CHICAGO—Former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton welcomed the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) to her hometown of Chicago during the opening general session of the Society’s Annual Conference & Exposition on June 16, 2013.
“It is so great to be here with you today in Chicago, which you may know is my hometown,” Clinton said. “I have heard so much about the great work that SHRM chapters are doing around the country to give back to their communities—from finding jobs for veterans, to improving the education experience of your children and helping jobless and homeless people get back on their feet.”
Clinton told the audience that the country needs their HR expertise and knowledge more than ever to help keep the U.S. competitive and keep the economy vibrant. In her keynote speech, Clinton focused on a variety of issues that affect the HR profession. She had praise for the work and efforts of HR professionals, telling the crowd that “you know what it takes to provide workers the flexibility and benefits that they need to care for their children and aging parents. You also know what must be done to provide affordable health care to everyone.”
Her mention of the health care challenge drew an ovation from the audience, which greeted her warmly to the conference. Clinton said she knew that everyone in the room has the same wish and goal as she does—to make sure the United States remains the type of country that they want to live in and a place where their children can live happy and prosperous lives.
Although Clinton has not announced her plans for the 2016 presidential election, many political pundits are already calling her the top Democratic candidate. She didn’t discuss her future political ambitions during the session, but she did talk about the most valuable leadership lessons she learned while serving as Secretary of State from 2009 to Feb. 1, 2013. The first lesson, she said, was that “good decisions are based on evidence and not ideology.” She used this point to show that many countries, including the U.S., are hurting their productivity and economic growth by having barriers that keep women from participating in the workforce.
“Evidence has shown that eliminating barriers for women helps societies to thrive and improve their productivity,” she said. “If all the barriers to women were removed in the United States, it is estimated that our GDP would increase by 9 percent.”
The second lesson Clinton learned is that “leadership is a team sport. … Success is measured by how well you can get people to work together.”
Clinton’s third leadership lesson was “you can’t win if you don’t show up.” Clinton said this was the primary reason she traveled to 112 countries as Secretary of State. She said developing partnerships with other countries was crucial to keeping the U.S. a respected leader in the world.
The final two lessons, Clinton said, were that “a whisper can really be louder than a shout” and “to follow the trend lines, not the headlines.”
“What make America great are our values,” she said. “And we can never neglect that, and that’s an important lesson all of us must follow in our day-to-day lives.”
In a question-and-answer session with SHRM president and CEO and Henry G. “Hank” Jackson, Clinton addressed how her political and government experience had changed her approach to decision-making and communications.
“You have to be willing to take risks, and they don’t always work out,” she said. “Secondly, it’s important to take criticism seriously but not personally. If you’re in the public eye or even the HR department, you get a lot of challenges and questions and conflicts you have to resolve. You are going to be criticized. I learned you do need to listen to the criticism; you might very well learn to get better. But it can’t be so personally absorbed that you can’t get out of bed the next day.
“Reading the different cultural cues was especially important around the world. All those lessons help to give you a little more insight into how to work with someone, how to build a relationship with someone. It comes down to being respectful, being polite. That needs to be re-emphasized in our world today.”
Clinton also talked about the HR challenges of managing nearly 70,000 State Department employees. “A lot of them were not Americans because we employ many foreign nationals in our posts around the world. When you’re in a big bureaucracy, they have a lot of rules. You can’t throw out the rule book, but everything was changing so much. We didn’t have much of a social media presence when I got there. We had to start using technology; we had to form relationships with all the big companies like Google. That shook things up. We held lots of town hall meetings and met with lots of groups. We tried to listen as much as we could.”
Asked about the current congressional debate over immigration reform, Clinton said, “I hope it’s heading to a new law that will resolve a lot of these issues. It’s way overdue. We need to have border security—there are many reasons to have effective border security, in addition to the immigration reason. We need to hold accountable those who continue to employ people they know are illegal. [But] we have so many more student visas than H-1B visas. We educate students and then don’t let them stay and work for you. Our economic recovery is to some extent fueled by a steady stream of well-qualified workers coming out of our own institutions, native-born, legally here. I see immigration reform as an economic issue.
“Part of what has kept us vital is that we’ve always been a country of immigrants, and I want us to remain that and be smart about it. I think this reform will help us do that.”
Clinton deftly deflected Jackson’s invitation to return to SHRM in 2016 as one of the major party presidential candidates, saying, “Whatever capacity I’m in, I would certainly appreciate a chance to come back and talk to you and find out what you’re doing.”
Bill Leonard is senior editor and Kathy Gurchiek is associate editor for HR News.