Taking SHRM to the Next Level

By Bill Leonard Jan 1, 2001
HR Magazine, July 2000

New President and CEO Helen Drinan prepares to take the Society - and the huma​n resources profession - up a notch.

This month, Helen Drinan, SPHR, begins her new job as president and chief executive officer of the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM). Drinan succeeds Michael R. Losey, SPHR, who retired last month after 10 successful years leading the SHRM headquarters staff. Drinan, 53, has more than 20 years of experience in human resource management and most recently served as the executive vice president of human resources for BankBoston Corporation.

HR Magazine senior writer Bi​ll Leonard spoke with Drinan after she was named SHRM president-elect. During the in-depth interview, Drinan spoke about her hopes and aspirations for the Society and the HR profession.

HR Magazine: We live in a world of rapid change, and nowhere is this more apparent than in the workplace. What is the role of SHRM in ensuring that its members and human resource professionals can keep pace with the rapidly changing workplace?

Drinan: I believe SHRM has done a great job to date in providing a single locus for consolidating information about what’s going on in the field and also what’s going on quite far afield from just straight HR, through its magazine and its web site and the Society’s other outlets of information. All of this is a fantastic foundation upon which to continue the Society’s mission.

What I do not think is clear right now is how we, at SHRM, can elevate, in a meaningful way, the best thinking in the country on workplace issues and become an even more prominent voice in the larger universe of people issues.

We need to examine who is doing the most innovative work in workplace issues and make sure SHRM is right there among them. The Society is in an excellent position to move to the forefront and become the No. 1 source that people turn to for information on workplace issues. How can we ensure that HR professionals and other organization leaders see SHRM publications in the same light as, say, The Wall Street Journal? You can pick up The Wall Street Journal and there on the front page you get a summary of the business news that happened as late as last night. People read that and accept it as the authoritative voice of business. So what can we do so that SHRM publications are regarded in the same light? How do we make them so compelling that all HR professionals—and other business leaders—feel knowledgeable and conversant on the issues? And how do we ensure that when HR professionals receive information or a publication from SHRM, they say to themselves, “This is the state of the art.”

This is a tremendous challenge, because the breadth of the intellectual property that resides within SHRM is so great that it will be quite a task to sort it all out. So the questions I have to ask are: What are the most compelling things that the Society is doing, and what are the forces that will really drive this organization forward?

The challenge is to distill all the information that is available through SHRM and examine the current thinking on the most compelling issues. I believe that if the Society truly wants to be the voice of the HR profession, we have to be very clear about what it is we have to say. We have to have a clear message and I think, frankly, an agenda.

Finally, I think the mark of any good leader is to listen to a variety of perspectives, to listen to constituents and to synthesize the information to develop or strengthen a strategic plan. As president and CEO of SHRM, I plan to spend a good deal of time listening to the members—their ideas, their feedback, their concerns. Before we can develop our message and our agenda, we have to make sure that we’re on the right track—that we’re creating what’s best for our stakeholders.

HR Magazine: Tell us a little bit about your background and how you came to pursue a career in HR management.

Drinan: I was very influenced as a young person by my mother, who was in personnel work when they called it that. So I saw the profession move through various changes during the years when I was growing up.

But I didn’t graduate from college and earn my master’s degree thinking: “What I really want to be is an HR professional.” In fact, I really ended up having much more of a concentration in the systems field. In my first professional work environment after business school, there was quite a bit of work involved in applying information systems to the HR function. That experience opened my eyes to the field, and I was definitely intrigued by the work. So when I left that job, I knew that I wanted to get into HR, but I came in the back door, sort of, through information systems.

In 1981, I began working for BankBoston Corporation because I believed that banks were using some of the most sophisticated information systems at the time. In my job, I used what I knew about information systems and applied it to the bank’s HR function. I worked for five years in various capacities in systems work in HR, until the bank hired a new head of human resources. He offered me a job to cross over into the HR department’s mainstream, and I became director of compensation, went on to do other HR jobs and eventually became executive vice president of HR.

At BankBoston I conducted myself as a strategic business partner with all of the other functions that are perceived by senior management and the CEO as essential to the success of the organization. I understood the business of business and I spoke the language of business. I think that’s what you have to do to be taken seriously and to rise to the level of, say, an executive vice president. Certainly, that’s the message that SHRM has been sending to members for many years. And it’s going to continue to be an important part of our mission.

HR Magazine: You have obviously seen some drastic changes to the HR profession since you began your career. How has the profession changed and how have you kept pace with these changes?

Drinan: Technology certainly has changed the workplace, and so that has been a major impact on the profession. And the criticality of the role of people in the workplace has rapidly become a more compelling issue impacting our profession. Regardless of what may happen technologically and how fast it may happen, at the end of the day most technological innovation is replicable. But people will always be the single source of non-replicable competitive advantage. It is important to understand that, as HR professionals, we focus on a resource that still has great untapped potential. As much potential as there is in the technology arena, there’s even more in the people arena.

Keeping that clear in my mind has always been a top priority and for me it has actually helped me to think about how to influence the profession to keep up with the changing workplace. I believe that it’s important that HR professionals constantly have an R&D (research and development) orientation. I believe you need to be aware of what the most innovative and most successful companies are doing with their workforces. You have to understand and stay abreast of trends. You have to understand implications of change. You cannot be complacent and feel like you’ve mastered all the issues. You can’t afford to be content with the status quo. I don’t know how many people actually think about R&D as an HR accountability, but I think it is an important piece of HR.

HR Magazine: What do you see as the primary challenges of your new job, and how do you plan to take on the new role as president and CEO of the largest HR association in the world?

Drinan: My goals for the first six months are geared toward learning, listening and understanding the strength of the Society today. I have identified four learning blocks that I intend to concentrate on initially: the SHRM team, which includes the staff and the volunteer leadership; the intellectual property; the finances; and finally, the SHRM brand, encompassing, of course, the membership.

In the short term, we are very strong. The brand is well recognized. The balance sheet is strong. The revenue streams are varied. But what are the implications for the long term of the current strength? Those are the kinds of things that I really want to spend intense time on in the first six months. I want to hear and understand what people inside SHRM have to say. I want to meet with the Board of Directors and listen to what they have to say. I also want to hear directly from the membership about what they have to say. We’re going to have to do some formal disciplined listening to all key constituencies.

After the six-month period, armed with a great deal of information and, when I think we’re in position, with the Board’s leadership, we are going to make some decisions about what it means to take SHRM to the next level. That must be an informed decision, because once we make the statement, “this is where we’re trying to take the Society,” it has to be compelling and it has to make sense to the people who are going to make it happen within the Society—particularly the volunteer leadership and the staff.

SHRM is a wonderfully strong medium-sized business that happens to represent the profession to which I am very committed. This is an organization that is doing extremely well. In my view, we need to figure out how to keep it going and ultimately make it even better.

HR Magazine: With a successful business there are a certain set of challenges that face you as president and CEO. So how do you take an organization that is doing very well and build and improve on that?

Drinan: Chad Gifford—my last CEO and a truly inspirational leader—used to talk about the fact that if an organization has everything lined up, its employees are properly motivated and fully engaged in the business, and customers feel like “This is a company that I enjoy doing business with because they know me and they do well by me,” then the owners of the organization benefit from that. If the owners benefit, then they in turn are happy to see further investment in the organization, which means more opportunity for its employees and more benefits for its customers. This continuum of success—some call it the service profit chain—provides a great model for me as I take on the leadership of this highly successful organization.

SHRM is an organization that is operating on all cylinders right now, so we don’t want to do anything that will stop that from happening. We want to seek out the opportunities to do it even better so that every constituent continues to feel like this organization just keeps getting better all the time.

We can’t become complacent or take our success for granted. We must continue to monitor and modify our strategic initiatives to be sure we maintain our successful position. Dedicated effort got us here—and that’s what it’ll take for us to stay here.

HR Magazine: You mentioned earlier about taking SHRM to the next level. What does this really mean and how do you go about defining what the next level truly is?

Drinan: My view of taking the profession and SHRM to the next level may be a bit controversial. There are places where HR is viewed as pivotal to the business, but that’s a minority of places. It’s important that HR take its proper place at the management table, whether that’s management of a not-for-profit, of a for-profit or of a partnership, whatever the nature of the organization is. Taking it to the next level means that HR is viewed as an integral part of the leadership and, to me, that means not just that HR has a voice, but that HR participates in the non-HR decision processes of the organization. In other words, HR has a legitimate—and necessary—point of view on how the organization is marketed, how it is managed, how the product or service is produced—that, to me, is taking HR to the next level.

Another thing that will take HR to the next level is when it becomes a profession that draws the best and the brightest young people from the top colleges and universities around the world.

Finally, there are some stigmas in some circles that HR must overcome. For example, I read an article the other day in Harvard Business Review. It was written about a women’s initiative at a well-known company. The article talked about the importance of this initiative—that it was so important the company didn’t want it to be viewed as an HR program. There was a pejorative implication that if it was seen as an “HR thing,” then nobody would do it. We have to address and overcome these kinds of attitudes.

HR Magazine: It is your turn to play futurist now. What do you see as one of the top challenges for the HR profession during the next five to 10 years, and what should SHRM be doing to help the HR profession meet those challenges?

Drinan: I believe that the workforce of this country is still, today, greatly undervalued. I want to point out right now that I’m not trying to be narrow in my world view by saying “of this country.” I do not want to appear ethnocentric—that’s something I became very sensitive to when I was in the Peace Corps. But I believe we must address the issues in our own backyard first. Even though the U.S. workforce has exhibited enormous productivity gains throughout the duration of this wonderful economic boom, I do not believe that most organizations appreciate the competitive advantage represented by their workforce. As such, HR in the next five to 10 years has a fantastic opportunity to articulate, in meaningful terms, exactly what that advantage is to the people who lead organizations. I’m not talking about the so-called “soft” considerations, but business considerations—such as survival, growth and benefit to the organization. That’s a rare and exciting opportunity—and we must take advantage of it.

Recently The Boston Globe featured an interview with Herb Kelleher, the chairman and CEO of Southwest Airlines. The title of the article was, “How an Old Economy Company Can Teach the New Economy to Succeed.” Southwest is in a very competitive industry, and no other airline has been as successful as it has been.

When Kelleher was asked the reason for this success, he replied that Southwest has a very simple philosophy: Employees come first; and customers come second. Because if you put your employees first, then they will do right by the customer. That seems so incredibly simple, doesn’t it?

Just before BankBoston merged with Fleet Financial Group, we had done some employee research, and our employees very clearly articulated that—assuming that the basics were in order, that they were paid fairly and that their workplace was a good place to work—what really drove them to do their best was performing meaningful work and feeling valued for doing it.

It wasn’t their name up in lights; it wasn’t their compensation, even though those things are important. What employees really want is work that is challenging, that makes them feel like they’re growing personally, and for someone to say, “Job well done, that’s really great.” That’s the kind of message that human resources and the Society for Human Resource Management could easily articulate to the world.

Bill Leonard is senior writer for HR Magazine.

Helen Drinan

Career Highlights

BankBoston Corp., Boston
Executive Vice President—Human Resources,

Director of Compensation and Benefits,

Director of Human Resources Services,

Director of Compensation,

Director of Human Resources Information Services,

Bartholdi and Co., Wellesley, Mass.
Director of Research and
Executive Search Consultant,

Charles River Associates, Boston
Manager, Information Services Department,

U.S. Peace Corps
Volunteer and Trainer, Republic of the Philippines, 1970-73.

M.B.A., Simmons College, Boston, 1978.

S.M., Library and Information Science,
Simmons College, Boston, 1975.

A.B., French, Mount Holyoke College,
South Hadley, Mass., 1969.

Other professional affiliations
Board member of BlueCross/BlueShield
of Massachusetts since 1995.


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