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Never Stand Still: Jeff Burnett Learns as He Goes and Sees Failure as Part of Success


By Chris McClinch

For his contributions to the staffing industry, John Smith, retired senior vice president and legal counsel for Spherion Corp., received the Leadership Hall of Fame Award at Staffing World 2002. The award, the industry’s highest honor, was established in 1985 to recognize individuals who make outstanding contributions to the staffing industry and the American Staffing Association.

Smith was presented the award by ASA board member Robb Mulberger of NRI Staffing Services in Washington, DC.

Mulberger introduced Smith, a founding ASA board member, with a brief review of both the history of the industry and Smith’s 38 years as an industry leader.

Founding Father

Mulberger began by painting a picture of the industry in the mid-1960s: “Most temporary workers were either light industrial or maternity and vacation fill-ins, most placement fees were applicant-paid, and the average clerical placement fee was $250 to $300. To sell staffing services, you had to sell the concept. You had to convert nonusers to users. And there were but a handful of national firms, and even fewer were publicly traded.
“Clearly, this has all changed dramatically over the past 38 years, and the recipient of this year’s leadership award has been an industry leader all those years.

“In 1966, John Smith was part of a small group of individuals that went to Washington, DC, to talk about the formation of an association to represent the temporary help industry. And that’s how the American Staffing Association was formed. In 1966, we were known as the Institute of Temporary Services. ITS became NATS, NATS became ASA, and the rest is history.

“Over the years, John has almost continuously played an active role in the American Staffing Association. He didn’t just help found the association and go away. He’s been one of the most reliable go-to guys for the industry and the association ever since.

“During that time, I’ve had the opportunity to serve on several committees with John, and I’ve never failed to be impressed by the dynamic mix of legal knowledge and advice, along with solid business and leadership skills that John has brought to every single task and responsibility.”

Commitment to Leadership

Clearly moved by Mulberger’s tribute, Smith began his remarks, “I wish they’d left the smoke machine on [from the opening ceremony entertainment] so you couldn’t see the tear in my eye.”
Smith spoke with humility and a self-deprecating sense of humor that belied his important place in the history of the industry. “When I was told about this award, I called my father and asked if I was a gifted child. He said, ‘Of course. No one wanted to pay for you.’ Well, a funny thing happened many years later: they paid me to leave.”

Smith’s remarks focused on the vital role of leadership within the industry. “If I had been a member of the selection committee, I could have suggested a number of other noteworthy persons in the industry who could have received the industry leader award this year. To be your choice makes it a special moment for me and for my wife, Kathy, whose support and love can’t be measured by any award.

“I believe that it is important to have an industry leader award—not to honor one individual, but to demonstrate how important, and indeed how successful, leadership is and has been for our industry. Leadership, in many ways, large and small, recognized and unrecognized, has been a key factor in our industry’s dramatic growth over the years. Each one of you, every day, in your own way, takes actions that contribute to the leadership and success of our industry and the American Staffing Association.

“This is manifested by persons volunteering to serve on the ASA board and committees, persons taking time out to contact a legislator, persons creating a new service opportunity that places more people in jobs, and persons striving for the highest level of public service.

“However, there is no better recent example of a commitment to leadership than our outgoing chairman, Judy Zacha. She stepped in to fill the chairmanship before her term was to commence because of an unexpected vacancy. And then after fulfilling her regular term, she agreed to serve another term, again because of an unexpected vacancy. And she did so with enthusiasm, creativity, and commitment, devoting all the time necessary despite a challenging business environment. And for this she deserves our thanks and our respect.

“So while one person stands before you today as an industry leader, it is important that each of you take up the challenge of industry leadership and service to ASA. There are many opportunities in the years to come to stand before one’s peers and accept this award, and I challenge all of you to think and act in ways that may lead you to this podium. It is the individual daily actions taken—not by one person, but by all of those who seek to be leaders—that will ensure the future growth and success of this industry and ASA.

“Many of you know that I have retired, and this will be my last industry function. In 1965, I couldn’t imagine the scope of services we now provide, the pinnacles of success we have attained, and the millions of jobs we have created for the workforce. But there are many more successes to achieve, and that will only be possible by another aspect of leadership. Always respect and honor your field workforce. Treat them fairly, pay them fairly, and find new ways, perhaps even including new or enhanced employee benefits, to recruit and retain your most valuable asset.

“After Robb’s recital of my career, a thought struck me: seen it all, done it all, but can’t remember most of it. But I will always remember the many friendships I have made among you and the opportunity to learn from the many other leaders in this industry. So I thank you again, and I say good-bye. But I will always be standing on the sidelines to cheer you on.”

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