It has been a week since #SHRM22 in New Orleans came to a close. After a long-awaited year in anticipation of seeing real-live people, reuniting with old friends, and making new acquaintances, it’s hard to believe that we’re already making plans for next year. It was a whirlwind week.
2019 was the last Annual Conference that I had attended in person, which also happened to be the year that I announced I had been diagnosed with breast cancer. In 2019, I was most focused on meeting people and spending time with them because I was genuinely afraid that it would be the last time I was able to do so. Then we all know what 2020 (and 2021) delivered. We’ve all been transformed by the changing world around us.
My purpose in attending the Annual Conference each year is two fold. One, I want to learn. It’s important that we are life-long learners, and to evolve and grow so that we can continue to make a positive impact in our organizations. Two, I want to connect with others and learn from them. Each person has a unique story, and a unique perspective based on their own experiences and background. There is so much value in learning from and with others. This was a lesson it took me far too long to learn. (Last year when I attended the conference virtually, I realized that I learn so much better in the company of others. There is deep value in the dialogue that happens during and after the sessions.)
My perspective of just about everything has changed significantly since my cancer diagnosis. I appreciate tranquility. I listen more – to the sounds around me, to people, to my own breath. I like to take things slower than before. This year, I unexpectedly found myself observing far more than I had in the past.
Rather than sharing my takeaways from the sessions I attended, I want to share with you two observations.
First, there was a theme that seemed to be woven through almost every session, and at the forefront of conversations: HR professionals are weary. (I would strongly argue that everyone in almost every profession is weary, but since we are talking about an HR conference, I want to focus my comments there.) It wasn’t long ago that HR demanded a “seat at the table.” Well… 2020 came and whether we were ready or not, we were shoved into that seat (and glued down). HR had an incredible opportunity to lead their organizations through some extraordinarily difficult circumstances. Not only were organizations struggling to quickly pivot and do business differently, but every person was struggling, too – from challenges with virtual school, loss of childcare, caregiving for family members, not being able to see family members in long term care homes who were suddenly closed to visitors, losing loved ones to COVID, their own COVID diagnoses, loneliness, mental health challenges, psychological and physical safety, loss of jobs and income, access to healthcare, and on top of all of the COVID19 related challenges, communities have been facing relentless discrimination, racism, and violence…. HR was trying, gallantly, to keep it all together – support their organizations, employees and their own families. It has been a tough, TOUGH couple of years. I saw it on the faces of almost every attendee I met. I would ask, “How are you?” And, as expected, I would hear some variation of “I’m doing ok/fine/great…” Their eyes said something different. I would lean in and say more gently, “That’s excellent to hear. But how ARE you?” After a pause or two, their answers changed, and they would share what’s really going on, often from behind tears.
I often hear comments that “there isn’t HR for HR.” This may be true in most organizations. So while HR is there for its people, who is there for HR? HR professionals need an ear (a shoulder) just as much as any other human. Showing your humanity isn’t a weakness. Demonstrating vulnerability doesn’t make you less credible. We are emotional creatures. We get scared. We get angry. We get frustrated, sad, confused, and hurt. I encourage you each to reach out to your colleagues and peers and ask how they are doing – for real. And then give them room to answer. You don’t need to fix anything. Just listen.
The second observation is: HR people are good people. Certainly, there are a few bad apples (who often, unfortunately, can spoil the reputation of the good apples). And sometimes HR people can behave badly. At the sessions that I attended, most were packed - learning why DEI&B efforts were failing – and what to do about it; how to stop the retention bleed that may be a reflection of toxic work culture or a resistance to evolve the business and how it operates; how HR needs to evolve to be future-ready; how to think (and act) like an owner; and how to foster a people-centric culture. I heard laughter. I saw tears. I saw people. People who want to do the right thing and help others thrive. I saw people who are exhausted from trying to do the right thing, but often being accused of doing it all wrong.
We are in the business of people. Most of us are in this profession because we genuinely care for others and want to make the work experience a positive one. We want to make a difference in the lives of our employees, and in our communities. Over the course of five days, I observed 13,000+ HR professionals from around the globe coming together for a common purpose and shared values.
My hope is that each and every HR pro – in attendance or not – recognizes and cultivates the good in themselves and in others. That is one significant way we can #CauseTheEffect.