During her tenure at the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), Sue Meisinger, SPHR, has helped shape the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Family and Medical Leave Act. SHRM moved from an old, small, office building to a brand-new two-building campus. The membership tripled in number.
While Meisinger was president and CEO of SHRM, the Society was held up as an example of a “remarkable” association in the book 7 Measures of Success: What Remarkable Associations Do That Others Don’t by the Center for Association Leadership. She sat on the board and served as secretary-general of the World Federation of Personnel Management Associations. In 2003, Washingtonian magazine recognized SHRM as one of the top 50 “Great Places to Work” in the Washington, D.C. area.
But what has meant the most to her over the past 21 years at SHRM? Who will she miss after retiring at the end of June, after the SHRM 60th Annual Conference & Exposition in Chicago? SHRM members.
“My fondest memories are of the members—times with the members, talking with them,” Meisinger said. “I’ve always been grateful that as a profession, the members are fundamentally nice people. They are hardworking professionals trying to do the best they can to make their organizations and people more successful. That’s a nice mission that we are all on.”
Meisinger has attended dozens of chapter meetings, state conferences and SHRM conferences across the country. Not only did she speak at most of those gatherings, she also listened.
“I have had chicken with every kind of sauce, rice pilaf and a medley of vegetables,” she said. But “at every volunteer meeting, I always learned something—about HR, association management, what they were seeing in the business world, what SHRM did that worked and didn’t. There was always a takeaway. I never felt it was not a good use of time.”
Meisinger started SHRM Town Hall meetings to bring members up-to-date on SHRM’s plans for the year and get their feedback about what the Society was doing well and what it could do better. In the beginning, several SHRM leaders were concerned about the meetings, said Brian Glade, SPHR, GPHR, SHRM vice president of international programs. They wondered if it would be worth it for Meisinger and other SHRM executives to travel to five different cities throughout the country each year for the town halls.
“Yes, it was,” Glade said, “because the members could talk to her.”
And talk to her they did. To the members, said Keith Greene, SPHR, former SHRM vice president of workforce readiness and vice president of member relations, “she is a rock star. She is extremely well known, partly because she is president and CEO and part of it is earned respect from speaking and [her prior role in] Government Affairs.”
From an HR professional and volunteer leader’s point of view, “Sue is approachable,” said Janet N. Parker, SPHR, chair of the SHRM Board of Directors. Thinking back on her many years of volunteer leadership with SHRM, Parker said, “The thing members appreciated was that she will listen. And she’s straightforward: if something won’t work, she’ll say it won’t and why not.”
Also speaking as a practitioner, “SHRM is a major player,” said Pam Green, SPHR, SHRM chief of membership officer and former director of HR for the American Red Cross of Greater Columbus. “It really is the voice of HR. And you can attribute that to Sue—she is touchable, likable and really brought SHRM to life and made it an organization that has the members’ voice. They can say what is on their minds, and we will address it.”
The SHRM staff always knew that the members were Meisinger’s priority.
“She has a unique combination of strong business acumen and a focused sense of the member,” said Karen Silberman, director of the SHRM Foundation. “I distinctly remember budget and [senior management team] meetings where she always brought the conversation back to the member. It was never simply about strategy or making money or advancing the Society—it was always about the member.”
The tactic of going directly to the members for their input stems from a practice Meisinger put into place when she joined the Society in 1987 as vice president of government affairs. Before her arrival, SHRM often adopted the stances of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce or National Association of Manufacturers when advocating for workplace laws and regulations. But Meisinger said that she had learned while serving as deputy under secretary for the Employment Standards Administration at the U.S. Department of Labor that the organizations that “had done their homework” and presented specific recommendations and ideas had the greatest impact on public policy development.
“[SHRM] represented HR professionals. We needed to be very clear that we were not in lockstep with a corporate trade association approach because we represented a profession. And the best way to do that was to get professionals involved in creating our own position statements,” Meisinger said.
So SHRM government affairs staff began working with volunteer leaders to get input from members on legislative issues. Then, as now, they educated the members on the issues, advocated on behalf of those positions and then told members what had happened.
“It was the first time we had a very focused, structured way of asking for member input on policy positions,” Meisinger said. Those positions, many times, do reflect the positions of business groups like the Chamber, “but that’s because our members are managers and have a management perspective,” she added.
At first she was surprised by the members’ conservative reactions to government proposals. But as she got to know the members, she grew to understand that they weren’t conservative in their ways of trying to solve problems. They just didn’t trust the government to come up with a good answer.
“The conservatism came from the fact that the government solution tended to be the least effective approach and reduced the flexibility of the profession to deal with the problem,” Meisinger said. “That was a learning experience for me. There was much more resistance to approaches the government takes, and I began to understand that was well founded.”
Among the issues that Meisinger tackled during her time as vice president of Government Affairs, from 1987 to 1997, were the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). Meisinger said the ADA, as originally proposed, was much broader and would have been much more difficult to administer.
“We thought the legislative intent was correct—nondiscrimination based on disability—but we wanted to make sure the execution was not insane,” she said.
SHRM was an active participant in the legislative process preceding the passage of the ADA. Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, an author of the ADA, mentioned Meisinger’s work in the Congressional Record. And she was present, with thousands of others, at the White House for President George H.W. Bush’s signing of the law in 1990.
SHRM and Meisinger also worked on introducing changes to the proposed FMLA before its passage in 1993.
“I think our efforts were helpful in getting improvement. We didn’t get everything we wanted, and we are still working to improve that,” Meisinger said.
“We’ve been fairly successful impacting workplace law,” said Michael Aitken, current director of government affairs for SHRM. “You can count on one hand the employer groups brought in [to provide comment to government agencies] on any issue. They look to our leadership.”
Meisinger said she does wish that SHRM could have made more headway in persuading legislators to allow more flexibility in comp time.
“There was an inability to get public policy makers to understand that employees want the option of overtime pay or time off. The fact that we’ve never been able to get them to understand that is a disappointment,” Meisinger said. “The strength of organized labor can’t be understated. I hope the organization continues to push and is ultimately successful, because we’re on the right side of that one.”
SHRM is chair of the National Coalition to Protect Family Leave, chair of HR Initiative for Legal Workforce, co-chair of GINA Coalition that addressed the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act, and is a key player in developing legislative efforts on the ADA Restoration Act.
Meisinger’s “contributions to public policy efforts are the reason we are where we are. It’s due to her leadership,” Aitken said. Even after leaving the government affairs office, she has a “deft understanding of the process and politics framing the issues and a keen appreciation of technical aspects of public policy efforts.”
“I am a public policy junkie,” Meisinger admitted. “I love that side of things.”
‘It’s a Secretary’s Town’
When Meisinger, a native of New Jersey, graduated from Mary Washington College in Fredericksburg, Va., in 1974 with a major in psychology, she moved to Washington, D.C., and started looking for a job. She consulted an employment agency, where she was sent to be a legal secretary in a law firm. Working with the attorneys there, she came to believe she’d like to be a lawyer, too.
“It was a time where women’s roles in the professional community were beginning to expand. When I started college, it wasn’t typical for a young woman to be thinking about law school,” Meisinger said. “But opportunities opened up for me, working in a law firm.”
She attended four years of night classes at the National Law Center at George Washington University to earn her law degree in 1979. From there she went on to serve as legal counsel for the Association of Builders and Contractors in Washington, D.C., was appointed by the Secretary of Labor to serve on the Secretary’s Committee on the Future of the Workplace under the President’s Council on the 21st Century Workforce, and was named deputy under secretary for the Employment Standards Administration at the Department of Labor.
“The woman at the employment agency told me, ‘It’s a secretary’s town, honey,’ ” Meisinger said. “When I became deputy under secretary, I always wanted to find that woman, and tell her, ‘Why yes, my mail comes addressed to Dear Madam Secretary.’ ”
Accomplishments and Challenges
Meisinger became senior vice president at SHRM in 1997 and executive vice president and COO in 1999. Her rise through the ranks was overseen by Mike Losey, SPHR, CAE, president and CEO of SHRM from 1990 to 2000—when SHRM’s membership seemed to double overnight and the organization prospered.
As he watched her work over the course of his first year at SHRM, Losey told Meisinger, “You have only one problem: you don’t know how good you are. You have really exceptional potential.”
He leaned on her to help fulfill the total management concept he was promoting—that all managers should speak about and address issues in all departments of the organization. And then he asked her to stop focusing exclusively on Government Affairs and added Public Affairs to her responsibilities. Meisinger was promoted to chief operating officer and continued to serve in that role after Losey retired and Helen Drinan took over as SHRM’s president and CEO. In March 2002, the SHRM Board promoted Meisinger to be the Society’s next president and CEO.
From 2002 until the present, Meisinger has overseen some turning points in SHRM history.
In Greene’s eyes, one of her biggest areas of accomplishment was the creation of the Membership Advisory Council, he said. In keeping with Meisinger’s desire to help members communicate with SHRM leaders, the council conveys information between the SHRM board of directors and the state councils.
“That created a link from the board to the volunteer leadership that didn’t exist previously,” Greene said. “It was extremely well received by the volunteer leaders and the board and has proven to be a great resource for the board to tap quickly into the thoughts of the members at the local level and gives members access to the board.”
She also oversaw the transition from selecting board directors from geographic regions of the country to more generalized elections, Greene added.
“The risk is that [the directors] were more focused on constituents than the big picture of the association. By shifting to a more general board, the focus changed so that all members were focused on strategy for the whole Society. That really led to taking STP and ATP [serving the profession and advancing the professional] to a different level,” Greene said.
Meisinger also oversaw a significant reworking of SHRM’s volunteer structure, beginning in 2003. Regional councils were created; the terms under which chapters could affiliate with SHRM were changed; Area Boards, Professional Emphasis Groups and the SHRM Global Forum were eliminated; Special Expertise Panels were instituted; and special interest groups began forming and affiliating with SHRM.
In 2006, SHRM started an academic initiative to encourage colleges and universities that offer HR management undergraduate and graduate degrees to teach certain curricula and concepts. SHRM leaders were concerned that there were no barriers to entering the HR profession, and they wanted to emphasize that “not just anyone can do HR,” Meisinger said.
“There should be greater acknowledged consistency on what a degree in HR means,” she added. “I have a sense of urgency to have HR recognized as a profession. The future leaders of the profession are going to work now, and we want to make sure they can do everything they need to do.”
Meisinger “has always been a champion of the academic initiative,” said Nancy Woolever, SPHR, manager of academic initiatives for SHRM. Twenty-six schools have adopted SHRM’s guidelines for the HR major, networking events are connecting students with professionals to help them secure internships and jobs, and in 2008, SHRM will award forty $5,000 internship awards to HR students.
“That effort embraces the best of what she has encouraged us to do, which was work collaboratively,” Woolever said. “She is so interested in it because clearly it is the right thing to do.”
As the membership and financial reserves grew, Meisinger let her staff know that perhaps it was time to start taking some risks on initiatives that might not pay out eventually, but should be done for the good of the profession. SHRM’s decision to branch out internationally is one of those risks.
With offices in India and China and relationships with government, business and academic professionals in both countries, SHRM has spent a significant amount of time, effort and money on developing its international presence. And this time, Meisinger didn’t support the initiative because members were clamoring for it, Glade said.
“There was a question about whether we should be international. Maybe our members say it’s not as important as other issues, like compensation or benefits,” Glade said. “But because of [SHRM’s] size and scope, we should be playing an international role. It’s beyond what the member would have asked for, but it’s something we knew we had to do.”
“Maybe SHRM gets ahead” of what the members say they want, he added. “But that’s the responsibility of an organization like ours. We also need to think of the direction of the profession.”
As Meisinger took on more responsibilities with the international initiative, she realized that she needed her own international experience, Glade said. She traveled to India and China—among other countries—and spoke to government officials and business leaders. She also led the World Federation of Personnel Management Associations.
“She needed to play that role because she was the head of the largest HR association” in the United States, Glade said.
Another initiative in which SHRM has been ahead of its time, according to Cari Dominguez, former chair of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and a former colleague of Meisinger’s, is diversity. SHRM’s diversity initiative was started in 1993 and the Society has held diversity conferences for many years. Recently, SHRM sponsored a diversity leadership summit with thought leaders from around the globe and published research on the state of workplace diversity management.
“Under Sue’s leadership, SHRM has heightened awareness of diversity as it relates to business objectives. That has been a true catalyst for change in corporate America,” Dominguez said.
Dominguez agreed that SHRM has been “ahead of the times” by embracing a global workplace.
“Globalization is a component of business. Those companies with diverse workforces are ahead of the curve,” she said. “Workers have ties and roots across the globe—[promoting diversity] is a smart business practice.
Dominguez and Meisinger met while briefly working at the Department of Labor. They kept in touch and supported one another throughout their careers, as each worked on EEO and diversity initiatives in their respective workplaces.
“We’ve had a very strong alliance over the years,” Dominguez said. “I’ve watched her leadership really be transformational.”
Sue Meisinger has worked at SHRM for more than 20 years. She became president and CEO of SHRM in March 2002. Prior to that, she served as executive vice president and COO from 1999-2002. From 1997-1999 she was senior vice president. She led the government and public affairs departments as vice president from 1987-97.
Before coming to SHRM, Meisinger was deputy under secretary for the Employment Standards Administration at the Department of Labor. She was one of 13 people appointed by the Secretary of Labor to serve on the Secretary’s Committee on the Future of the Workplace under the President’s Council on the 21st Century Workforce. She has also been special counsel for the Association of Builders and Contractors in Washington, D.C.
Meisinger is a current board member and past secretary-general of the World Federation of Personnel Management Associations. She holds a nonvoting position on the SHRM Board of Directors and is a member of the board of directors for the Human Resource Certification Institute and the Ethics Resource Center. She sits on the corporate board of BE&K, a billion-dollar international design-build firm. She is a member of the editorial board of Human Resource Management Journal and is a fellow of the National Academy of Human Resources. She co-edited, along with Mike Losey and University of Michigan business school professor David Ulrich, The Future of Human Resource Management, in which 64 thought leaders explore critical HR issues.
She earned her bachelor’s degree from Mary Washington College and her law degree from the National Law Center of George Washington University. She is a member of the D.C. Bar Association.
From the Staff’s Perspective
To the SHRM staff, Meisinger was a challenging leader who encouraged them to bring their best game to every meeting. She had a firm grasp of what each department was doing and could ask insightful—some say “piercing”—questions.
“I was always amazed at how much information she could retain,” Silberman said. “She could drill down and ask very specific questions. She had a deep breadth of knowledge about the entire association. It was fascinating and humbling. It forced you to be really prepared.”
But while she pushed her staff, she also gave them the support they needed to get the job done.
“She was demanding but supportive. She expected the best, but gave you everything you needed to provide the best,” said Henry Hart, general counsel for SHRM.
Wanda Flowers, current director of member care for SHRM, was a Professional Emphasis Group manager. When the groups were disbanded under the new volunteer leadership structure, Flowers found herself trying to discover what her place at SHRM could be.
“Sue came to me and asked me what I wanted to do next. She offered to help me make a decision, in whatever way she could, about where to go, whether at SHRM or somewhere else,” Flowers said. “And she advised me to go to [The Center for Creative Leadership], which was life-changing and has helped me a lot in managing people. She gave me good advice, and she has a good human side.”
Sue could always connect personally with nearly every employee. She sent personally signed birthday cards to each staff member and hosted monthly pizza lunches for employees celebrating a birthday that month. She used the time as a question-and-answer session about SHRM, but also to chat with staff members and get to know them better.
“I always liked going to her office and meeting with her. She’s a very open person. And one of the things that’s hard to get to know about her is that she has so many interests outside SHRM. So many people define her by her job,” Woolever said.
“My first one-on-one interaction with her was in the interview process,” Pam Green said. “I came in and Keith [Greene] and HR advised me to be calm and that Sue wouldn’t say much, that she’d probably be very quiet. I go in prepared for a very staunch interview. But we laughed and talked and had a good time! She doesn’t make you feel as if you are of a different class. People really like that about her.”
“Probably the hidden part of her personality is her warmth,” Greene said. “She is a firm believer in work/life balance and has made that very clear to all employees. She’s a very compassionate, caring person. I remember when she would hold the [six-foot, 20-pound] banner for the Race for the Cure [a walk to raise funds for breast cancer research. SHRM pays the registration fees for staff members and their friends and family.]. I think that’s very cool.”
Meisinger’s affection for the staff was apparent when she talked about leaving.
“I think we’ve got a great group of people. We created a culture that is not perfect, but it’s creative, transparent, where people can bring forth their best ideas and problem solve,” Meisinger said.
“I am most proud of the staff. And I will miss them. I’m understanding that now. You don’t really think about the day-to-day exchanges and interactions you have with the people you really like. And you know that’s going to morph into something different because you’re not there.”
For the foreseeable future, Meisinger says, she’s going to do “whatever I damn well please.” She has several speaking engagements lined up and is moving to Cape Cod with her husband, John Smith, to be closer to her family. She’ll also be traveling overseas again, but this time for fun.
At a reception at the end of May, given so that the staff could say good-bye, Meisinger expressed her admiration and affection for the staff and organization one more time—and simultaneously summed up her time and work at SHRM.
“You’re the greatest organization. Everything you do is on behalf of the members and each other. You are friendly, ethical and treat each other with respect. You impact workplaces around the globe in a good way. And that’s a good way to make a living, and career.”
Beth Mirza is senior editor for HR News.