SHRM Atlanta 1: Condi Rice Fesses Up on Her Favorite Founding Father

I’ll say this about general session speakers at the annual SHRM Conference and Exhibition: each year, the group of them gets a little bit better.

That’s going out on a limb a little given that I’ve only heard one so far, but this year’s lineup of Condoleezza Rice, Jim Collins, Malcolm Gladwell and Tom Brokaw are better collectively than last year’s group of Sir Richard Branson, Arianna Huffington, Tony Hsieh, and Michael J. Fox.

If I find I’m wrong come Wednesday, I’ll schedule a time to eat crow here later.

It’s possible that I have become a little less critical over years of attending the big SHRM bash (and some of you may have a good laugh at that), and if I am, it’s because I finally figured out that they really can’t get speakers at the world’s largest human resources conference to ever say much about HR.

Most SHRM keynoters don’t say much about HR

It’s true, as my friend Tim Sackett would say. I used to sit fuming while listening to speaker after speaker, year after year, who had absolutely nothing to say that was specifically relevant to HR.

What I learned over time (and I admit I’m a slow learner) is that the kind of big name speakers they attract to speak at the SHRM conference just don’t have a lot of insight or specifics they can offer up to HR. With rare exceptions (such as Jack Welch and, believe it or not, Al Gore), they just don’t have much to say that might be viewed as guidance to those toiling in the human resources profession.

So, I’ve given up worrying about that and just focus on the speakers and what they say overall. Add in an ever-improving group of SHRM conference speakers each year, and you get this year’s bumper crop of general session keynoters in Atlanta.

To that end, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice did a generally good job in her part speech/part Q&A keynote on Sunday.

The speech part was about 20 minutes and covered how she sees the world, and specifically the U.S., now that she’s now longer involved in its governance any more. “People always ask me a question,” she said, “and ask ‘How different is it being in government versus being out of government?'”

The difference, she noted,  is that “now I read the newspaper and say, ‘isn’t that interesting?’ — because I am no longer responsible for what’s in the newspaper.”

Condi Rice on America’s 3 Big Shocks

She also talked about the three big “shocks” that America has experienced that still impact our outlook:

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  • 9/11 and how our concept of physical security was shaken;
  • The global economic and financial shock of 2008 and how our notions of what financial security was shaken; and,
  • The “Arab Spring” and how it has laid bare “the argument that authoritarianism can be stable.”

Dr. Rice’s one nod to HR was a humorous one. She noted that when China had problems with product safety that the government executed the head of product safety. “You’re in HR,” she said, “so you tell me — is that the best way to handle things?”

The Q&A portion of the keynote was an interview conducted by CNN’s Soledad O’Brien that was a little more free range and got into a variety of topics such as being intimidated by both working in the White House (under both President Bush No.’s 41 and 43), our education crisis, Syria and the Middle East, and the need for comprehensive immigration reform.

When asked specifically about a future in politics (Rice has been rumored as a potential VP choice for Mitt Romney), she answered: “Politics? I didn’t even run for my student council. I like policy, not politics. Elective office? I don’t see it.”

A favorite Founding Father

Last year, I gave Sir Richard Branson a “B” for his opening session talk in Las Vegas, but clearly, there was some grade inflation going on there because Branson was probably only a “C+” speaker if you compare him to Condi Rice, who should get about a “B+” for her efforts.

After all, she managed to do something Branson never did: name the three people (two alive/one dead) that she would want to have dinner with. For the record, she named Nelson Mandela, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, and America’s first Treasury Secretary (and Founding Father) Alexander Hamilton.

In fact, she not only named Hamilton but dissed Thomas Jefferson a little bit in the process, saying he was a “little overrated” as a Founding Father.

That may not have much to do with HR, but it was an interesting observation for a keynote speaker — even at SHRM.

John Hollon is Editor-at-Large at ERE Media and was the founding Editor of A longtime newspaper, magazine, and business journal editor, John has deep roots in the talent management space. He's the former Editor of Workforce Management magazine and, served as Editor of RecruitingDaily, and was Vice President for Content at HR technology firm Checkster. An award-winning journalist, John has written extensively about HR, talent management, leadership, and smart business practices, including for the popular Fistful of Talent blog. Contact him at, connect with him on LinkedIn, or follow him on Twitter @johnhollon.


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