SHRM Education Director Recalls 20-Year Career

By Kathy Gurchiek Nov 6, 2009
Barbara S. Sadek, SPHR

Dressing as a white-caped Elvis, discussing astrological signs with Henry Kissinger and escorting Sidney Poitier at a Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) Annual Conference are among the highlights of a 20-year career Barbara S. Sadek, SPHR, has enjoyed with SHRM.

It’s a career that has spanned five SHRM presidents and CEOs—Ron Pilenzo, SPHR; Michael Losey, SPHR; Helen Drinan, SPHR; Sue Meisinger, SPHR; and Laurence G. O’Neil—and introduced her to three secretaries of state—Kissinger, Madeline Albright and Colin Powell.

And it’s a career that is drawing to a close when SHRM’s director of education retires at the end of December 2009.

Sadek began her work at SHRM in 1989—before it had changed its name that year from the American Society for Personnel Administration—after a stint with the University of Maryland where she had earned a master’s degree in education.

She has fond memories of those early years when the Halloween party was a highlight for the less than 100 SHRM employees and the education department traditionally took first place for its themed costumes. One year, for example, education staffers portrayed Elvis through the years, with Sadek donning wig and cape as Las Vegas Elvis.

Sadek has witnessed SHRM’s evolution into a global organization with more than 350 employees and more than 30 specialized departments working out of two SHRM-owned headquarters buildings in Alexandria, Va.

She also has noticed a growing sense of HR’s worth.

“HR professionals are more sophisticated than they were,” she said. “They are seen as a partner now, where they weren’t 20 years ago. It’s very slow progress, but I notice just from talking to [conference] attendees that they are much more savvy about business knowledge.

“And they can see their connection to the senior team. I think CEOs have more respect for HR” today, Sadek said.

‘Tremendous Wealth of Knowledge’

Promoted to her current position in 1998, Sadek has been involved with all of SHRM’s educational products and some of its global products, seminar programming and conferences.

SHRM Chief Global HR and Content Integration Officer Steve Miranda called Sadek a “great employee” and pointed to her “tremendous wealth of knowledge” and “calm demeanor and sense of perspective.

“She has been instrumental in helping SHRM to develop a worldwide reputation for world-class conferences, seminars and executive education events,” Miranda said in an e-mail to SHRM staff announcing her impending retirement.

Barbara ‘has something that I think is so rare,
which is the ability to look at the big picture
and not get hung up on details that are
not going to matter in the long run.’

Darlene Grugal

In addition to overseeing the educational content of conferences and seminars, Sadek has been responsible for the development and updates of all of the Learning System products and headed the development team for the first Global Learning System in 2003.

She worked closely for 15 years with Darlene Grugal, who retired in December 2008 from the Minnesota-based Holmes Group. Together, they periodically updated the SHRM Learning System with a new body of knowledge and prepared the federal sector module and the China HR Generalist Certificate Program.

“Barbara is just wonderful to work with,” Grugal said. “She has something that I think is so rare, which is the ability to look at the big picture and not get hung up on details that are not going to matter in the long run.”

She also has “a real keen awareness of people. … She really knows how to groom and select” subject-matter experts for the teams she creates to update the Learning System, Grugal said.

Tom Schmelz, senior vice president of global distribution for Holmes, worked with Sadek for 15 years. Their work included building certification preparation courses for students.

“She just understands business. …When Barbara speaks up, it’s important and meaningful,”

Schmelz said. “She doesn’t say a lot at meetings, but when she does, she’s very accurate and right on.”

Not only that, Schmelz says, “She’s just very hip, very with it.”

Over the years, Sadek has noticed that people increasingly want conference sessions with practical applications.

“It used to be they came [to a conference] to be entertained, but now they feel a need to justify the time and expense involved in attending a conference,” she observed.

The importance members are ascribing to HR certification is one of the biggest changes Sadek has observed during her career.

“More and more people want recertification credit, so we’re making a conscious effort to get most of the [conference] sessions approved” to meet that need, she said. “Our members want to be marketable.”

Rubbing Elbows with Kissinger

Twenty years of SHRM conferences are a rich vein of fond memories for Sadek, who recalled chatting about astrological birth signs with Kissinger in his hotel room just before he was to give his keynote address at the 2008 SHRM Global Conference.

“Several of us in the group were Aries, and so is Henry’s wife, so he was talking about the characteristics of people born under that sign,” Sadek said.

Escorting Poitier at the 2008 SHRM Annual Conference in Chicago was another highlight for Sadek, who described the Oscar-award winning actor as “gracious and kind” and “just one of the most amazing persons I ever met.”

Poitier arrived at the conference center in Chicago on a Saturday, the day before the conference opened, “and walked the entire room and tried to figure out the acoustics and where he should stand on the stage. Totally professional,” she said. “He was great.”

Then there was the sight of Colin Powell—the five-star general and former U.S. secretary of state— pulling up behind the convention center at the 2006 SHRM Annual Conference in Washington, D.C., in his little silver corvette.

“No security, just Colin Powell in his corvette,” Sadek recalled. “That’s the best part of my job: meeting all these people and traveling.”

Sadek’s business travel has included a trip to China in 2005 shortly after SHRM opened its Beijing office with its focus on providing HR educational strategies. When SHRM opened its India office, Sadek traveled to Mumbai to interview potential trainers for SHRM seminars.

Her interests outside of SHRM include her two adult children Mike and Janine; cross-stitching; photography; reading; motorcycle trips to places such as Gettysburg and area wineries; and traveling to such exotic locales as Peru, Egypt, Mexico and Thailand. In October 2009, she celebrated her 20 years at SHRM riding horses and steering cattle at a Hume, Va., dude ranch.

“In my next life, I want to be Barbara Sadek because she has traveled to so many wonderful places,” Gugal says of her globe-trotting friend.

Harrison Darby, an employment and labor law speaker at SHRM HR Generalist seminars for more than 10 years, spoke glowingly of Sadek, whom he called a “phenomenal” person professionally and personally.

He recalled how she and another SHRM employee flew to California for a surprise retirement party planned by the wife of Darby’s law partner.

“I was floored. It was unexpected, and beyond nice,” Darby said. “I think she’s going to be tremendously missed at SHRM, and not only by the people there but by the people she’s worked with. And … the thing is we’re all going to stay in touch with her,” added Darby. He says he attends Annual Conference just so he can go to dinner with Sadek and another SHRM colleague.

“She always knew the best restaurant to go to, in any city we were in,” he said. “She’s just a doll. She really is,” Darby said. “I wish her the very, very best.”

Sadek’s not sure what retirement holds, but it’s not likely to be dull. Who knows—having visited all 50 states and five of the seven continents, maybe she’ll run into another secretary of state on one of those remaining continents.

For this Aries, the future looks bright.

Kathy Gurchiek is associate editor for HR News. She can be reached at


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