5 Lessons From Hillary Clinton at SHRM13


This year’s keynote speaker at the SHRM conference was none other then the honorable Hillary Rodham Clinton.  While she didn’t make any big reveals on her plans for 2016, she did share 5 leadership lessons to help CEOs and HR leaders think about the important ways in which their role fits into the rapidly evolving economy and future of the United States.

Lesson #1:  Good Decisions are Based on Evidence Not Ideology

Hillary offered a powerful example—as the most traveled Secretary of State of all-time (visiting over 140 countries many for the first time ever for a US Secretary of State), she arrived at many countries that have dramatically different views on women’s rights.  When Hillary made her case to world leaders in these countries that these practices needed to change, she did not appeal to their ethics or better nature, but rather irrefutable evidence put out by the World Bank and IMF that shows that when barriers to a full participation within society for women are reduced, GDP and other indicators of progress go up.  In fact, a Goldman Sachs report shows that further reduction to barriers for women in the US would actually increase our GDP by 9%.

Lesson #2:  Leadership is a Team Sport

When Hillary lost in the 2008 primaries to Barack Obama the two had spent close to a year attacking one another as vehemently intense competitors.  No one could have predicted that just a few short years later they would be forming an unrivaled team as cabinet member and president.  Hillary attributes this to the ability for both parties to move beyond past history and work together to act in the best interest of common goals and their belief of what would make for a better America.  Likewise, Hillary recognized the importance for company leaders, and HR representatives in particular to turn company culture away from internal politics or spats and towards a drive for achieving bigger goals as a team.

Lesson #3:  You Can’t Win if You Don’t Show Up

Woody Allen already said it best, saying that 85% of winning is showing up.  Hillary took this mantra a step further saying that often showing up takes courage.  Hillary turned down the idea of running for the Senate for many years, until she realized the hypocrisy of her message, telling young girls to always strive for bigger dreams, while feeling intimidated about always pushing forward her career trajectory.  Furthermore, she noted the importance of showing up in-person in the digitial age.  Just tuning in by Hangout, sending a text or email, is not sufficient when it comes for building deep relationships or trying to tackle problems that require you to truly understand someone else’s background or thought process.  Job seekers can succeed by showing up in person to networking events, and hiring managers likewise, can build better talent communities by meeting students on campus, or job seekers at Meetups or other industry events.

Lesson #4: A Whisper Can Be Stronger Than a Shout

In global politics and in office politics oftentimes discretion can be an important skill.  Hillary offered the example of how child marriage in one country she was working with was prevalent—an embarrassing issue for the country involved who was working hard to fix the cultural issues that were propagating this issue.   Rather than publicly scold the country when a critical court case came up on the issue, causing them to back into their shell, she helped guide the process from behind the scenes, ultimately leading to a better conclusion than drawing pubic attention ever could have.  It’s not always easy, not to take credit for work, but within HR oftentimes large egos and private issues are involved, and it is important to know when a win is more important than a big celebration.

Lesson #5:  Follow the Trendlines Not the Headlines

While it is easy to get caught up in the headlines, especially in the digital age, this makes it all the more important for companies to define key values that they can turn to on tough decisions that define their culture, impact, and soul.  Hilary’s example came from the time a Chinese dissident took refuge in the American embassy.  The dissident represented the importance of free speech, but keeping him in the embassy could have caused significant tension in US-Chinese relations.  Ultimately the choice was made easy by the fact that while ongoing work with China in the economy and other parts of the world was crucial, standing up for American values was something that could never be forgotten.  Likewise, any company that needs to make a decision on a great hire, but one who might be a terrible cultural fit should think again.  Likewise for companies who are thinking about a deal that might lead to short term profits, but erode long-term values.  These are the decisions that matter and in these cases the headlines are not helpful.

All in all Hillary gave a fantastic speech and while few of the examples were directly pulled from HR situations (although Hilary does manage a team of over 70,000 individuals at the State Department) the key ideas she espoused were incredibly relevant to being a leader in HR or otherwise at your company.  It was a fun, succinct conversation, full of good stories and a great start to a fantastic SHRM conference.

A few additional notes 

In the question and answer section I really enjoyed Hillary’s answer to one very HR relevant question: how she helped keep the State Department team of 70,000 employees more effective and innovative given the constraints of a big bureaucratic organization.

She spoke about two trends most HR leaders will know well: culture and transparency.

On the culture side, she encouraged people to take risks.  She knew how influential rapidly evolving social media trends could be on global movements, and rather than continue policies that forced employees to wait before engaging, which was often too late, she emphasized a policy that it was ok to move fast and make mistakes.  She didn’t push people for screwing up, which invariably happens with such a culture and helped reinforce this new policy.

Second, she hosted town halls where employees could voice all kinds of concerns directly to her, and which helped bring transparency to about issues and future vision for this huge department.  Both are ideas we’ve seen implemented effectively in organizations of all sizes.

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Nathan Parcells

Nathan Parcells is VP of Marketing and co-founder of Looksharp. He has spent the past decade helping students launch their career, researching best practices for hiring millennials (including running Looksharp's annual "State of College Hiring") and sharing these insights with employers. Nathan's work has been featured in Forbes, TechCrunch, Business Insider and more. Outside of work, Nathan is an avid rock climber, back packer and Bob Dylan fan.