SHRM Chicago 4: Mark Kelly, Gabby Giffords and a Big Dose of Inspiration

I can’t imagine that you can find a more inspirational way to end a conference than listening to Mark Kelly and Gabrielle “Gabby” Giffords.

As the keynote presenters on the final morning of the 65th SHRM Annual Conference & Exhibition here in Chicago, Kelly & Giffords filled the spot that the SHRM conference organizers seem to have for people (and past speakers) such as Michael J. Fox.

That is, someone who can deliver a great message of hope and perseverance that inspires the collective masses as they head home after four days at the world’s largest HR conference.

Yes, Giffords & Kelly fit the bill for the final day of SHRM Chicago 2013, and it is easy to see why:

Off the charts on the inspiration scale

It’s hard, if not impossible, to top that on the inspiration scale, but what adds to all of it is how Kelly has basically made it his full-time job to help his wife in her recovery — and, how Giffords has responded to the efforts from him and so many others.

They even have written a book about their struggles and her battle to recover — Gabby: A Story of Courage and Hope.

It’s just about impossible to rank speakers like this on the emotional scale, but I think that Gabby Giffords & Mark Kelly may have even topped Michael J. Fox when it comes to SHRM closing speakers.

Kelly detailed his career, from growing up in New Jersey, to Navy pilot, to Space Shuttle commander, and he admitted that although he wasn’t a very good pilot when he started, “It’s not about how good you are at the beginning, but about how good you can become.” He admonished HR professionals to “keep that in mind when you are hiring,” because of all the other pilots who started with him, none of them improved enough to become test pilots or astronauts.

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Although Kelly’s story was pretty good on its own, it is the story of his wife that seems to really resonate with people. After all, Giffords managed to return to Congress just seven months after the shooting, despite nearly dying and having to struggle with an incredibly difficult recovery, to vote on extending the debt ceiling because her vote was needed.

“It’s been a long haul”

Giffords struggles with processing speech — the shooting damaged the part of her brain that handles that function — but she walked out to an incredible ovation from the SHRM audience. Her speech, although short (less than 50 words), was pointed and gracious. She said, in part:

Thank you for inviting me here today. It’s been a long haul, but I’m getting better … I’m still fighting to make the world a better place.”

And as Mark Kelly added in a brief Q&A session with Juana Hart Akers:

Things can be pretty bad, but just know that things do get better. The human spirit is an amazing thing…. Life is very fragile. Things can change for any of us in an instant … it’s important we treasure every day.”

It’s pretty hard to top that, and I’m not sure you should even try.

Mark Kelly and his wife Gabby Giffords provided a great message for HR professionals to take back to their jobs when they return from Chicago: The journey is worth the effort, so find something you can be passionate about, and have fun doing it.”

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.


3 Comments on “SHRM Chicago 4: Mark Kelly, Gabby Giffords and a Big Dose of Inspiration

  1. “ ‘It’s not about how good you are at the beginning, but about how good you can become.’ He admonished HR professionals to ‘keep that in mind when you are hiring,’ ”

    Were it mathematically possible, I’d agree 1000%.

    1. Why do you say he “admonished” us? I don’t agree at all. He was just putting forth a different way of looking at things and that’s something that we, as HR professionals, need to do better.

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