Nearly 15,000 HR professionals and business leaders packed the Grand Ballroom at McCormick Place in Chicago for the official kickoff of SHRM 2013. The event, fittingly, began in true Chicago fashion with a lively rendition of Soul Man, complete with dark shades and sharp fedoras.
Dr. Fareed Zakaria at SHRM 2013
Once the performance was over, the real show was officially on. Dr. Fareed Zakaria, world-renowned author and journalist, took the stage to deliver the Opening General Session speech, which proved to open eyes just as much as it opened the conference.
“If you look around the United States, there is a sense of unease. This feels like a very slow recovery from a very deep recession. Nobody quite knows where we’re headed,” he said.
But the feeling is not limited to the United States. It is a universal one that transcends borders, continents and languages.
“In Europe,” Zakaria said, “…they’re just wondering whether the whole continent is going to collapse.”
Even countries like China, Brazil and India – all recent economic stalwarts and beacons of growth – have experienced sharp slowdowns of their own. Zakaria urged the attendees not to lose hope.
“There is a case for optimism,” he said. That optimism stems from history.
From the Great Depression to the Great Recession, economic trouble is nothing new. In fact, it is to be expected. On the positive side, recovery is to be expected as well. Every period of decline has been followed by a period of growth and, Zakaria insisted, we will recover from the recent recession as well.
However, there is something different about the plight of the economy today. Up until 1990, every recovery had been swift, with GDP and unemployment numbers reaching pre-recession levels within six months of one another. In 1990, on the other hand, it took a full 15 months for the unemployment rate to recover after GDP had stabilized. After the recession of the early 2000s, it took 39 months. As for the current economic recovery, Zakaria said that it will take a full 65 months for unemployment rates to reach pre-recession levels after GDP finally achieves pre-recession levels.
So what’s causing this negative trend? Zakaria believes that the very nature of the economy has changed and, as a result, the cyclical nature of recovery has changed, too.
This change is evident in three major ways:
- There are more countries participating in the global market: The world’s economy, once dominated by the United States and Western Europe, is now truly global. The International Monetary Fund predicts that, in 2013, nine of the ten fastest-growing economies in the world will not come from the West, but from other regions (the one exception is the United States). By 2018, the IMF projects that emerging markets will account for 55 percent of the world’s gross domestic product.
- There is more competition: With more countries in the market, there is more competition for money. The pool isn’t getting smaller, it’s just getting rerouted.
- We are in the age of information: Information is available in an instant, and people from all over the world can connect to it at their convenience.
In short, the scope of what we think of as “the economy” has changed.
“Dozens and dozens of countries around the world that had been locked out of the global economy have found a way to plug in and play, to take advantage of the economic convergence and the technological advances to grow the standards for their people and grow their economies, and that process is producing economic dynamics in new areas of the world,” Zakaria said.
Just because the economy is growing increasingly global doesn’t mean it can’t grow domestically, too. The key to growth is embracing and fostering a culture of lifelong learning, and HR professionals can play a critical role in making it happen.
“Learning is now a lifelong occupation,” Zakaria said. “You can’t just train somebody and have them take a test at 18 and assume they will be ready for the rest of their life.”
He urged business and HR leaders to work with their peers in government and education to create a nationwide learning and training initiative. That’s how our economy can raise the most important piece of capital overall – human capital.
“The twenty-first century is going to be the century of human capital,” Zakaria concluded. “Human capital is going to be what separates the great companies from the not-so great companies, and it’s going to be what separates the great countries, too.”
Hillary Clinton at SHRM 2013
Zakaria left the stage to a resounding round of applause, but the noise level – and the excitement level – reached a fever pitch when the next keynote speaker took the stage.
Hillary Clinton, former Secretary of State, former First Lady and current champion of civil rights and equality, began her presentation by thanking the HR community for its contributions to the economic recovery and the country as a whole.
She commended HR for supporting communities, for helping veterans return to the workforce, and for assisting those who lose homes and jobs get back on their feet.
HR professionals can play an essential role in America’s success, and in our country’s ability to succeed in this rapidly changing world economy.
“This is such important work, and you are the experts we need,” she said. “We need your expertise and your energy now more than ever.”
Clinton offered five pieces of essential advice to HR leaders, advice gleaned from her visits to 112 different countries around the world, meetings with world leaders, and her experience in the private and public sectors.
Good decisions are based on evidence; not ideology.
“This may sound intuitive,” she said. “But… if we don’t make evidence-based decisions, we can so easily get off on the wrong track.”
She cited her own experiences championing women’s rights on the global stage as evidence.
“I’ve talked to political leaders all over the world about the importance of creating opportunities for young people and, particularly, for young girls,” she said. In many cases, her message was met with apathy and even hostility. But when presented with hard numbers, statistics and other pieces of evidence, the discussions tended to go in her favor.
“The evidence is so compelling. Helping women participate in the economy and in politics is one of the best ways to help societies thrive,” Clinton said. She cited research by the IMF and the World Bank that demonstrated that GDP increases as barriers for women are removed.
“When you show people the data, it’s not just about what I think or what I believe, but here is the hard information,” she said.
Leadership is a team sport.
“This is true whether you are managing a team in Chicago or an international coalition on the world stage,” Clinton said. “Success, ultimately, is measured by how well you get people to work together.”
She said that she is routinely asked why she accepted the Secretary of State position under President Obama following their contentious battle in the 2004 Democratic Primary, and how they seemed to get along so well during her term.
“People were generally amazed,” she said.
“I tell people that I was shocked when the president asked me to be his Secretary of State,” she said. “But he made that offer, and I accepted it, because we both love our country.” When people share a mission, it’s easy to work together and produce great results, regardless of past differences.
“We went from a team of rivals to an unrivaled team,” she said, quoting the president.
You can’t win if you don’t show up.
“Ironically, in an age where we can be virtually anywhere more than ever, people want us to show up, actually, more than ever,” she said.
By being present, being available and being face to face with those who rely on you for leadership, you can accomplish more than a barrage of emails or phone calls ever could. But being present and available is not always easy, and you can find yourself in difficult situations.
For example, Clinton visited Papua New Guinea, a country that suffers from one of highest rates of violence against women in the world, to meet with the prime minister. The prime minister dismissed the statistics and defended domestic violence as a cultural norm, putting Clinton in an uncomfortable spot.
However, she seized the opportunity to make a difference. “I was there, and because I was there, I was able to meet with an amazing group of women, and we were able to work with them to change laws, to begin to change attitudes, and to begin to develop greater awareness of the true impact that this violence against women was having,” she said.
Today, Papa New Guinea has a new prime minister, one who has publically apologized to the women of his country for past apathy.
Follow the trend lines, not the headlines.
It’s imperative for leaders, whether they be in politics or business, to look beyond the current issues at hand and recognize the long-term challenges they face and the wide-ranging implications of their actions.
Clinton recalled that, during a highly publicized summit with Chinese leadership, blind Chinese activist Chen Guangcheng escaped from house arrest and sought asylum in the American embassy.
“He was injured, he was clearly in danger, and he wanted our help,” Clinton said.
“Now put yourself in my position,” she continued. “Taking him in risked a serious rupture with China at a delicate moment, attention that would take away from the summit.”
Ultimately, Clinton decided that helping Guangcheng was worth the risk.
“As much as our economic might or our military strength is important, what really makes America America are our values,” she said. “People around the world still see us as a beacon of freedom and opportunity and we cannot afford ever to lose that.
“So if we turned away this poor man, it might very well save us some short-term trouble with China, but what would the real cost be? It could undermine our long-term standing in the region and around the world.”
This ability to take the long-term view, to see the big picture, is what separates great leaders – and great companies – from the pack.
Coverage from SHRM 2013 – Day 1
That’s it for our coverage of day 1 at SHRM 2013.
Stay tuned today to synch up with all of the day two action, including detailed workshop recaps and highlights from keynote speaker Blake Mycoskie.
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