR pros (although as a consultant who has spent time in both internal roles and external roles, I am a little sensitive to the "consultants are bad" judgment). If the conference has a limited format, SHRM might be missing an opportunity to engage their members. Our local HR assocation managed to get some great keynoters (Dan Pink and Jeff Rubin for example). I was on the conference selection committee and we went out and asked people to present, rather than accepting applications (we did accept some). One of the hard things was to figure out which practitioners to invite. Perhaps some kind of "nominate a practitioner" or chapter spotlight might be interesting and give them different ways of contributing - there's got to be more than speakers at a conference these days to make it a viable learning experience.

Chris Jones

If a person wants to practice public speaking and get over their nerves, try a Toastmasters club. If your company is big enough, start your own Toastmasters meeting.

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