We recently connected with Sharon Birkman and have shared our conversation below.
Hi Sharon, thanks for joining us today. Are you happier as a business owner? Do you sometimes think about what it would be like to just have a regular job?
With ownership comes huge amounts of privilege coupled with vast amounts of responsibility. On most days, I am intensely grateful that my parents founded our company more than 70 years ago with a brave new idea that continues to resonate and help people. My Industrial-Organizational Psychologist father was a pioneer in recognizing the impact of comprehending our social perceptions. And these days, our vision statement is “To harness the power of perception to improve and transform human relationships.” While I am proud to carry the founder’s torch, there have been moments when a regular job or the freedom just to walk away sounded attractive. What I do know for sure is that my decisions, right or wrong, have consequences that can impact the lives, not for our staff, but also for our consultants and clients across the globe who depend on Birkman International. Most of the time, I am super grateful to serve in my role. I would simply say there are stressful moments but overall fulfilling and rewarding days. I love a day when I can drive home feeling “good-tired”!
From the outside, leadership looks attractive and can be exciting, but from the inside, it has also been known to be lonely and can feel isolating. Not surprisingly, the most challenging time for me has been the shock of the sudden Covid-induced separation from most of my employees. Birkman International had been steadily growing over my tenure. And because of this, the office space my father started the company in was now too small.
For months we prepped for the big move into a larger office space for March 2020. But before moving boxes were even unpacked, we were sent into quarantine. My disappointment was magnified by the fact that we had just arrived at our larger and more beautiful “dream office” space, and 48 hours later, we were shut down. Over the years, I took great pride in developing a caring “One Team” culture that had consistently won local and national “Best and Brightest Places to Work.” In 2020, I was walking the empty halls and wondering if people would ever come back to train in person or if our staff would ever return to work in this wonderful new place we’d just leased long-term. While it was a relief that we could immediately shift to remote and within weeks to virtual training, it felt like a strange and fractured new world to me.
If ever I have experienced the need for being resilient, it was during the shutdown of 2020. I struggled to maintain our essential culture as a people-centric company. In the turbulent summer of 2020, I chose five words that I felt must continue to define our culture and chose these as the “Words We Live By.” Not wanting these words to become empty platitudes framed on a wall plaque, I was delighted when our marketing department decided to put these words on a colorful mouse pad that continues to sit on all our desks. In our bold brand colors, it states that “Our Birkman Culture is Inclusive, Humble, Resilient, Compassionate and Curious.”
On top of everyone’s fear of the virus, the dark and uncertain months before the vaccine were also filled with social tensions and political turmoil. For the very first time in my 20 years at the helm, these divisive outside issues started to create a rift and a distinct ideological and culture clash between two of our high-level leaders and me. By the end of the summer, I wondered if I would lose our company altogether. Sinking lower and lower into despair, I called an emergency meeting of our Advisory Board. This resulted in a wholesale re-organization of our entire company by appointing a new General Manager who helped me create an innovative new org-chart.
In so many ways, we have been fortunate and have weathered the 2020 storm, and I feel we are once again stable and able to move forward. However, every company is a living, breathing, dynamic organism and these days are not without its own list of challenges. It’s just that now, instead of feeling overwhelmed and about to drown, we feel the challenges we’re dealing with are more business-typical and ultimately solvable. Since the middle of 2021, the empty halls have been replaced by conversations and laughter in the kitchen and hallways. Every day at least half of our staff will rotate in and out to be together for more creative and collaborative team meetings in the office.
Since one of the most rewarding parts of my job is personally interacting with our employees and our clients, we are learning to live and be productive again in a hybrid rhythm. This makes me very happy indeed!
As always, we appreciate you sharing your insights and we’ve got a few more questions for you, but before we get to all of that can you take a minute to introduce yourself and give our readers some of your back background and context?
I have often called myself a poster child for having a second or an encore career. My parents worked hard to get Birkman started in the 1950s, and they did without and lived on a shoestring for many years while my father did his research. Looking back, I realize they were entrepreneurs before the term was popularized.
By the time I came along, the Birkman work seemed to dominate most dinner table conversations. But I had determined that my path was not psychology or business; instead, it was music and the arts. I admired what my parents did but never planned to be anything more than a sideline appreciator of their dream to “take Birkman to the world.” Honoring my passion for the arts, they never tried to steer me away from music and musical theatre. Quite the contrary, my mother (a victim of the Depression) had always dreamed of being a violinist, and my father knew how important it was to follow your top interests if at all possible. He used to say that ideally, work should be for the grownup what play is for the child.
So I continued down my fine arts path and completed a Master of Music Degree in Opera Production, went on to marry an international opera singer, enjoyed travel and living abroad, and happily embraced all kinds of musical jobs while raising my three daughters. For many of these years, from time to time, I would come into the Birkman office to help as needed because I appreciated and understood the Birkman instrument itself but had little enthusiasm for the world of business.
As my father was getting on in years and working on his succession plan, our youngest child was in third grade, so I started working part-time in the office. When he was struggling with a couple of CEOs that did not work out, I got more serious about doing whatever it would take to help my parents and ensure their legacy and the future of Birkman. The more I got involved, the more interesting and addictive it became. Finally, by 2002, he passed the mantle and allowed me to become the leader of the company. At this point, my learning about business and leadership shifted into warp speed.
I read books, took Executive Education classes, joined CEO groups, and attended Harvard’s Owner President Management (OPM) program for three consecutive years. These helped build my confidence and acquaint me with the many acronyms that populate business lingo. Still, the most effective learning was in the day-to-day dedication to keep showing up, trying new things, making mistakes, and learning from them.
As I plan my own succession, I am passionate about doing all I can to leave this company bigger and better than I found it. What my father pioneered those many years ago has continued to add value for all these years because he realized that our perceptions of self and others are vitally important. It enables us to gain a deeper and more accurate understanding of the people who live and work with us, along with a more profound self-awareness that helps us manage our stressors and frees us to become even better versions of ourselves.
What is distinctive about Birkman is that when individuals take a single questionnaire, they are always amazed to see the depth and complexity of their results. From only one survey, we provide comprehensive relational and occupational information. We can measure a person’s motivations by revealing:
WHAT we like to do.
HOW we show up to get things done.
WHAT we need to remain our most productive selves.
Our nuanced reporting allows a person to see how they are complicated in a wonderful way. They can appreciate the specific needs that help them recharge and understand how it is perfectly fine to be both introverts and extroverts simultaneously and how this is the perfectly “normal” way each of us is wired. We’re still around because no other assessment brings people’s innate complexity into sharper focus while remaining non-judgmental and totally positive.
We’d love to hear a story of resilience from your journey.
One lesson I had to unlearn early on was that it is important to honor the levels of pay that are consistent with the overall job market when you are setting salaries. If you decide to overpay an employee just because you appreciate them or what they’ve been to the company, they may not be able to find a comparable salary if the day arrives when you have to lay them off. I also learned that a spot bonus for a job well done is often better than a permanent raise. These days, we consult the compensation experts and aim to pay at or above the median level according to very specific job descriptions.
How about pivoting – can you share the story of a time you’ve had to pivot?
I feel that I have already addressed most of these questions in the first two questions of the survey. If you need more, please let me know.