The SHRM CEO Search: More Questions Than Answers So Far

Former SHRM CEO Lon O'Neil

Think you have what it takes to be the next CEO of SHRM? Feel you have the skills to replace the recently departed Lon O’Neil?

Maybe you do, but before you polish up your resume and fire it off to Korn/Ferry, take a look at what the job entails, the skills you need to bring to the table, and the deliverables you’ll be expected to meet in your first year as President and Chief Executive Officer of the Society for Human Resource Management.

Here’s the job posting in case you haven’t seen it, but what I found interesting was the description of the market dynamics pertaining to the HR function, as described by the people running the search at Korn/Ferry:

The Human Resources function continues to evolve; its impact around the world is more far reaching than ever before.

• HR executives are playing a more strategic role and are integrated in more of the fundamental elements of their business.

• Chief Executive Officers are looking for the human resource function to align with the rest of his/her leadership team and to translate corporate goals into human resources programs that create shareholder value.

• In the coming years, organizations will face a “talent challenge” and will have to devise creative solutions, including those focused on talent acquisition, talent management/ retention, compensation and benefits programs, leadership development, succession planning, organizational development, diversity, etc.

• It is crucial that human resources management be of the highest caliber and the greatest talent available.

• Today’s HR executive must make a contribution to the direction and focus of their company and must understand the economics of their business (i.e., how the firm makes and loses money, and how people can be mobilized and motivated to achieve common goals).

• The best HR practitioners are ahead of their clients and play a strategic role which includes them in the most fundamental issues facing their companies.

What struck me about this description of the human resource function is that it is, well, incredibly basic and simplistic.

“HR executives are playing a more strategic role and are integrated in more of the fundamental elements of their business?” Yes, yes, of course. That goes without saying, doesn’t it? In fact, the rest of bullet points in this section are similar and almost seem like something you would find in the next edition of “HR for Dummies” or “The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Human Resources.” Is this the image you really want to project to smart and serious candidates for the SHRM CEO position?

Some may think I’m being overly critical here. Maybe so, but I’ve been talking to a lot of veteran observers of SHRM who followed the last CEO job search closely, and they were pretty disappointed (and in some cases, critical) with the work Korn/Ferry did on that one. In fact, many of these observers – who don’t wish to be identified because they aren’t authorized to speak for SHRM or the SHRM Board – believe that had Korn/Ferry done a better job the last time, SHRM wouldn’t be doing this again only two years later.

Article Continues Below

And as I wrote over at after the 2009 SHRM annual conference in New Orleans, O’Neil seemed at the time like a short-term compromise for the organization:

I’ve thought for some time that O’Neil was a compromise choice and a transitional figure that the SHRM board picked to buy the organization time to figure out just what kind of leader it really wanted. If not, why else would they choose someone in his 60s, with no apparent real passion for being the visible, out-front leader that an organization like SHRM needs?

Don’t get me wrong; I’m sure Lon O’Neil is a solid leader, but the sharp contrast between his approach to the SHRM CEO position and that of (former CEOs Sue) Meisinger and (Mike) Losey make me wonder if he’s really in it for any extended period of time. In my book, the choice of O’Neil to lead SHRM is similar to the choice the College of Cardinals made in elevating Joseph Ratzinger to become Pope Benedict after the death of John Paul II. Both, it seems to me, were short-term choices made to buy time while the organization formulated a long-term solution.”

Wish I wasn’t quite so spot-on about this, but that’s how it seemed then. Too bad that’s how it played out.

I was also critical of how long the search took the last time — it took the better part of eight months – and given that Korn/Ferry has been through this drill in the not-too-distant past, I don’t think it’s unreasonable for them to be expected to do it a little more quickly this time around.

Well, enough from me on this topic. You should take a look at the job posting and see what you make of it. I’d love some of your thoughts or comments as well (if you think I’m right, or, way too critical) because hopefully, this search will go better than the last one, and the new SHRM CEO’s tenure will last a little longer than Lon O’Neil’s did .

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.


4 Comments on “The SHRM CEO Search: More Questions Than Answers So Far

  1. John:
    I have some problems with the job posting. How is “listening” a deliverable? Or “assessing”? I think some of the market data should have included things like “There are 2.5 million HR professionals around the globe. SHRM, while the largest HR professional organization, has 300,000 members globally or 12%, of which only 90,000 have a certification.” As opposed to some amorphous statement of what exectives want. It just seems to be “soft” which is often the complaint of the profession to begin with.

  2. SHRM may need a strategic leader for their organization but there is a real question whether a big group is really representing the strategic part of HR. The bulk of the people in HR are transactional, as they are in any function. Only the top couple of levels are really strategic. Can the transactional and the strategic really be served by the same group? I haven’t seen anyone figure that out yet.

  3. I think that it is sad that an organization that is putting a mission forward to help the strategic HR leader, hasn't done a better job of a cornerstone element of strategic HR…Succession Planning! It think it goes to Steve Ford's comment. The organization is filled with generalist and may need to consider its real audience and take care of them. I don't know if the organization has the full chops to claim strategy as a core competency.

  4. I think the job posting is fine. What will really be important is who the search folks at Korn Ferry target to contact. As you mentioned in your article, if they have done their due dilligence and did their leg work during the last search, they shouldn't have to recreate the wheel. But maybe they do! If the feedback from the board on the last hire is, as you report, then perhaps it's time to look at creating a new pool of potential candidates, ones that will help lead SHRM into a new level of global strategic HR leadership. Around DC, there are many competent leaders of some fairly large, well-known non-profits that could be great for SHRM. The trick will be seeing how attractive has SHRM made the job sound.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *