SHRM Emerging Professional Champions: Libby Sartain

Andrew Deichler By Andrew Deichler May 5, 2021
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SHRM Emerging Professional Champions: Libby Sartain

As part of an effort to recognize the next generation of human resource leaders, the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) is naming students, alumni and others who work on behalf of emerging professionals as SHRM Emerging Professional Champions. This week, we're looking at Libby Sartain, independent board director, business advisor, author and SHRM Foundation immediate past chair.

Libby Sartain's career history is intertwined with the progress of the HR profession itself. For more than 30 years, she has been instrumental in moving HR forward, and SHRM along with it.

When Sartain first became interested in HR at Southern Methodist University in Dallas in the mid-1970s, the profession was referred to as personnel administration. She joined the student chapter of SHRM, which at the time was called the American Society for Personnel Administration (ASPA). It wasn't long before she was named vice president of the chapter and began attending meetings for the local ASPA professional chapter, the Dallas Personnel Association (now known as Dallas HR).

She later pursued her master's degree in business at the University of North Texas in Denton, Texas and became an officer in the ASPA student chapter there. After finishing graduate school and starting her career in HR, Sartain soon joined the Dallas ASPA professional chapter. She became the chapter president in 1988 and began attending ASPA annual conferences. It was around this time that ASPA became SHRM. "I decided that I'd really like to get involved with SHRM on a national basis," she said.

At the time, Sartain was working as a director of benefits and compensation, so she joined SHRM's Compensation and Benefits Committee and was eventually named chair. Later, while heading up HR for Southwest Airlines, she joined SHRM's board of directors. She was named chair in 2001.

During her time on SHRM's board, the organization went through some restructuring, driven by the changing face of the HR profession. "When we were ASPA, we were fighting for our rightful place to be part of management," she said. "[HR] was seen as an administrative function. So SHRM has evolved as the profession has evolved. And SHRM has led, in my opinion, the evolution of the profession."

[HR Storytellers: Libby Sartain, former head of HR for Southwest Airlines and Yahoo!, describes what it takes for HR to metaphorically—and sometimes literally—find a "seat at the table."]

SHRM helped move HR out of that administrative space and into the C-suite, Sartain explained. And HR's influence has only continued to grow. "Right now, we're at a point in time where the human capital management strategy is one of the most important topics being discussed in boardrooms," she said. "DE&I [diversity, equity and inclusion], of course, is one of the most critical issues in society, but also in corporations. So the profession has really come a long way."

After serving her term as chairperson, Sartain took a bit of a backseat at SHRM, but was highly active professionally, working as the chief people officer at Yahoo Inc. and later serving on the boards for Peet's Coffee & Tea and other companies. But it wasn't long before SHRM came calling again.

In 2011, the SHRM Foundation asked for her help with fundraising. At the time, the Foundation had raised about $5 million and wanted to quadruple that in order to make a more significant contribution to the HR profession. Sartain eventually took over as chair of the foundation board and helped the foundation meet its goal by engaging high-level donors.

Sartain currently serves as chair of the AARP Foundation and immediate past chair of the SHRM Foundation, and is a board member for Manpower Group. She is also an accomplished author, having co-written HR from the Heart: Inspiring Stories and Strategies for Building the People Side of Great Business (AMACOM, 2003), one of the first books written by HR practitioners rather than academics and consultants.

Sartain gives much credit to SHRM for her impressive career. "SHRM provided many learning opportunities," she said. "It provided me with my first board seat so that I learned how to be an effective board member. It allowed me to make mistakes along the way, and it helped me evolve my career to become a leader in the field."

Do you know an outstanding SHRM student leader? How about a former SHRM student member who is achieving great success professionally? Or maybe a SHRM professional member, student chapter advisor or professional chapter that is advancing student membership and emerging professional programming? Nominate them as a SHRM Emerging Professional Champion today.

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