Linda Sharkey: An interview by Bob Morris

Linda Sharkey is a proven leader with experience in Fortune 10 companies building teams and driving talent development initiatives that support productivity and company growth. She has specific expertise in culture transformation, developing high potential leaders and building proven talent processes that yield better leadership capability. A book co-authored with Dr. Paul Eccher, Optimizing Talent, is a groundbreaking work spelling out proven steps to build a talent rich organization and a must read for every leader who knows talent is the real competitive advantage. Her most recent book, Winning with Transglobal Leadership: How to Find and Develop Top Global Talent to Build World-Class Organizations, was co-authored with Nazneen Razi, Robert A. Cooke, and Peter A. Barge and published by McGraw-Hill (2012). This book has been named one of the “top 30 best business books for 2012” by Soundview Executive Summaries.

Currently, Linda is Global Managing Director and Partner of Achieveblue, a global leadership development consultancy that focuses on culture, talent development and leadership coaching. Most recently Linda was V.P., People Development at Hewlett Packard, responsible for establishing and driving the company’s talent management initiative, performance management processes, career development, executive staffing, coaching, employee engagement, and diversity and inclusion efforts. In this capacity she launched an executive development process that resulted in key actions to drive a high performance culture.

Prior to HP, Linda held numerous Senior Human Resources and Talent Management roles at GE. She established a leadership development effort for GE Capital that was named a best practice by CEO Jack Welch. She led several key cultural integrations, established a coaching process for executives, developed HR professionals as coaches and personally coached many senior leaders. Linda is widely published in the area of leadership development, culture change and executive coaching. She is a frequent keynote speaker at company events, Linkage, Talent Management magazine conferences, Conference Board and the Organization Development Network. She holds a PhD in Organization Development from Benedictine University, MPA from Russell Sage College and a BA in History from Nazareth College. She is a past two-term member of the Academy of Management Board for OD as the scholar practitioner.

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Morris: Before discussing Optimizing Talent, a few general questions. First, who has had the greatest influence on your personal growth? How so?

Sharkey: I think there are really numerous people my parents who had an insatiable interest in learning and education. Their parents were not educated and came to the US as first generation Irish and German Irish. None of them progressed past high school and in some cases did not graduate from high school. But my grandparents made sure that my parents received a college education at great personal sacrifice. This act alone helped underscore for my parents the importance of learning and knowledge. My parents were also very focused on travel and learning about other cultures, societies and language.

Thus my sibling and I were encouraged and extremely curious about all parts of the world and have travelled or lived in numerous parts of the global. This thirst for knowledge and learning about other cultures influenced my undergraduate degree which was in History and Political Science. I was fascinated with how other countries in the world evolved. Of course my mother was also a history major. Once I got into the business world I met my husband and this is where I learned about the functioning of organizations and many of the inequities that existed between management and labor. My husband was and still is a great mentor and influencer of my thinking. He helped me expand my education in ways I never would have thought possible when I met him. He encouraged my personal growth and confidence to make a difference in the business world.

Morris: The greatest impact on your professional development? How so?

Sharkey: There are really so many. For example:

1. Working early on out of college and seeing and experiencing first hand work place discrimination against women and diverse talent when I worked for a bank and a large aluminum company

2. Working for a labor union and understanding how important the supervisory relationship was between a worker and his or her boss to build constructive workplaces and the impact of poor leadership on workplace productivity

3. Getting involved in with the Work in America Institute and gaining exposure to Eric Trist, quality of worklife initiatives in Jamestown New York and learning more about Organization Development which fascinated me

4. Connecting with General Motors OD department and trying to bring constructive labor management practices and OD techniques to New York State Government where I worked at the time was huge in setting me on the path I am today and finally

5. Attending Benedictine University where I was able to take my knowledge to the next level.

Morris: Years ago, was there a turning point (if not an epiphany) that set you on the career course you continue to follow? Please explain.

Sharkey: Yes when was working for NYS government and heading a joint labor management project for the Governor’s Office of Employee Relations. I realized that creating great workplaces was not a political agenda but rather a leadership and organization agenda. Labor and Management if they were politically motivated could not work together to effect constructive change. I then recognized that developing leaders who understood how to build high performance organizations and develop talent was really the place to focus energy. These leaders, if enlightened, could in fact make the real difference. Labor alone could not do it without the cooperation of management which at times was hard to get.

Morris: To what extent has your formal education been invaluable to what you have accomplished in life thus far?

Sharkey: As I mentioned before, my formal education was invaluable – particularly my Benedictine University (BU) experience. To use a trite phrase it really helped me sharpen my saw. I was in the first cohort of BU with 25 individuals. All were practitioners with lots of great experience. Not only was the faculty enlightening but the students themselves shared such rich experiences. It was a joy to be there and learn from their experiences but also get feedback on the approaches I was using in the business environment. My Ph.D. has put me in a completely different place professionally. It has helped me launch this next phase of my career.

Morris: What do you know now about the business world that you wish you knew when you when you went to work full-time for the first time? Why?

Sharkey: I wish I was less naïve and realized how inequitable and poorly managed the workplace is in many cases. Of course this is not true in all circumstances. I would have been much less disappointed about what I found in some really well know companies. We have not yet cracked the code on how to develop great leaders and organizations. However this early experience spurred me on to pursue a passion for building great leaders, positive cultures and powerful organization dynamics and systems. Organizations that have leaders that are passionate about their people, create constructive cultures and positive organization dynamics with aligned supporting processes and systems are the ones that will and have sustained over time. They are few and far between.

Morris: Here are several of my favorite quotations to which I ask you to respond. First, from Lao-Tzu’s Tao Te Ching:

“Learn from the people
Plan with the people
Begin with what they have
Build on what they know
Of the best leaders
When the task is accomplished
The people will remark
We have done it ourselves.”

Sharkey: This of course is a classic quote but one that I think is very poignant. In my mind this is a credo for everyone to live their life by. It certainly is the recipe for great leadership that has universal application. In this increasingly global world this quote provides guidance for leaders no matter where they are in the world.

Morris: Finally, from Peter Drucker: “There is surely nothing quite so useless as doing with great efficiency what should not be done at all.”

Sharkey: Drucker’s quote also resonates with me as I see this phenomenon all the time. Leaders, managers and thus employees waste precious time in my experience pursuing the trivial and missing the things that have so much more meaning and purpose to the organizations success. This does not happen everywhere but it does happen throughout even great organizations where there are pockets of leadership that is not enlightened. This is tragic, causing disengagement and wastes talent and drains people’s energy.

Morris: In recent years, there has been criticism, sometimes severe criticism of M.B.A. programs, even those offered by the most prestigious business schools. In your opinion, in which area is there the great need for immediate improvement? Any suggestions?

Sharkey: I recently coached a CEO who is brilliant man. He has an MBA from an extremely prestigious school. This CEO was revered for his technical excellence in his field and his ability to analyze situations to define a solid strategy. However, he has been abysmal on the people side of the equation. He was widely recognized in his field and has never been a CEO before this most recent appointment. Other roles he played did not surface his lack of emotional intelligence as much as the CEO role did. He was completely unable to read others well and had a narcissistic streak. When he finally got his dream CEO job he was unable to engage his team, in fact he completely alienated them. He simply lacked the skills and personal insights to be an effective leader of others. He ultimately was fired which was an extremely painful experience for everyone involved.

The point of this story underscores what I believe is a serious flaw in our MBA curriculum. We need to spend as much time on the leadership behavioral aspects, the human elements of organizations and culture as we do on the finance, marketing, strategy, innovation and business results. It is my experience that most CEO’s and C Suite leaders fail not because they lack the intellectual horsepower or technical capability but they have limited insight into their interpersonal behavior as well as how to engage people and build strong organization alignments and culture.

Morris: Looking ahead (let’s say) 3-5 years, what do you think will be the greatest challenge that CEOs will face? Any advice?

Sharkey: Leading in this increasingly shrinking world and global environment that is moving at warped speed and is highly complex, diverse and ever connected through social media will confront all leaders whether they lead global organization off their shores or they lead from their home countries. In fact, this is the focus of our most recent book that I co-authored Winning with Translgobal Leadership. Poor leadership will show up more quickly and be less tolerated and the mistakes will be quickly evident. We discovered 5 critical dimensions for global leaders or Transglobal Leaders as we refer to them that are essential for success. These dimensions are not nice to have but have been documented through our research as essential to have. If you are leading in this global context you need to assess yourself and those in global roles to ensure you have the 5 dimensions and if not that you have a plan and the support to develop them going forward.

Morris: Now please shift your attention to Optimizing Talent. When and why did you and Paul Eccher decide to write it and do so in collaboration?

Sharkey: Paul and I went to Benedictine together for our Ph.D’s. We were in the same class and had many like-minded ideas. He and I had done a number of projects together at GE and HP that were extremely powerful in assessing, coaching and developing talent systems. Additionally, Paul’s work in his consulting firm with many companies large and small and my work inside companies developing talent and leaders provided us with a rich perspective that we wanted to validate through research and ultimately share. We shared another important passion, we believe that OD and HR professionals need to apply more science and rigor to our field and use data and predictive analytics to demonstrate that the approaches used in these fields do in fact impact business outcomes positively. We also saw numerous approaches to talent management, some more effective than others and we wanted to test what really worked in developing talent and ultimately improved business results. Our goal was to develop a rigorous whole systems model that was data driven, aligned to business outcomes and could be systematically applied t to the people side of the house.

We sat down together about three years ago now and brainstormed the model we believe could be a whole systems approach to developing and building talent rich organization that would in fact drive improved business outcomes. In our experience we did not see companies using whole systems approaches rather we saw silos in HR that were not interconnected to drive systematic improvement. Paul and I had complimentary skills and areas of focus which was great for collaboration.

Morris: Were there any head-snapping revelations while writing it? Please explain.

Sharkey: There were several that really jumped off the page. The most obvious one was that a constructive organization culture is highly correlated to business results. Companies that did not have leaders who valued, developed and supported positive people practices were much less successful from a business standpoint than those that did. While we always suspected this we proved it through our research.
We also discovered the performance management systems as they typically designed have a minimal impact on business performance. If fact improving your performance management system by 3 points and has a zero net effect on the company’s business results. However, if you improve the organizations culture by 1 point it provides a 10% bump in your business outcomes. We think this is pretty significant.

We also discovered that Human Resources and Organization Development professionals spend more time working on performance management systems then they do on culture. This is a perfect example of the Drucker quote above – making something that really doesn’t matter so much, more efficient. Finally, we learned that we did in deed find a validated whole systems approach to talent management. Our model if used accounts for over 55% of the variance in any talent system – which is pretty good. Few approaches used in the workplace can make that claim.

Morris: To what extent (if any) does the book in final form differ significantly from what you originally envisioned?

Sharkey: It doesn’t really differ very much. We created the model tested it with top tier companies who were members of Executive Networks, conducted in-depth interviews with those companies to clarify practices, refined the survey based upon the finding from this step and surveyed over 400 Fortune 1000 companies to capture the data. Then we did the analysis and correlations. We did research on each component of the model, wrote about the model, each component and the results of the research. We had always intended this to be a practical book underscored by facts and research with clear and actionable steps that practitioners could take to improve their talent systems.

Morris: Here are two separate but related questions: What is “optimized talent”? By which specific criteria can one determine whether or not the given talent has been optimized?

Sharkey: Optimized talent is talent that has the skills to do the job relative to the company’s strategy at a high level not only for today but for the future as well. An optimized workforce is both effective in how they do the job but also efficient from a cost perspective. Here are the questions to consider as you move to the optimal workforce:

o Does the talent behave in ways that reflect the companies’ values?
o Do they have the technical qualities to effectively and efficiently perform the current role and beyond?
o Do they have the leadership characteristics that will enable them to grow with the company?
o Does the talent align with the company strategy?

The first step is to get clear and specific answers to the questions above. The answers to these questions form the criteria for determining the effectiveness of your current workforce. The criteria are different obviously for each company. Without the detail from the above questions it is difficult to move towards an optimized workforce. However, I would like to highlight that many companies have not effectively clarified the answers to the above questions or left the answers to HR teams or consultants. This is a very big and costly mistake. The leaders of the organization need to be crystal clear on the answers to the above questions as the answers are the bedrock for the whole system. They become the criteria against which you will collect data to validate the quality and effectiveness of the talent. If the leaders don’t own this step the rest system will be based upon assumptions of what is important. Then of course you need to know what “best” looks like. It is not enough to define the values and behaviors and the technical skills but also do define what great talent looks like in actionable terms when they are performing at their peak. This then becomes the criteria against which everyone is assessed.

Morris: What is the “talent optimization gap”? How best to reduce (if not eliminate) that gap?

Sharkey: The talent gap is the difference between the qualities and skills you need at a high or peak level to effectively execute the business strategy and the skills and qualities you currently have. This of course is all based upon data and objective assessment. This can be done across the organization, by job levels, families and regions. Once you know the gaps it becomes obvious where you need to focus you energy to improve the systems you use that produces the talent – specifically, training, recruitment, stretch roles, performance management etc. Since you have a base line of where you stand you can also measure the progress you have made to raise the talent bar.

Morris: You identify two “key enablers,” leadership and culture. Please explain.

Sharkey: Leadership behaviors shape the culture of the company if the leaders do not support or embrace talent development activities in a robust way progress in building a talent rich organization will not be made. If people and talent are not valued in the company and the leadership does not value talent development, programs get squashed, people get treated as cogs in a machine and turnover increases. Overall company performance suffers. We have seen wonderful talent programs that have been developed by excellent talent professionals that go nowhere because the culture and the leadership do not value the efforts.

Morris: The Talent Management System and Survey™ consist of six components. Which of them do most companies seem to have the greatest difficulty developing? Why?

Sharkey: Strategic alignment as well as culture and talent assessment seem to be the ones that most companies struggle with. In part, this is because they are a bit out of the mainstream and perhaps more difficult to do. Every HR and OD professional will say that there needs to be strategic alignment but many are ill equipped to assist organization leaders in teasing out the skills and buckets of talent required to advance the strategy.

The culture for many organizations can be an elusive element that they just simply cannot see. The culture is so pervasive that the hidden elements of it are not recognized or understood as blockers to moving forward.

Many companies don’t assess their culture but merely do engagement surveys that reveal symptoms of the culture but not the root cause. Few organizations use a systematic and fact based approach to assess their talent because they have not done the work of really defining what are critical characteristics and skills for company success. This is hard work and many HR professionals internally are not equipped or encouraged to objectively do this work. The training and performance management systems are more tangible and can be visibly seen as actions taken. But without the analysis of the strategy, the culture and assessment of the talent, these activities become only tactics that cannot show real business improvements.

Morris: What are the most common – and ominous – symptoms of a broken talent system?

Sharkey: Saying one thing and doing another. Slogans that say talent is important but when push comes to shove, short term results are rewarded above all else. I remember an organization I was working with that had a vision statement that talent was the most important asset of the company and that this was a team and collaboration based organization. When the employee engagement surveys came out the employees felt anything but the most important asset and collaboration among groups was hard to find. Needless to say this organization has the highest turnover in its industry. We see this all the time where what is said is not what is valued or rewarded.

Morris: On Pages 26-27, you list those items rated lowest. What are these ratings significant? What do they suggest?

Sharkey: If you look at the highest rated items which are items that responders said they did the most and the lowest rated items that raters did the least you can easily see that activities that relate to the performance management system seem to be the main area of focus. We have already pointed out that performance management systems have the least impact on the business outcomes however this is where HR professionals seem to spend most of their time and it seems to be the tactical aspects of the performance management system. However, when you look at the lowest rated items – where HR and other leaders spend the least amount of time it seems to be in the more strategic areas. We think this is because it requires different behaviors and more energy to uncover the true levers for success in your organization and what is really impeding progress.

Morris: I commend you and Paul on your brilliant use of Tables. I think Table 3.1 on Page 33, “Items Correlated with Four Key Business Outcomes,” provides some of the most valuable material in the book. In your opinion, which h of the correlations in each of the four categories is most important? First, “Business Results Surpassing Those of Market Competitors”

Sharkey: I think they all are important. They really affirm two essentials: you have to have top quality HR professionals who can coach, provide feedback and assess talent and you have to have a talent strategy that goes beyond identifying your high potentials and successors. You need a clear roadmap of how you are going to develop your talent that is understood and followed, regularly measured and refined.

Next, “Employee Engagement, Performance Feedback, and Development”

Sharkey: Again, the clear talent vision and strategy is key! Articulating the competencies required and assessing against those competencies is critical and finally providing actionable feedback.

Morris: Then, “Retention of High Potential Leaders”

Sharkey: The quality again of your HR professional is essential in order to retain top talent and the engagement of your leaders in the process along with communicating the outcomes and results from you talent strategy is most significant. Too frequently we see organizations that keep talent decisions and actions in a “black box” and don’t help employees and others understand the connection between the talent decisions and the overall talent strategy of the company. Often this is because the only talent strategy in hand is one that identified high potentials or successors.

When you only focus on this small portion of your workforce you are not raising the bar for your whole organization. A talent strategy means that you are looking at the whole workforce and building strategies for talent that reflect the current realities and what might need to change to continue to compete from a people perspective.

Morris: For those who have not as yet read your book, please explain how specifically the most effective leaders develop a culture for their organization in which talent development thrives.

Sharkey: Step one is to understand the culture you have. This needs to be done in a systematic way so that the culture can be quantified and validated. There are numerous instruments out there that do this but we use Human Synergistics Organization Culture Inventory because it is based on research assessing company cultures over 25 years. It is regularly normalized. It is a valid and reliable instrument that can be cascaded through the organization to help leaders and HR understand the gaps in the culture that will help the workforce thrive and those that will impede its progress toward high performance. Once the culture has been quantified and the ideal culture has been articulated relative to achieving the business strategy as specific plan is put in place to move the culture overtime to a more constructive place. This is a journey and takes about 3 years. The most effective leaders follow and reinforce the action plans and behaviors that are required of the ideal culture and they track progress by re-measuring and revising their plans accordingly.

Morris: Why and how does strategic alignment provide the “underpinnings” for an organization?

Sharkey: Strategic alignment forms the basis for the skills and behaviors required for success of the company. If you don’t know these people requirements and build them into all the people practices you will be recruiting the wrong talent, promoting the wrong people, rewarding short term performers, losing the best people and losing money over failed talent decisions. It is painfully clear that you need a business strategy that is then translated into an effectively and focused talent strategy.

Morris: What is the “People-Strategy-Performance Link” and why is it especially important to the health of an organization?

Sharkey: Who are the people you have how do they align to the strategy and who is being rewarded – this is the link. Doing the “forensics” is key. You need real data to do predictive analytics. If you don’t know what the people skills look like and how they do or don’t support your market direction and where your rewards are going you can’t possibly have a winning equation for your company’s health. Alignment of these 3 elements is essential for success. Consistency is important. We look at some systems and what people reward in the performance management system that is sometimes completely different from the skill sets and behaviors needed for strategic implementation. In one company execution was rewarded over everything else when what was really needed for success was a new set of technical and strategic leadership skills.

Morris: What are “individual assessments”? Why do them? Conducted by whom? How often?

Sharkey: Individual assessments are an independent assessment of ones skills and leadership capabilities against an agreed to set of criteria. Good assessments use behaviorally anchored scales to ensure consistency and are always aligned to the company’s strategy. They give you a very clear picture of the health of you workforce and the gaps that need closing. They also help you understand the effectiveness of groups or buckets of talent in functions or by level. They enable you to tailor specific development approaches based on clearly identified needs and to track progress in closing the gaps.

Assessments create a data base that can be used for predicting what characteristics makes someone most successful in a role or function and this can be used in hiring and promoting decisions. They can be conducted by internal individuals if they have been trained in assessment or by external professionals who are skilled in this area. Assessments should be done upon hiring or promotion to be the basis of an on-boarding plan, as part of an overall talent strategy to understand the talent health of the company. Particular areas that are being focused on for improvement should be assessed every year to determine progress in closing the gaps.

Morris: What should happen before and after an individual assessment?

Sharkey: As noted throughout this document, strategic alignment is essential for a good assessment and having the leadership on board before launching the effort. The leaders should be very clear and comfortable with the assessment criteria being used. Then, clear communication should go out relative to the purpose of the assessment, when it will happen and who will be doing the assessment and how the information will be used. Once the assessment has taken place the assessed individual needs a feedback report, and debriefing of the results so they understand the results, some coaching on improvement areas and an action plan for improvement that they can execute. Ideally on going coaching and support would enhance and reinforce the effort and behavior change. There are many ways to provide coaching that is less expensive than hiring external coaches. Here is where HR if they are trusted and trained can play a great role as internal coaches to support the development of the workforce. Additionally, peer coaching is a highly effective and less costly approach that can also be instituted by HR.

Morris: You cite and discuss six “classic talent assessment errors.” Which of them seems to create the most serious problems? Why?

Sharkey: The biggest one is not being clear on the job requirements or behaviors necessary for success and to fit into the company culture.

Morris: What is the “fallacy” of current performance management systems? What, in fact, is true?

Sharkey: The current systems are designed to meet compliance requirements in case someone needs to be terminated or to determine pay increases and bonuses. Many companies try to make them feedback systems as well but they are usually ineffective in this regard. The feedback is once a year coupled with a rating that seems to be the most important thing an employee wants to hear since it determines pay advance. To believe that it improves performance is a fallacy. In fact we have seen that feedback from these systems when it is negative has had the opposite effect of just making an employee defensive. Build in coaching and feedback into the DNA of your company culture and you will be much more success in helping people to become more successful and change behavior.

Morris: Looking ahead during the next decade, you suggest that HR professionals need to increase and strengthen their core competencies in several separate but related areas of involvement. Briefly, please identify the defining characteristics of each role. First, chief cultural officer

Sharkey: It is the leader’s job to model the behaviors of a constructive culture and hold others accountable for the necessary behavior of a constructive culture. However, like anything else the people who can hold up the mirror and show the true picture is really HR. HR professionals need to know how to assess and articulate cultural artifacts and how they are helping or getting in the way of effective performance. No one else usually has that responsibility or skill set. HR is the conscious of leader’s relative cultural development and maintenance. They need to have the knowledge and courage to call it like it is.

Morris: “Master” in talent analytics

Sharkey: Predictive analytics are the wave of the future in HR. We can predict buying patterns of customers and clients we can also predict success factors for employees and get significant insight into the workforce quality and effectiveness. HR professionals must get comfortable with data, analysis and statistics to build strong approaches to building the “best” workforces. This is not a nice to have but a required skill going forward.

Morris: Dave Ulrich is among those who insist that every organization – regardless of size or nature — should have a Chief Human Resources Office (CHRO) or equivalent. What do you think?

Sharkey: I completely agree. When we look at the items most correlated with the outcomes for retention, business results, diversity etc there is always a HR professional characteristic associated with that. Where we see weak HR leadership we generally see weaker long-term results.

Morris: Let’s say that a CEO has read and then (hopefully) re-read Optimizing Talent and is eager to transform his company’s culture into one within which organizational conversations thrive. Where to begin?

Sharkey: First, take the Talent Optimization Survey which is on our website at It will tell you precisely where you need to start your journey towards a talent rich organization. Use this survey to do the forensics on your current approaches. Then build a clear, measureable and specific plan or roadmap to success. Have each of you business units and functions do the same thing. Discuss and highlight the results and actions to close the gaps and follow-up regularly on progress. Follow-up is essential to accountilbility. Clarify where your current culture is and decide where you need it to be for success. Don’t shy away from the facts and the truth. Face into the issues and hold you leaders accountable for the new behaviors required to transform the company into a talent magnet it can be!

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Linda cordially invites you to check out the resources at these websites:

Achieveblue website

Linda’s website



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