SHRM Las Vegas Day 1: “Welcome to the Middle of the Stinking Desert”

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Jun 28, 2015

If it’s June, it must be time for SHRM, and so yet another SHRM conference — the Society for Human Resource Management’s 67th annual Conference & Exhibition — kicked off on Sunday at the Las Vegas Convention Center.

Here’s one thing to keep in mind about SHRM holding it’s annual meeting in Sin City: For whatever reason, Las Vegas ALWAYS draws the largest crowds of any SHRM conference held anywhere.

I’ll pass on speculating why that is — people seem to have a love/hate relationship with Vegas, I’ve found — but from all I saw on Sunday, it’s clear that this year’s big SHRM event in southern Nevada is going to set yet another new attendance record, as it did when it was last here back in 2011.

That alone makes it an event worth spending a few days in 112 degree heat for.

Sunday’s Opening General Session opened with magician Penn Jillette — half of the popular Penn & Teller act — welcoming the SHRM faithful to Vegas in his own inimitable style. “Welcome to the middle of the stinking desert,” he said, “where it’s 100 degrees and hell outside.”

Thriving in the Las Vegas desert

Penn Jillette
Penn Jillette

He was right about the heat, but as he pointed out, lots of things thrive here in the middle of the Mojave Desert  — including Penn & Teller, who have been doing their act to big crowds here for 20 years. “There’s no better place on Earth to talk about thriving than Las Vegas,” Jillette noted.

SHRM CEO Hank Jackson made his annual appearance at the SHRM conference, and after a brief plug for the new SHRM certification (good luck with that), gave an impassioned pitch for why “HR needs to set the agenda in today’s marketplace. … HR has no options — we must lead.” He added: “We’re in the right place at the right time. The only question is what are we going to do about it?”

That’s a good question, and of course, the Opening Keynote speaker, Mike Krzyzewski, head basketball coach at Duke University, coach of the USA Men’s National Basketball team for 10 years, and the winningest coach in NCAA Division 1 history, had a few answers of his own.

“Coach K” managed to do what few of the SHRM keynote speakers do, and that is to speak directly to the thousands of HR people who attend this annual conference. As simple as it sounds, it’s something that few of the keynoters I have heard over the years — from Lance Armstrong to Colin Powell to Michael J. Fox and Arianna Huffington — have managed to pull off.

Coach Mike Krzyzewski
Coach Mike Krzyzewski

Kudos to the coach for being one go the few able and willing to do that.

Lessons from Coach K

He also talked in great depth about coaching the gold-medal winning USA Men’s National team, about developing leaders and teams, and creating an inclusive atmosphere where talent can flourish. Those are great lessons to here from the winningest NCAA I basketball coach of all -time.

Krzyzewski listed the three (3) concepts he has embraced during his coaching career that he thinks are essential for HR and all leaders:

  1. Adaptability — “You must be incredibly adaptable … ” and trust that you make the adjustments you need with people “before things happen.”
  2. Taking ownership — The big question with this is, “How do you get people to own what they are doing?”
  3. Feelings — He made a case for why you need to “Open up your hearts and feel what you are doing — and why you are doing it.”

Coach K did a solid job bringing a message of how to build winning basketball team to an audience of human resource professionals who probably, as a group, aren’t as plugged into him and the basketball culture as many of the groups he usually speaks to. Still, he managed to bring his talk down to a broader level that anybody — basketball fan or not — could learn something from.

One more thing that jumped out at me: Coach Krzyzewski pointed out that “I have no rules on my team. We have standards … (and) a team can own them, rather than obey them.”

That’s an interesting concept, and something that we can ALL learn from — even out here in “the middle of the stinking desert.”