SHRM CEO Lon O’Neil is Departing

Former SHRM CEO Lon O'Neil

SHRM is in the market for a new CEO — again.

Laurence “Lon” O’Neil, the president and CEO of the Society for Human Resource Management since October 2008, is departing the 250,000 member organization, according to sources inside SHRM, with an official announcement expected today.

He will be replaced on an interim basis by Hank Jackson, who currently serves as SHRM’s chief global finance & business affairs officer, while the SHRM Board of Directors searches for a permanent replacement. Although no formal announcement has been made, Jackson’s title has already been changed to president and CEO on the organization’s website. 

There was no reason given for O’Neil’s departure except that he wanted to return to California to pursue other endeavors. O’Neil was a senior HR executive at Kaiser Permanente in Oakland, CA. before being named SHRM CEO in August 2008. He replaced Susan Meisinger, who resigned in January 2008 after 20 years with the organization and six as president and CEO.

O’Neil was hired after a lengthy search that reportedly included more than 400 candidates. There was some speculation at the time of O’Neil’s appointment that he was a transitional CEO (he was age 62 when named to the position) who was only expected to serve for a few years, and that the SHRM Board of Directors had brought him in as a compromise candidate after failing to settle on someone who would serve longer.

In fact, I wrote this about O’Neil in June 2009 during the SHRM annual conference in New Orleans:

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I’ve thought for some time that O’Neil was a compromise choice and a transitional figure that the SHRM board picked to buy the organization time to figure out just what kind of leader it really wanted. If not, why else would they choose someone in his 60s, with no apparent real passion for being the visible, out-front leader that an organization like SHRM needs?

Don’t get me wrong; I’m sure Lon O’Neil is a solid leader, but the sharp contrast between his approach to the SHRM CEO position and that of Meisinger and (former SHRM CEO Mike) Losey make me wonder if he’s really in it for any extended period of time. In my book, the choice of O’Neil to lead SHRM is similar to the choice the College of Cardinals made in elevating Joseph Ratzinger to become Pope Benedict after the death of John Paul II. Both, it seems to me, were short-term choices made to buy time while the organization formulated a long-term solution.

Nothing that I have seen from O’Neil this past year makes me feel any differently about that, and his lack of a visible role at this 61st annual SHRM conference makes it clear to me that whether he is an International Man of Mystery or temporary pope-like figure, leading SHRM into the long-term future probably isn’t really in the hands of Lon O’Neil.”

O’Neil led SHRM’s recently completed strategic business review, a process that resulted in a redefinition of the organization’s mission and a new five-year business plan for the world’s largest HR organization. He was not immediately available for comment about his resignation and future plans, although he is expected to depart the organization in mid-August, according to SHRM media relations.

NEW Update: Here is SHRM’s official announcement of O’Neil’s departure that was posted to their website about 30 minutes after we published this story on TLNT. 

NEW Update No. 2: Korn/Ferry is reportedly going to handle the CEO search for the SHRM Board of Directors, as they did in 2008 after Sue Meisinger’s departure.

NEW Update No. 3: China Miner Gorman, SHRM’s former Chief Operating Officer who served as interim CEO before O’Neil joined the organization in 2008, left SHRM earlier this year and had this to say about him to TLNT: 

I was surprised to hear about Lon’s departure. He is a passionate and energetic leader. At SHRM he was passionate about HR and its opportunities, and energetic in addressing SHRM’s potential role as a global influence on people management policy. Unfortunately, Lon’s departure puts the organization in transition again. The SHRM team is truly the best in the business and I have every confidence that the board will be working quickly to retain this top talent.”

John Hollon is managing editor of Fuel50, an AI Opportunity Marketplace solution that delivers internal talent mobility and workforce reskilling. He's also the former founding editor of TLNT and a frequent contributor to ERE and the Fistful of Talent blog.