A Tale of Two Speeches: How Al Gore Wowed Them at SHRM San Diego

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Jun 29, 2010
This article is part of a series called ERE Media Conferences.

Let me be clear about this: I’m not a big fan of former Vice President Al Gore, but he gets my vote for the best and most HR focused SHRM keynote speech, ever.

Thanks that’s a bit of an overstatement? Well maybe, since my experience attending SHRM conferences only goes back for six years, but Gore managed to do on Monday what Steve Forbes couldn’t the day before – speak directly to human resource professionals about the work they do and the relevance of it in our modern world.

The former vice president followed a brief surprise appearance by Ted Kennedy Jr. (he talked about “how critical a job can be to a person’s dignity… (because) people with disabilities want a job and not a handout”), but the amazing thing about Gore was how he spoke directly, frankly, and passionately to the SHRM crowd.

“Human capital is more important than just about any other kind of investment business can make,” he said, and even though the “role of HR is changing significantly,” in his mind it is “strategically crucial” to the entire organization.

This is “the most exciting and challenging time in the history of HR,” Gore said, and the challenges that HR undertakes are increasingly some of the most important that the world faces.

A strong focus on HR

There was a lot more, of course. The former vice president also talked about “the challenge of diversity,” how HR is on “the cutting edge of continuing education” and training, and the challenges that the profession faces dealing with outsourcing and the digital revolution. “Developing competencies and human capital is the key to improving an organization,” he said. That’s “the single most important reason HR is rising” in organizational importance.

I just have one thing to say about that – wow!

I expected Gore to talk about his environmental agenda – and he did, a little, near the end – but he clearly threw away his stump speech and talked to SHRM members directly about the challenges they face as HR professionals, as well as the importance of their calling.

Why couldn’t Steve Forbes have gotten into a little more of that in his keynote on Sunday? In fact, why can’t most EVERY keynote speaker at SHRM tailor their comments more to the audience at hand?

As one attendee observed, it would be like someone presenting a webinar and not making sure their content was directed at the audience at hand. Who does that anyhow?

I really expected Gore to spend more time talking about the big oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. He touched on it slightly, but only to note that, “I don’t want to pile on BP since so many others are already doing it.” And he added, “the short term management of the well may have contributed to the problem, leading to long-term damage.”

Too much short-term thinking

That was another one of the key points he made in his speech – how too many businesses and organizations are focused on the next quarterly earnings report to the detriment of their long-term viability. He said that “misaligned, distorted incentives on short term schedules make (important) priorities like HR suffer… (we must) move to a longer term perspective (because) it’s good for markets, for employees, and for society.”

As someone who has, for better or worse, sat through a lot of SHRM keynote speeches, I think I’m in a pretty good position to evaluate the quality of the speakers. And take it from me, Al Gore on Monday gave the most relevant and meaningful HR-focused keynote I have heard yet.

I may lean more towards Steve Forbes than I do Al Gore philosophically, but when it comes to SHRM keynotes, Big Al wins in a landslide. And he managed to do what I thought was virtually unthinkable – he was even more HR focused than Jack Welch was last year in New Orleans. Yes, Gore really wowed a standing-room only crowd of HR professionals in San Diego.

If SHRM is listening to what people are saying, they’ll know this, too. And if we’re lucky, it may actually help change the nature of SHRM keynote speakers for years to come.

Who would have figured that Al Gore could do that?

This article is part of a series called ERE Media Conferences.