Meet the Chief HR Officer of the Chief HR Organization

A Q&A with Sean T. Sullivan, SHRM-SCP, SHRM’s new CHRO

By Rena Gorlin March 26, 2019

​Sean T. Sullivan, SHRM-SCP

Ever wonder how SHRM, as an employer, does HR? Get to know Sean T. Sullivan, SHRM-SCP, who was recently appointed as chief human resources officer for the world's largest HR professional society, responsible for leading its people strategy, organizational development and culture. We asked Sullivan about SHRM certification, what led him here, and how HR can help create better workplaces.

SHRM Certification: How does it feel to be an HR professional with a SHRM certification, heading up HR at SHRM?

Sullivan: It's a tremendous honor and a real privilege to lead the HR team here. The SHRM workforce is a platform for the potential application of SHRM's expertise, a proving ground for what other organizations are grappling with. HR expertise is our collective calling card. We can tell others, "Here's how we address this HR issue within SHRM." Plus, I can apply my own expertise from 30 years in the profession and as a SHRM member since 1999.


SHRM Certification: What does your SHRM credential mean to you? When and how did you attain your SHRM-SCP?

Sullivan: Getting certified is a great way of validating where you are as an HR professional. It's a base line. You demonstrate to your peers—and to yourself—your commitment to the profession, your mastery of professional knowledge and your ability to bring that knowledge fully to bear on business challenges.

When I interviewed [for the SHRM CHRO position], I didn't have my SHRM certification and admitted as much. I had had a different HR credential that lapsed. I realized that I had to earn a SHRM credential to demonstrate that I am fully committed. In fall 2018, I embarked on that knowledge journey, and in January 2019, I took the SHRM-SCP exam. While I felt prepared, you just never know! So I was very gratified when I passed. SHRM certification is an important accomplishment, and it feels great to have it.


SHRM Certification: What was your experience preparing for and taking the exam as an executive-level practitioner?

Sullivan: Given the breadth of my experience, the process was humbling. No one can look at the full scope of HR knowledge, especially as expressed in the SHRM competencies, and feel there's enough time and opportunity to master everything. Even as a senior HR pro, I discovered that I didn't know all the latest developments, all the nuances. So my time spent studying was tremendously instructive and helpful. Fully experiencing HR education through the SHRM Competency Model was both grounding and very rewarding. It was a journey as well as a destination.


SHRM Certification: What special insights did you gain from the SHRM certification process?

Sullivan: One thing that struck me as unique was the emphasis on situational judgment questions, because they demonstrate SHRM's strong commitment to the application of HR knowledge in real business situations. Studying for those questions doesn't just prepare you to pass the test. Those questions prepare you for what HR professionals are called on to do every day: interpret a situation, apply a concept, and know how and when to modify that application. You have to be in tune with particular business situations.

The ability to apply one's knowledge and competence is the essential test of an HR professional. You can be an expert on an aspect of HR, but if you can't sit down with business leaders and help them apply that expertise to their business needs, then it's just an intellectual exercise. The application of both knowledge and competencies is the essence of SHRM certification's value—as is SHRM's value [as an organization] to business.


SHRM Certification: What value do you see in recertification?

Sullivan: Recertification is consistent with established and commonly recognized designations in other professions, such as finance and health. If we believe that HR stands shoulder to shoulder with other professions and certifications, we have to hold ourselves to the same standard.

I want and expect the professionals who do my taxes, for instance, to be up-to-date with the latest information and knowledge in the field, so they can properly advise and advocate for me. The only way to do that is to stay current. Staying current benefits everyone. The SHRM Body of Competency and Knowledge is reflective of the current needs of HR.


SHRM Certification: What are your plans for maintaining your own SHRM credential?

Sullivan: Everyone who is certified has to recertify—it's the great leveler, whether you're a CHRO or on an HR team. I'll be establishing my SHRM recertification plan over the next two or three months, even though I just obtained my SHRM-SCP in January. I plan to tap into key requirements and get recertified within the required three-year time period. I feel extremely fortunate to be here because SHRM offers a great number of recertification opportunities.


SHRM Certification: Has becoming a SHRM credential-holder given you any new perspectives?

Sullivan: The answer is mixed—I'm adapting to a number of new things and haven't sorted it all out yet! I'm looking at a new job, a new role, a new industry and a very different business model compared to my previous work experiences.

Before coming to SHRM, I was vice president of HR at Tufts Medical Center in Boston. The health care workforce is always cognizant of how it is supporting patient care, keeping caregivers focused on the patient-care mission. At SHRM, the focus is on members and the challenges they face, aligning SHRM employees to the member-assistance mission. Both organizations are mission- and customer-focused—"customers" meaning patients or SHRM members.


SHRM Certification: What are some other career highlights? How did you get into HR?

Sullivan: In college and graduate school at Syracuse University, I was involved in residential life, which I enjoyed in addition to academics. Helping to facilitate various communities in the residence halls gave me some practice in applying HR skills. The connection became clear when a recruiter came to campus and talked about HR as a profession.

I envisioned a career in the public sector and got my master's degree in public administration with a concentration in HR. I started out at the Internal Revenue Service, which presented interesting challenges with a large workforce. They used a specialist model, and I was given a series of assignments—compensation, labor relations, etc.—to develop a focus.

Later on, I met an HR professional in the private sector whose company, TRW NorthrupGrumman, had a more generalized model. I became an HR generalist there and really began my career. For 12 years, I had the opportunity to move around to different TRW companies across the country, rounding out my HR skills under different business models, including technology, defense and manufacturing—everything from satellites to car parts.


SHRM Certification: Any advice for those considering SHRM certification?

Sullivan: Many of us try to help our organizations become learning organizations. I can't think of a better way than certification to demonstrate to your organization and yourself that you're committed to mastering the core HR competencies and the scope of HR knowledge recognized as essential to the profession.

Rena Gorlin, J.D., is an independent writer and editor in Washington, D.C.


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