SHRM CEO Search Continues, Focuses on HR Executive Ranks

By Staff Report

Aug. 4, 2008

A search for the new leader of the Society for Human Resource Management has continued past the organization’s self-imposed deadline of August 1 in part because SHRM is trying to land a senior HR executive—a process that is proving to be a challenge.

Sources familiar with the search say that SHRM hopes to attract a candidate with a strong business background as opposed to one who has led a professional association. High-level HR executives at Fortune 500 companies have been interviewed and at least one has withdrawn.

“My understanding is that SHRM is looking for someone with enough stature to get senior executives to join the organization,” one source said. Traditionally, SHRM has focused on the “softer aspects of HR,” but now is “trying to go in a different direction to attract more senior executives,” said the source, who declined to be identified because of an existing relationship with SHRM.

Such a move would fit SHRM’s effort to emphasize the strategic dimensions of HR and demonstrate how the function can influence the bottom line.

But when dealing with top-ranking corporate officials, many straightforward aspects of recruiting can become complicated—such as determining a start date.

SHRM announced in June at its annual conference in Chicago that it would name a new CEO by August 1. Despite missing that deadline, William Maroni, SHRM chief external affairs officer, said the hiring decision is not off schedule.

“SHRM’s intention has always been to complete the selection process in the early part of August,” Maroni said. “This general target remains unchanged.”

He declined to comment on the status of the search or SHRM’s selection criteria.

The hunt for a new CEO was triggered in January, when former president and CEO Susan Meisinger announced her retirement, citing the need to care for ill family members. Meisinger, who had been CEO since 2002, held a variety of roles at SHRM during her 20-year career with the organization. She left her position June 30.

SHRM is currently being led by COO China Miner Gorman, who became acting CEO on July 1. SHRM has 245,000 members and generated $105.4 million in revenue in 2007.

Mike Losey, who served as CEO of SHRM in the 1990s, said the extended search isn’t a major worry for the organization.

“I don’t see any concern,” he said. “These things take time.”

Losey said it is challenging to fill SHRM’s top spot given all the qualities desired in a candidate. These include public speaking presence, writing ability and executive skills. A deep understanding of HR issues also is key for someone who may testify before Congress.

“It’s hard to find a very, very accomplished professional person,” Losey said. “You just have to know the body of knowledge.”

For help, SHRM has turned to the executive search firm Korn/Ferry International, said Libby Sartain, a former SHRM chairwoman.

Sartain, also former head of HR at Internet firm Yahoo, said she had contacted Korn/Ferry about possibly becoming SHRM chief. As of July 31, Sartain didn’t think she was in the running.

A Korn/Ferry official who has expertise in association placements is leading the search, and a recruiter who specializes in placing HR executives also is part of the team, Sartain said.

Korn/Ferry spokeswoman Stephanie Mitchell confirmed that her company is conducting SHRM’s search. Mitchell referred other questions to SHRM chairwoman Janet Parker, who declined comment.

SHRM observers said it makes sense for the organization to tap an HR executive because the selection would underscore a strategic focus.

“I hope it means that they are looking beyond the obvious political figures and insiders and they are looking to someone who can change them significantly,” said John Sullivan, a professor of management at San Francisco State University. “It will take some convincing because SHRM has been so politically oriented as opposed to business-oriented.”

Hiring a chief executive with a corporate background will help SHRM connect better with the daily challenges that HR professionals face, said Susan Strayer, an HR consultant and author of The Right Job, Right Now.

“SHRM is most effective when they can serve as a consultant to the field rather than the representative of the field,” said Strayer, who is a SHRM member.

SHRM would gain from having “someone at the helm who’s led people and led organizations from an HR perspective,” Strayer said. “It’s much easier to consult with someone when they’ve been in your shoes.”

If SHRM is looking overseas for a CEO, it would bolster its effort to become more global, but it also would prolong the search, Sullivan said.

“It takes more time to get global people to take these positions given how weak the dollar is,” he said.

Ed Frauenheim, Jessica Marquez and Mark Schoeff Jr.

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