President, Wings of Success LLC
Sharon Wingron calls herself "your PEOPLE development partner," and carries that mantra to her everyday practice. She is certified in Everything DiSC and several other personality assessments. Her expertise ranges from behavioral styles to leadership development and performance. Wingron also presents at Association for Talent Development conferences as well as facilitates the ATD Master Trainer Program and courses for the association's Essentials Series.
Why or how did you decide to redirect your career from engineering to go back to school and get your MBA and then get into leadership development and facilitating?
I have to start with how I got into engineering in the first place to answer that question fully. I'm the youngest of six children; each of my siblings chose a different career path. I was kind of the "great hope" of my parents to have a child earn a college degree. My dad worked for the electric utility in St. Louis, and—with all due respect to engineers—he would come home from work and say to me, "You know, Sharon, if those dummies I work with can be engineers, I know you can do it." He had been a drill sergeant in the U.S. Army. That was his way of supporting and encouraging me.
I had a very strong interest in psychology, but I started looking at engineering and realized I probably could get through quicker, get a better job, and make better money with engineering. That's how I ended up getting a degree in engineering management with a mechanical engineering emphasis. However, I still got a psychology minor.
I was working in manufacturing and I really enjoyed it. I loved the discipline and the process thinking engineering gave me, but I started working on projects involving return-on-investment analysis and downsizing people. It was then that I decided I want to help people grow in their jobs and love their work—I don't want to take their work away from them.
I finished my MBA, became an assessment junkie to better know myself, including strengths, talents, and weaknesses, and started researching what I really wanted to be when I grew up—what was out there on the people side of the business. That led me into training and development, organizational development, that whole world we now call talent development.
You've hinted at this with your mention of the people side, but what most excites you about the talent development profession?
It really is the people. One of my sisters claims I make people better people. I love seeing people get those "aha!" moments. Even more than that, I love empowering people. Back in my manufacturing and industrial engineering days, I heard the definition of empowerment as "to release the power within"—I really loved that. I thought, "That's what I want to do." I think people typically are more powerful and have much more capacity and opportunity in their lives than they realize. What I love is helping people tap into themselves and release their power to capitalize on opportunities.
It's fun to help people figure out what they love and how to pursue it. This might be through the programs I'm facilitating, coaching I'm doing, or just in talking to people personally or professionally. One of my favorite things to do now that I'm a little further on in the profession is to help the new folks coming in to the profession to think through which piece of this big puzzle we call talent development they love the most and how do they want to make their contribution.
One additional thought—I guess it's a throwback to my engineering days—is that I love continuous improvement. Whether it's in manufacturing, service, business, our personal lives, I love streamlining processes and innovating to continue to improve. I love that aspect of our profession as well. There are always new concepts, techniques, methods coming at us. We really are, to use ATD's tagline, helping "create a world that works better." I often joke that we will always be in demand because people need us—there are people problems everywhere, so much change, and continuous learning opportunities.
What do you believe is most challenging for the learning profession and the VUCA world?
It's a two-sided sword. While I love continuous improvement, what's most challenging is keeping up. We are growing and changing rapidly in so many aspects of our profession, matching the pace of general workplace evolution and the shrinking stage of the global environment. It's challenging to provide best-fit solutions to meet the needs of a given situation because there are so many dynamics. And, even more importantly, it's a challenge to be afforded the time to do a proper analysis to determine the root causes of the challenge before creating a solution.
I think it's crucial that talent development professionals develop systems thinking and see how all the pieces fit together. That's one of the reasons I love the ATD Competency Model and was an early adopter [pilot pioneer] of the CPLP [Certified Professional in Learning and Performance] credential. As learning professionals, we need to develop and implement whole systems solutions that support performance and organizational results. We need to influence all affected organizational stakeholders to discourage sub-optimization.
What projects are you currently working on that would be of interest to TD readers?
As I mentioned earlier, as I transitioned into the profession I became an "assessment junkie" because it was fun and interesting to learn about myself. Then I became an authorized partner of Wiley, worked extensively with Everything DiSC, and continued to grow that aspect of my business. Assessments are powerful tools in our profession, but people often don't know how to select the best tool for their purpose or use the tools appropriately. I've been developing an approach to this and have had the good fortune to present it both at the ATD International Conference and as part of the Essentials Series. I'm deepening my research and clarifying the process to provide practical guidance to learning professionals.
Even though I'm an authorized partner of Wiley, I aim to be tool agnostic when I'm helping people figure out which instruments are best for them. Too often people use an assessment tool because it is the first one they took or the requesting manager likes it. What I'm doing is giving people a framework to think more strategically—how will the assessment tie into the business and performance results they're looking for—and to be more thoughtful about choosing the assessment tools they use.
One challenge I'm facing is that when I talk about assessments, many people think tests or evaluations (whereas I'm focused on psychometric assessment tools). In our profession we tend to use these terms interchangeably, so I'm working to clarify the meanings and applications.
A related project that I'm excited about concerns a relatively new client of mine that's a very sophisticated DiSC user. They realized it's time to push it to the next level, so we're going to create a blended learning approach which develops the specific competency level required by different talent development team members—HR business partners, facilitators, instructional designers—to effectively use the assessments from their perspectives in the organization. This is a dream project for me: It lets me help individuals learn and grow while simultaneously helping the organization get the best return on investment on its use of assessments.
Apart from technology, what has struck you in terms of changes in talent development in the past five or 10 years?
Definitely how the profession looks at brain science and how we can apply it in our work. We've had multiple theories (behaviorism, cognitivism, constructivism—all the isms, as Ferris Bueller would say) influence our work through the years. And those provided a solid foundation. Now we're at a point where we're either validating or invalidating those original theories. It's very exciting. For example, learning styles. There are some people who live and die by them, and yet the research shows, "well, not so much."
Being aware of the brain functioning, how it drives our behavior and our motivation, how it changes based on our interactions with each other—it's driving movements like microlearning and the flipped classroom. It's not like we're going to change everything overnight, but we need to stay on top of the research, embracing and applying what we practically can sooner rather than later. It's important that people in our profession stay current and put research into practice.
There are, of course, many different kinds of assessments. Are there some common mistakes you see time and again with their use?
There are a couple that come to mind. First, when we're talking about psychometric assessment tools—especially self-assessments, which are a majority of the ones we use in talent development—people tend to fall in love with the first one they take. What happens is that when those people move into decision-making roles, whether they're the talent development manager or the CEO, they tend to want to go with that assessment tool whether it is the best fit for the need or not.
I think the reason they fall in love with the first one is they enjoy learning about themselves and being able to see things from a different perspective. Instead of "I kind of think this about myself," now it's more objective, on a piece of paper or on a screen, so the thoughts become "Oh, that's so true" and "There's other people like me." It's great that they get that enthusiasm and insight (hopefully they also start doing something with it), but it's often a mistake when they automatically want to use that first tool for other applications because it may not be the right tool for the job.
As you said, there are many different assessment tools. Not every tool is designed for the same purposes. Another mistake I see frequently is using the tool for something other than the intended purpose; most commonly, using a tool designed for development for selection and hiring. There are specific criteria that you need to keep in mind when you're using a tool for selection and hiring—the magic words are "legally defensible." You have to demonstrate that what the assessment is assessing is applicable on the job. Many self-assessments are too general and not statistically validated for this, so the organizations are at risk.
The third mistake is not being strategic with the assessment implementation. HR or talent pros may pick an assessment tool that's a good fit for the application they want—say, they're doing leadership development and they pick a tool that's going to help leaders learn more about their leadership behaviors—but they don't think about how to integrate the tool into their processes, or consider the insight the participants will gain and how they'll be able to turn that into action.
Just like the historical challenge in training of "once and done" ("Come to this two-hour seminar. Learn everything. Go, be free, good luck."), similarly, people do the once and done with assessments. "Oh, yeah. I took that assessment. I think I'm a KPLR." They don't really focus on the application and integration down the road to make sure they're truly getting a good return on investment from the use of those tools.
What has been your biggest takeaway or lessons learned from training globally?
I've had the good fortune of delivering training or consulting in about 20 countries now, and visited several more on vacations. The biggest takeaway I have is that people are 95 percent or so the same (not drawing on my engineering accuracy here). Keep in mind people are people—the same basic personalities that you see in North America are present across the globe. People have the same desires, fears, needs, hopes.
The more authentic you are, the better received you'll be, resulting in less stress and more success. At the same time, be aware and respectful of cultural differences. It's important to do your homework, talk to your contacts to understand the cultural nuances, then honor them. As with any audience, do your audience analysis, find out what they expect of you, then strive to meet those expectations. Finally, be humble, be curious, be respectful.