Condoleeza Rice Opens 2012 SHRM Conference

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Our coverage at SHRM 2012 kicks off with Opening Session Speaker and the 66th Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice, who was interviewed by acclaimed CNN journalist Soledad O’Brien.

But before Dr. Rice took the stage, SHRM President and CEO Hank Jackson spoke about the rapidly changing workplace, how businesses need to adapt and how HR professionals can lead the charge. “The workplace of the future will require HR of the future,” said Jackson.

When Dr. Rice was introduced, she was greeted with thunderous applause. She immediately addressed her concerns about the state of the world, referencing three great shocks in recent times: 9/11, the global financial crisis of 2008 and the Arab Spring. And if the international system that is reeling from these three shocks is going to find order again, she added, it’s because “someone steps up to leadership” – namely, America.

And then, Dr. Rice spoke about the weakened state of the U.S. She suggested that historically, America’s strength lied in its belief that “it doesn’t matter where you came from, it’s where you’re going.” But that has been challenged by current sentiments against immigrants. “I do not know when immigrants became the enemy, but if we don’t find a way to affirm immigration, we will lose who we are,” she said to applause.

Dr. Rice also focused on those “who are already here,” and addressed what she sees as the crisis in K-12 education in the U.S. that is contributing to a deepening skills gap. Eventually, “there will be unemployable people, and those people will live on the dole because they will have nowhere to go,” she said.

She wrapped up her introduction by saying she is optimistic about this country’s return to greatness, using an anecdote about a little girl growing up in Birmingham, Alabama, at a time when she couldn’t go to a movie theater or restaurant. And even though that girl won awards at school, “her parents had to convince her that she could be president of the United States if she wanted to be, and she became Secretary of State,” said Dr. Rice, speaking about herself, of course.  “Sometimes, often times, what seems impossible, seems inevitable in retrospect.”

A bit of mirth was injected into the session when Soledad O’Brien joined Dr. Rice for a quick Q&A. Dr. Rice discussed her happy childhood, how she spoke several languages, was a competitive figure skater and played piano. In fact, she had actually planned on being a concert pianist until she attended a music program in college.

There, Dr. Rice met tweens whose talents surpassed her own.  “Uh oh, I’m either about to teach 13-year-olds to murder Beethoven, or maybe I’m going to play at Nordstrom,” Dr. Rice said she thought at the time. She soon became interested in international politics after taking a class with a Soviet specialist.

O’Brien then asked Dr. Rice what sort of strategy she had employed when speaking to men, particularly the overwhelming number of white men in her profession. Dr. Rice said that there wasn’t any real strategy –  you just have to be prepared and believe in yourself. She cited the importance of mentors that can help you to navigate the waters.

You can find a mentor who looks likes you, said Dr. Rice, “but had I been waiting for a black female Soviet specialist role model, I’d still be waiting,” she said. “So, at some point, you have to find your mentors in people who are interested in you.”

When asked what three people, dead or alive, she could have dinner with, Dr. Rice mentioned Nelson Mandela, Tony Blair and Alexander Hamilton, “because he’s my favorite founding father,” she said.  “Thomas Jefferson is a bit overrated.”

O’Brien asked Dr. Rice what immigration reform looked like to her, “and if you answer this the right way, you get to be president,” she added to laughter and applause. The former Secretary of State suggested finding a way for a greater number of immigrants to work through legal means, either through agricultural visas, HB1 visas or a temporary workers program.

O’Brien had the tables turned on her a bit, as Dr. Rice addressed the 24-hour news cycle and how that has impeded progress to some extent. “Our institutions were meant to work pretty slowly,” she said. “Now, under the glare of the constant 24-hour news cycle, I’m not sure if Lyndon Johnson would have gotten the landmark Civil Rights legislation of ‘64 and ‘65…I am just arguing for a little bit less immediate transparency; people need time to talk, time to compromise, time to consider.”

Finally, the self-professed Cleveland Browns fan said that she’s ultimately happy at Stanford, which is where she hopes to be in five years. “I love being a university professor,” said Dr. Rice. “There is nothing more fulfilling than being with your students, realizing when that light goes on in their eyes, that you’ve helped them either see something a different way.”

While Dr. Rice’s session wasn’t overtly about HR, her comments about the skills gap, her experience with finding mentors, building confidence, establishing her career trajectory and remaining passionate about work undoubtedly resonated with the SHRM crowd.

Contributor

Kemba Dunham works as a Senior Manager for Corporate Communications for Adecco Group North America. She’s been with the company since January 2012 and focuses on internal communications. In her free time, she enjoys hanging out with her family, reading, traveling, watching reality shows and writing screenplays.

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