From Chance Meeting to Friend and Mentor

Long-time SHRM member recalls first Annual Conference

Kathy Gurchiek By Kathy Gurchiek May 13, 2022
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​Twenty years ago, SHRM member Brian McComak was 27 years old and working as an employee relations manager at a Red Lobster in Orlando, Fla., when he traveled to Philadelphia to attend his first SHRM Annual Conference & Expo.

Today, he is the founder and CEO of consultancy Hummingbird Humanity, based in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. He has 25 years of experience that has included working in diversity, equity and inclusion; culture; change management; internal communications; and employee experience. 

McComak has served as director of HR at L'Oreal in New York City; vice president and later head of HR operations for the Americas at Christie's auction house in New York City; director of enterprise HR for the Walt Disney Co. in Burbank, Calif., and HR business partner and head of inclusion and diversity for Tapestry, a multinational luxury fashion holding company based in New York City.

He interned at Red Lobster in 2000, earned a master's degree in HR and change management from the University of Central Florida (UCF) in 2001 and was an adjunct HR instructor at UCF for three years.

But the Red Lobster position, where he was one of five employee relations managers for the restaurant's entire chain, was McComak's first full-time job as an HR professional. He didn't know anyone when he ventured into the cavernous convention center filled with thousands of other HR professionals attending the conference's 2002 opening general session.

That changed when he found himself seated next to Jeff Nally, SHRM-SCP. Nally is an executive coach and professional speaker who currently serves as CHRO and chief coaching officer at CoachSource in Franklin Lakes, N.J. 

Nally introduced himself and "just made sure I had someone to be a guide and mentor at the conference," McComak recalled. "Jeff welcomed me. Took me under his wing. Introduced me to people. Invited me to join him—and others—for meals."

They have stayed in touch over the years, and it was at Nally's urging that McComak applied to speak at the SHRM Annual Conference & Expo 2022 (SHRM22) in New Orleans. Attendees can catch his concurrent session with Nally, "Welcoming All LGBTQ+ Voices—Through the Four Lenses of Representation," from 8:45 to 9:45 a.m. CT on June 15.

McComak said he is shocked and delighted to be included among the SHRM22 conference speakers.

"SHRM has played a big role in my HR career," he said, "starting with the Orlando SHRM chapter, where I had a mentor when I was in my HR master's program, to being part of New York SHRM" as vice president of programs and editing the chapter's monthly newsletter.

3 Tips for First-Time Attendees

McComak has attended more than a dozen SHRM Annual Conferences and offered the following advice for newbies:

  • Make a point to hear all the main stage speakers.
"Those keynotes are always spectacular," he said. "I've taken so much from all those moments."

He recalled the riveting keynote by late actor Christopher Reeve at the 2004 SHRM Annual Conference & Expo in New Orleans.

"Hearing him tell the story of teaching his child to ride a bike, it was just so poignant to see 'Superman' living a life … as a quadriplegic. His positive attitude and commitment to continuing to find his way through the world, in the best way he can, was really powerful," McComak said.

And he said what he learned from Marcus Buckingham's keynote at the 2010 SHRM Annual Conference & Expo in San Diego remains relevant today.

Buckingham is the author of bestselling books such as Find Your Strongest Life: What the World's Happiest and Most Successful Women Do Differently (Thomas Nelson, 2009) and founder of The Marcus Buckingham Company (TMBC), which focuses on strengths-based talent development.

"Marcus's strengths-based work resonated with me, and the messages continue to serve as guiding principles in my work today," McComak said. "I often encourage managers and leaders to help people do the work they are good at, and the work they love, as much of the time as possible. … That intersection is where success is found."

  • Don't overload your schedule.
"Don't try to do it all. Do something meaningful each day and enjoy the ride," McComak said. Otherwise, "you can overwhelm yourself. … The best conferences are those where I had a balance" of sitting with thousands of HR professionals at keynote talks and "some intentional moments of connecting with others."

He also has fond memories of the Annual Conference entertainment over the years, such as the Hootie & The Blowfish concert at the San Diego Zoo and Kelly Clarkson's performance in Chicago.

  • Be welcoming to others.
Someone you meet likely is attending the conference for the first time, possibly by themselves. A simple "hello" may lead to a valuable professional connection or develop into a longtime friendship.

"Being on your own early in your career at such a big event can be a bit overwhelming. I couldn't have sat next to a better person, though," McComak said of Nally. "He's sort of been a mentor to me over the years, and that's just because we sat next to each other" at the opening general session 20 years ago.





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