HR Transform 2023 proves conferences still cut it

Former TLNT editor, John Hollon, gives his verdict on a superb HR Transform 2023

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Apr 11, 2023

You can learn a lot from HR and talent management conferences.

Sometimes, it’s a small insight. Other times, it’s a whole lot more.

Here’s what I mainly gleaned from the recent HR Transform conference in Las Vegas – that while there is still a place for virtual events, they’re simply not going to replace live conferences in the way people predicted during the global lockdown and pandemic.

Why? Well, because this particular conference really was superb.

Last year I covered HR Transform (2022) for TLNT. It was one of the first events that was fully open without restrictive protocols, and conference co-founder and executive director, Samara Jaffe, made the case that the key to live conferences was “the magic of having real, face-to-face conversations… ones that you just can’t have virtually.”

If that insight was true last year when we were just coming out of the pandemic, it’s even more relevant in 2023 as conferences finally look and feel like they did back in 2019, before the lockdown kicked in.

Talent management events are getting back to normal

For example, this year’s HR Transform in Las Vegas last month was significantly larger than last year’s event (about 2,500 attendees by my rough count, compared to about 1,500 in 2022), and it had a fairly large exhibit hall that was at least four or five times larger this year at the MGM Grand Las Vegas than last year’s event at The Cosmopolitan Hotel.

All of this confirms what I have been hearing and seeing: that talent management events are back to normal in 2023, and much more-so than they were during the transition year of 2022.

Samara Jaffe touched on the challenges the HR Transform conference has faced, noting that “It has been a hard year… in fact it’s been a hard few years.” She added: “We are shaping the ‘new’ and the ‘next’ of work at the most experimental Transform yet.”

Yes, it was a very experimental event in many ways — more on that shortly  — but as experimental as HR Transform 2023 was, the larger format returned to a much more familiar style.

This year’s HR Transform changed to a more traditional conference style, with keynote speakers that addressed all attendees during the early morning before splitting into breakout sessions for the rest of the day.

As I noted last year, the 2022 HR Transform event didn’t have any traditional keynote speakers at all, and that may have reflected the rapidly changing protocols and restrictions that all conferences were reacting to in the Spring of 2022.

Keynotes have returned as well as great breakout sessions

For example, the keynotes on Day 1 included “Interview with a Modern Elder: Demystifying Wisdom of Work” with Chip Conley, founder of the Modern Elder Academy, and author of the best-seller Emotional Equations: Simple Truths for Creating Happiness + Success.

Conley describes himself as a “modern elder,” and he discussed a number of issues around age diversity and why the “emotional productivity” that older people on teams provide is so important in today’s post-pandemic workplace.

He asked: “beyond your boss, who can you reach out to for wisdom and advice?” His suggestion was for organizations to leverage the top 20 people in the company who can be an in-house coach for people who need one.

Another Day 1 keynote was “A conversation with Time 100 Impact Inductee Jeffrey Katzenberg,” former chairman of Walt Disney Studios, co-founder of Dreamworks Animation, and current founder and managing partner of WndrCo.

His most interesting question was this: “How do you create the best possible tools to develop great people?” He went on to describe his rise from an assistant to the Mayor of New York, to head of the Disney Studios and then to co-founder of Dreamworks with Steven Spielberg and David Geffen.

The keynotes were a big change from last year’s HR Transform, of course, and a familiar conference staple everywhere. But HR Transform’s bread and butter are the breakout sessions that were so informational and cutting edge in 2022. In this regard, the 2023 Transform sessions did not disappoint.

Here are just a few of the session titles to give you a flavor for the larger content at the conference:

  • Prioritizing Inclusive Hiring to Win in an Evolving Talent Marketplace
  • Why Fractional Talent is the Talent of the Next Decade
  • Embracing the Power of Trust: A Critical Key to the Future of Work
  • Overcoming Friction: Building Resilient Organizations in the Face of Challenges
  • Unlocking Performance: How to Drive Business Growth through Employee Learning
  • Next in Line: Succession Planning & Equitably Elevating from Within
  • Should I Stay or Should I Go: Doubling Down on Internal Talent

Is this the oddest breakout session ever at an HR conference?

There were many more breakout sessions – even one that was not only experimental, but also one of the oddest sessions I have ever attended in my 20 years of going to HR and talent management events.

The title says it all: Leveraging Psychedelic Drugs to Deepen your DEI Practice (!)

Here’s the description from the HR Transform 2023 agenda

“Clinical trials involving psychedelic drugs are booming — seeking to understand the potential treatment for a number of ailments like depression, PTSD and opioid use disorder. But could they also be used as a tool for anti-racism? Early research indicates: yes. We will review the existing, published research and hold space for Transform attendees to share their psychedelic experiences; how altered states of consciousness may be a novel tactic for DEI practitioners seeking transformative change.”

The people who attended the session were encouraged to come up to the podium and “share their psychedelic experiences” with the audience.

This was interesting, to say the least, but there was very little talk about the legality of psychedelics in the US and the possible legal entanglements for any employer that encourages their use.

The potential for a workplace lawsuit was on my mind as I heard the panelists, led by moderator Steven Huang, the justice, equity, diversity, inclusion officer at the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, talk about their own experiences with psychedelics. I was wondering how an employer would deal with an employee who is encouraged to use a psychedelic like LSD and has a bad reaction, also known as a bad trip.

And although I’m not an expert on this topic, just a quick Google search yields information like this that I found on It answers the question Can I Get Legal Psychedelics in the United States? like this:

“The answer is yes, but with extreme caveats. Realistically, only a tiny percentage of people have a chance of using psychedelics in America legally.

On a federal level, the United States classified all psychedelic drugs as Schedule I substances as part of the 1970 Controlled Substances Act (CSA). Unfortunately, the implementation of the CSA led to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) halting studies into the therapeutic potential of LSD.”

There are a lot of caveats, of course — you may be able to get legal psychedelics if you join a clinical trial, or a church that uses psychedelics as religious sacraments — but in general, psychedelics are going to be problematic for most employers in the United States.

Notwithstanding all of this, conference executive director, Samara Jaffe, touted this session in her comments kicking off the Day 2 keynotes, and I give her kudos for really pushing the envelope with this one.

I’m pretty sure you won’t EVER see other conference providers having a session like this at any of their events.

But if I was the conference organizer, I would have made sure the panelists addressed the legal challenges for workplace use of psychedelics.

Not doing so was irresponsible on the part of the panelists. Just my 2 cents, of course.

From HR Transform to “Transform”

Overall, HR Transform 2023 was able to build on the nice job it did with last year’s event when they had to react to the rapidly changing Covid-19 protocols that had mostly disappeared by March 2022 when the event was held.

It’s also clear that Samara Jaffe and her team are happy with the growth they experienced with the 2023 event last month in Las Vegas.

How do I know this? It’s because HR Transform will just be known as Transform in 2024, and it will also be moving to a lusher, plusher venue at The Wynn Las Vegas next March 11-13, 2024.

This tells me that the conference is looking to grow beyond its human resources roots and take a larger jump into talent management without being tied to the more restrictive content that usually defines HR events.

This conference has a winning title in “Transform.” I should know, because I presided over the first Transform conference back in 2012, when TLNT held it in Austin, Texas with Billy Beane, the General Manager of the Oakland A’s baseball club as the keynote speaker, and he was a hot commodity because of actor Brad Pitt’s portrayal of him in the movie “Moneyball.”

Sadly, TLNT Transform didn’t last beyond that conference. It was a great event that was poised to grow into something big.

But one thing is for sure: I’m happy that Samara Jaffe and her team have built the Transform conference back into a viable and exciting talent management event. I’ll make a point of attending again next year to see where she takes it.