Against a backdrop of recessionary fear and anxiety, massive layoffs and huge uncertainty over dwindling pensions and retirement funds, former General Electric Chairman and CEO Jack Welch pulled no punches welcoming about 7,000 HR practitioners to the 61st Annual Society for Human Resource Management's Annual Conference and Exposition, held June 28 to July 1 in New Orleans.
In his characteristic acerbic, blunt style, Welch sternly rebuked any HR professional who fails to take advantage of these times to prove the function's worth.
"You can't be a 'sluggo' anymore," he commanded to a smattering of nervous laughter.
In a question-and-answer approach to the conference's opening keynote, TV journalist Claire Shipman asked what tough-love advice Welch, now columnist, author and MIT professor, had for his audience.
"Do not be a victim," Welch said. "I see too many HR people who whine about their place in the company" without doing anything to fix it.
"Get to a place where you have impact," he said. "If you have strength, you can make a difference.
"I ask you, how many of you work in companies where the CHRO and the CFO are on equal footing?" he asked. Though some hands went up, Welch quickly purveyed the room.
"Damn it," he said emphatically. "Not enough!"
Why aren't there more CEOs who "get" the importance of HR? Shipman asked. "What can we do to effect this?"
Welch didn't hesitate.
"Deliver," he said. "Deliver, deliver. Over-deliver. Make your boss smarter ... . Give top managers the stuff they've never thought of.
"This recession is sharper and more intense than any of us could have imagined, and in the course of it, the HR function got exposed. The tide went out and some of you were left standing naked.
"A time of crisis is a time of change, but you have to have a culture of creativity," he said. "If you're talking about change, make sure people know how that change will affect them.
"And have the guts to challenge your CEO" if he or she doesn't understand the value of HR, Welch said. Rework compensation plans to drive long-term success.
"You don't need a ... cheerleader," he said, "when the damn thing is leaking."