SHRM Las Vegas Day 4: Michael J. Fox on Life’s Changes – and Choices

Is there a good reason to stay for the final day of SHRM’s annual conference, even in Las Vegas?

I’ve always wondered why SHRM even has a fourth day, because a good chunk of the attendees are either worn out (especially after a few days in Sin City) or simply choose to bag the last day and either go have fun or simply head home — as I usually do.

But I have found that my decision to blow off the last day of the SHRM annual conference is also pegged to the Closing General Speaker, because in past years, none of them seemed sufficiently compelling to make me want to hang around for the better part of another day.

That’s why this year is so different, because this year, SHRM is closing the conference with somebody I wanted to listen to — Emmy Award-winning actor Michael J Fox.

“Life changes … and you change with it”

Fox is best known for his career-launching role on TV’s Family Ties, and, his most famous turn as Marty McFly in the Back to the Future movie trilogy. But over the last 20 years, he’s become better known (and admired) for his work and advocacy in finding a cure for Parkinson’s disease after he was diagnosed with it in 1991.

As his bio on puts it:

In 1991 Fox was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, and in 1998 he disclosed his condition to the public. As the symptoms of his disease worsened in 2000, Fox semi-retired from acting. He has since dedicated his life to research and advocacy for finding a Parkinson’s disease cure through the Michael J. Fox Foundation.

Fox continues to act and has recently appeared as himself in a prime-time special “Michael J. Fox: Adventures of an Incurable Optimist.” Fox will close the 2011 conference with his incredible story; he will talk about his struggle, his outlook on life and how to remain positive, even in difficult times.”

That pretty much covers Fox’s speech here in Las Vegas. He seemed surprised by both the size of the SHRM crowd as well as the enthusiasm of the audience. He gave a nod to HR — “What I thought HR was … is directly dealing with the human experience on a day-to-day basis” — but mainly, he walked the audience through his life, his path to Hollywood success (including how he fell into the star scene), getting married to his wife, actress Tracy Pollan, finding out about his disease, and, how he has refused to let it dictate his life choices.

His acting philosophy — “Don’t play the result” — is how he lives his life, because he talked about how he found out early how you can’t let the success of a big role (as he found after Back to the Future) dictate your subsequent career choices.

“Life changes,” Fox noted, “and you change with it.”

Although you could tell that Parkinson’s has had an impact on him, Fox did what a closing speaker is supposed to do: he entertained and inspired the audience. “I have choices in life,” he said. “The only choice I don’t have is having Parkinson’s. Everything else is my choice.”

Lesson from Vegas: Getting the speaker mix right

SHRM speakers, as I have pointed out over the years, are somewhat of a mixed bag. This year, however, I thought that SHRM came fairly close to getting the mix right.

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Michael J. Fox, and his inspiring talk, was perfect for a final, closing speaker. He had a great message that will really resonate with people as they head home. It wouldn’t have worked nearly as well if he had opened the conference on Sunday, or given his speech on another day.

Tony Hsieh of Zappos was the best of the four speakers, and Richard Branson had his moments, I thought. Arianna Huffington, although a good speaker choice that I would have made, just didn’t deliver on her promise. So it goes.

Where SHRM has gone wrong with speakers in the past is pushing more on the inspiring quotient and less on the HR/talent management/business leadership side. Going with the inspiring at the end of the conference — as Michael J. Fox did so well on Wednesday in Las Vegas — seems to be the best way to slot that kind of message. Hopefully, SHRM will learn from this and do it again.

Next year’s SHRM Annual Conference and Exhibition will be held June 24-27, 2012 in Atlanta at the World Congress Center downtown. SHRM CEO Hank Jackson announced one of the speakers for Atlanta here before Fox’s speech — former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice — and she shows some promise, as long as SHRM can get more Tony Hsieh-types as well.

But, Las Vegas is always a tough act for SHRM to follow. The 2007 conference here was the biggest SHRM annual conference ever, and this 2011 edition — with 13,800 attendees, 4,500 exhibitors and staff, plus 1188 booths — will be tough to top next year in Georgia, especially if the economy continues to sputter.

That’s a year away, of course, and if I were giving SHRM 2011 a letter grade as I do my college students, I’d give it a B Plus. It was pretty good, but not great, but I look forward to another year of it all next June in Atlanta.

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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