Mulally, Rowe Herald Hard Work, HR at SHRM

Alan Mulally, left, and Mike Rowe share the stage in SHRM’s open ing keynote. Photo by Chris Williams/SHRM

In an unlikely coupling of two friends — one described by his co-star as a kind of Howdy Doody “Boy Scout” and the other a well-recognized master of grunge, grit and grime — Alan Mulally and Mike Rowe kicked off this year’s Society for Human Resource Management’s annual conference heralding the importance of hard work and HR leadership.

In their joint opening keynote Sunday at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center in the nation’s capital, Mulally, former president and CEO of Ford Motor Co., and Rowe, host of Dirty Jobs on the Discovery Channel, shared their stories, and their messages about HR’s new stature in the business world, with a healthy dose of fun.

“Here’s what I think,” Mulally told a roomful of thousands of conference-goers. “I think human resource professionals rock!” His comment got raucous applause.

Sharing his keys to success, though — putting his people first; including everyone in all communications; and making sure everyone knows the company’s vision, performance goals and the status of every plan, to name just a few — he came back to the importance of HR.

“HR is the leader of many, many resources, and you’re making all of that happen,” he said.

Even in the country’s tough, post-9/11 years, Ford’s decision not to take federal bailout money was a transparent, collective one. “Watching our suppliers falling into bankruptcy,” he said, “knowing what was happening could bankrupt the nation, we made our decision [together] to do the right thing.”

And even then, he added, HR drove the communication, alignment and buy-in.

Rowe — who said he had worked for Mulally at Ford and then met him years later after becoming a voice behind many Ford commercials and later a television star — injected some hilarity into the “duet” by recalling how Dirty Jobs came to be.

As he told it, his concept came to him after reviewing tapes of himself trying to interview a sanitation official in the sewers of San Francisco, with many disgusting mishaps of every imaginable disgusting variety.

“I realized I was laughing; something very compelling was happening,” said Rowe. “But what was even more compelling than [the scatological Laurel and Hardy routine, for lack of a better description] was the knowledge and the real work” his interviewee was describing throughout it all. It seems the real work involved replacing bricks and understanding every nuance about why that had to be done.

“I let my guest be the expert he is … to connect [with viewers] the real miracle of how things really work and how jobs really get done,” he said, adding a lament that “we’re not valuing work enough, understanding how work gets done.”

But HR, he suggested, can take  the lead in understanding and facilitating this communication in an organization, about how things work there and what work needs to happen.

“Somewhere in your company is [this type of sewer specialist],” he said. “He’s probably little-known, but he needs to be heard.”

Mulally echoed the importance of facilitating the communication of work and what needs to be done as the only way an entire organization — in his case, Ford — can come together and “face reality.”

Added to his list of imperatives for successfully climbing out of the kind of “economic and financial reality we were facing in our toughest years,” he said, [were] respecting, listening to, helping and appreciating each other [and] building emotional resistance to trust the process.”

Lastly and most importantly, said Mulally, “is [to] have fun; enjoy the journey and each other” through everything you weather and accomplish.