Steve Forbes at SHRM: A Little HR, a lot on Mark to Market Accounting

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Jun 28, 2010
This article is part of a series called ERE Media Conferences.

Okay, I’ll admit I’m a bit of a slow learner, so here’s what I finally learned from listening to Steve Forbes give the opening keynote speech Sunday at SHRM’s annual conference in San Diego: I’ve got to lower my expectations for any and all keynote speakers.

I’ve listened to a lot of big names speak at SHRM – from Jordan’s Queen Noor, to comedian Bill Cosby, to Tour de France champion Lance Armstrong – and I’ve thought they all missed the boat by not speaking, at least in part, to the challenges HR professionals face.

Jack Welch broke through that last year in New Orleans – as I noted over at Workforce Management — and “his presentation was the most focused and HR-specific opening speech of any I have heard in the past half-dozen SHRM conferences.”

I had great hopes for the Steve Forbes keynoter following in that tradition, and I even put my neck on the line when I predicted here that, “Steve Forbes (will) open SHRM San Diego … with a keynote speech that follows in the footsteps of what Neutron Jack Welch said last year, with lots of specifics about HR and the critical role talent plays in organizational success.”

Well, so much for my future as a prognosticator.

Forbes speech was long on economics, monetary policy, and taxes, and it mirrored much of his stump speech when he was running for president a few years back. I don’t have a problem with that, as some other bloggers and tweeters did on Sunday, but I kept expecting his talk to flow from his heavy business-oriented focus into talent management and HR — sort of Jack Welch lite, I thought.

Not much on HR

Unfortunately, that’s not where Mr. Forbes decided to go. Instead, he gave a speech that went from a mildly entertaining take on business at the start, to mind-numbingly tedious and dull about halfway through.

How dull was it? Well, do much so that Forbes spent a chunk of time talking about mark-to-market accounting , and although that is certainly an important concept, it’s not something to have a long discussion about before an audience of human resource professionals on a Sunday afternoon in San Diego. In fact, it was even tough for me to listen to – and I have an MBA and am relatively interested in stuff like that.

Forbes was at his best when he talked about the challenges flowing out of the new federal health care reform legislation, especially his belief that HR people need to be prepared for much more legislation and amendments before “this thing shakes out.” But, that was a very brief HR-focused interlude in a longer talk about economic policy.

So this makes me wonder: are my expectations too high for the big name, big bucks speakers who get tapped each year to speak to the SHRM annual conference?

The answer, unfortunately, is yes.

Needed: more pragmatic advice

I keep looking for pragmatic advice and counsel for HR professionals in these keynote speeches, but what I keep getting is more inspirational (or in the case of Forbes, economically philosophic) stuff that has very little to do with HR in any way, shape, or form. Yes, a focus on business and economics is generally a good thing, but I think Forbes missed out on a golden opportunity get more HR people focused on his economic ideas by not doing much of anything to tailor his message to the SHRM crowd and the very specific issues THEY have to deal with.

Looking back, it seems that SHRM really did luck out last year when Jack Welch was tapped to speak after former NBC anchorman Tom Brokaw bailed out as opening day keynoter. I wrote that at the time that “I would be shocked if (Welch) doesn’t set the standard for all SHRM Sunday speakers for years to come.”

Well, at least that’s one thing I was right about. Neutron Jack did set the standard for SHRM keynoters, but not in the way I hoped. I’m going to give up wishing for HR-oriented speakers at SHRM and just go back to being happy with anyone who is interesting and entertaining – and, who will stay as far away as possible from anything having to do with mark to market accounting.

Somehow, I don’t think we’ll hear much on that topic from Al Gore.

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