Jeff Mike at the 2022 SHRM Annual Conference & Expo

Dispatch from the SHRM 2022 Annual Conference & Expo: A Call for HR Leadership and Innovation

It was a real thrill to join over 15,000 HR professionals this year in New Orleans, and more online, at the 2022 SHRM Annual Conference & Expo. While the hybrid format of the conference mirrors the increasingly permanent hybrid workplace we are all adjusting to, I was excited to descend upon “The Big Easy” for the first time as well as my first-ever SHRM Annual Conference. I am glad I attended the event. 


According to, New Orleans’ nickname, “The Big Easy,” was popularized by a 1960’s gossip column that compared it to New York’s “Big Apple.” Instead of the hustle and bustle, the in-your-face lifestyle of New York City, New Orleans may be characterized by a more laid-back and congenial Southern lifestyle. I found this to be true. In every interaction I had with the people of New Orleans, I found them to be among the most pleasant and approachable I’ve experienced anywhere. This spirit flowed into the conference as well. From the networking events to sessions and routine interactions on the shuttles, everyone was open and engaging. 


Many of the sessions and their subsequent conversations focused on hybrid work, mental health, policy and compliance, recruitment and retention, human potential and, of course, diversity, equity and inclusion. Given the emergence of a “trans-pandemic” workplace and continuing disruptions, I focused my sessions on leadership and innovation. As these topics were also at the center of my doctoral studies, I was very excited to see some of the most current thinking of leadership and innovation applied to the current HR world. 


HR Leadership: Now More Than Ever

While there have been numerous calls for HR to step up and transform over the past few decades, the conference clearly intensified this need. One of the comments I heard throughout the conference, from the opening keynote to a number of sessions and follow-up conversations, went something like this:


“Everybody is looking at HR to provide guidance and leadership on challenges that we’ve never seen before.” – Tony Buffum

Leadership and innovation are at the very center of this reality, and clearly HR is ready for both the challenge and the opportunity to move the profession forward like never before. I recognized this after being turned away from a standing-room-only session on how HR can and must play a role in organizational strategy. Fortunately, I was able to get in early on the second of these sessions. The presenter closed the session with a challenge, perhaps a little outside the norms for HR professionals:  


“Choose to be a leader instead of an expert. The world doesn’t need your expertise, it needs your leadership.” – Richard Fagerlin

This idea resonated through other packed leadership sessions as well. In an incredibly enjoyable yet practical session titled “Radical Recovery – How Great Leaders Come Back from Tough Times,”
Anton Gunn charged the audience to make things right in the face of unfairness at work and other human challenges. This applies even when we’re exhausted or don’t feel like it – because that’s what leaders do. Rachel Drukenmiller, in an exceptionally interactive session on intentional leadership given how large it was, helped us realize how far HR influence can extend given the way we treat people in our care affects the way they treat people in their care. It was hard to imagine any HR person not feeling personally how this connects with our profession and gives us an opportunity for meaning in our work. 


Innovation for a Purpose

While the leadership presenters took things up a notch from prior events I’ve attended in terms of their quality and application, the sessions were not just about entertainment or making us feel good about the profession. There’s a purpose behind this focus on leadership in HR: innovation in the workplace in the face of unprecedented change and uncertainty.


One of my favorite sessions was delivered by Britt Andreatta, PhD titled “The Science of Building a Culture of Innovation.” In addition to providing the opportunity to nerd out on the neuroscience behind innovation, Dr. Andreatta clearly explained the relationship between creativity and innovation, and the difference between breakthrough and incremental innovation. Perhaps more importantly, she demonstrated how organizational, HR and team leaders can create the conditions for innovation in the workplace and to channel the creativity of the workforce into real change. 


Tony Buffum tied all this together to demonstrate an innovative solution to a massive business problem facing HR right now: access to talent. A former CHRO with large and prominent enterprises, Tony shared how familiar and incremental strategies in HR have remained the same over decades and how ineffective they are in dealing with this problem. Rather than “acquisition of talent” (we don’t own the people we hire), we need to find new ways of accessing the skills available through independent contractors. 


Given that independent contractors will number over 90 million in the US by 2028, combined with a large and growing need for reskilling the workforce, we must make accessing the skills of non-employee workforces a priority in HR. This is yet another strategic challenge for HR, however, Tony shared some hard data and real stories about how doing so can speed up projects while saving considerable costs. 


An Unprecedented Opportunity – and Responsibility

The application of HR leadership and innovation to access non-employee talent at the skills level is particularly relevant to my work at Flextrack. We see an opportunity to disrupt how enterprise organizations engage with non-employee talent with our extended workforce solution. The data is there, the need is there and the opportunity to extend the gains in employee experience and wellness beyond our FTEs is there. HR must step up to the challenge. 


I am very fortunate to have met such an amazing group of speakers, presenters and HR professionals at the SHRM 2022 Annual Conference & Expo. I hope that this short dispatch has given you a taste of this amazing event and that you find some inspiration of your own to step up and lead like HR has never done before.

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Jeff Mike

Jeff Mike

Head of Research, Flextrack

Jeff Mike works closely with HR, Procurement and IT leaders to design extended workforce ecosystems that fuel and future-proof enterprise talent strategies. Jeff brings over 15 years of experience leading HR functions, along with five years leading global HR- and workforce-related research, to combine the best thought leadership, business practices, and platform technology into purpose-built solutions.

Jeff Mike