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HR Magazine - December 2000: Some Parting Thoughts

By Bill Leonard  12/1/2000
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HR Magazine, December 2000

Vol. 45, No. 12 

As my year-end retirement approached, HR Magazine asked me to write an article about the state of HR and my advice for HR professionals.

The future of HR can be described in one word—competency! Only those who are truly dedicated, skillfully trained and experienced in our profession—and are professional in all that they do—will have assurances of meeting the future demands of our profession. And that is the way it should be in any valued profession.

But there is one way that possibly our profession is indeed different. That is what I want to write about—touching peoples’ lives.

Throughout my tenure as president and CEO of SHRM, people have often asked me how I entered the HR profession. The story is simple. It stems from a college summer-vacation experience I had with Michael, a teenage boy from my hometown who had a cognitive disability.

Michael attended a special school in Detroit for children with cognitive disabilities, and then returned home to live with his parents during the summers.

Because of the time and special attention Michael required, his parents needed help with him, especially during the day. So they offered to pay me $40 a week if I would take care of Michael every day until they were available in the evenings. This task was not easy, nor was it always a pleasant experience. But, unbeknownst to me at the time, our experience together would positively influence the course of my life for many years to come.

On one of those long summer days together, Michael and I explored the University of Michigan’s Museum of Natural History, where he was immediately drawn to the dinosaur exhibit. I was surprised at his level of interest and knowledge about dinosaurs, and took advantage of this window of opportunity to spend the remainder of the day in the museum.

Because of Michael’s visible interest in dinosaurs, we went to a hobby shop the next day and purchased a model that contained more than 200 dinosaur bones. We then spent the next two days gluing the dinosaur together. When we got to the last piece, the very end piece of the long tail, I suggested that he glue it on by himself. Michael attempted the task but, to my dismay, soon became frustrated, threw the dinosaur on the floor and stomped on it. Needless to say, I was so disappointed that I returned him home early that day.

When I arrived at Michael’s house the next morning to pick him up, his father greeted me at the door and wanted to know what had happened the day before. After I explained, he told me that Michael had worried all night that I wouldn’t return because of his outburst. He said that Michael wanted to apologize to me for his behavior, and he did. While I was grateful for Michael’s apology, I wasn’t totally convinced that his attitude would improve. But it did. From that day forward Michael’s attitude changed. In fact, he improved so much that I was soon able to include Michael in activities with my college-aged friends.

At the end of the summer Michael told me that he did not want to return to the private institution in Detroit. Instead he wanted to attend the same junior high school that I had attended. Of course, this was not a decision I could make but Michael’s parents supported the idea and—long before “mainstreaming” became commonplace in public schools—they petitioned school officials to admit him. That fall Michael was admitted to the local junior high school, and I left optimistic that Michael would continue his progress.

Soon after the beginning of my junior year in college, I discovered that I had an interest in what was then called industrial relations and applied for a scholarship in that field. I was interviewed by Dr. George Odiorne, an influential professor whose research shaped many of the HR policies in the early 1960s. During the interview, Dr. Odiorne asked me to explain my rather unusual summer with Michael. I told the story much as I am writing it here.

I was awarded the scholarship and subsequently began a lifelong relationship with this noted scholar. Not only did he later hire me to work under his tutelage, he encouraged and helped me complete my master’s degree. Upon graduation he recommended me to the Ford Motor Co. and then to Sperry Corp., where I spent most of my corporate career. Thirty years later, Dr. Odiorne provided the final reference for me when I was being considered for the SHRM presidency.

As I prepare to retire at the end of this year, I have often thought of Michael, because my experience with him not only paved my way into the HR field, it also encouraged me to work with others to help them reach their full potential. Yes, Michael was able to stay at his new school. He made it. And that is the valuable lesson that I want to leave with you—that we can have a lasting effect on people’s lives and, by so doing, they affect our lives even more.

Throughout my 40-year career, I have seen this principle in action. Unlike accountants who work with numbers, or engineers who work with tools and materials, we in HR work with people. That responsibility alone provides us with an opportunity to touch their lives, in many more ways than we will ever know. I believe that if we do our jobs well, we’ll have the satisfaction of knowing that we have affected others in positive ways. But if we don’t do it well, rarely are we given the opportunity to go back and correct our mistakes. That’s our challenge, and for many of us, that’s our calling. My hope for the HR profession is that it becomes our legacy.

Members and friends, it is with fond memories that I close this chapter as president and CEO of the largest and best HR society in the world. It has been an honor and a privilege to serve in this capacity for the past 10 years. My family and I thank you for touching our lives in so many positive and memorable ways.

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