Phenomenal Women of AltoPartners – Linda Sanchez
This week we go to the city of brotherly love, aka Philadelphia, to meet Linda Sanchez, the can-do Chief People Officer at Diversified Search/AltoPartners USA. A Philly girl, born and bred, Linda is a global HR executive (an SHRM Senior Certified Professional and a founding member of the CHRO Alliance), who went from forklift operator to partnering with institutions such as Harvard Business School to create a leadership development curriculum for high-potential employees.
Is this how you imagined your life turning out?
Not really. As a child, growing up in Philadelphia, my dream was to be a psychologist with my own sign hanging on my front lawn, and my office off to the side of my house.
Did you study psychology?
I ended up studying Human Development and Family Studies at Penn State University, a degree that proved to be the kick-off point to my dream career, even though I didn’t have it all mapped out at the time.
What was your first job?
In my last semester of college, I did an internship at a center for runaways and kids on drugs, where I counselled individuals, families and groups. When I applied to grad school, no school would provide funding for me as I was a single mom, so I stayed on at the Youth Service Bureau. The income was shockingly low, though, and I had a small child to look after, so I found my way into a retail management training program, where I discovered that retail means working weekends, which was becoming increasingly difficult as my toddler was getting older and more involved in activities. But I had learned a lot about HR on the job and realized that my counselling skills could be put to good use in HR. Fun fact: during my retail career, I got my forklift license, and as warehouse manager, I would regularly unload merchandise off container trucks.
So how did you go from operating a forklift to a globe-trotting HR executive at 30?
[Laughs] I applied to over 50 places for a more “corporate” Monday through Friday job – i.e., better paid with more family-friendly hours, but most places would not hire me coming out of retail given that I did not have any “corporate” or “office” type of experience. As luck would have it, I ended up getting a chance as the HR Coordinator at a commercial real estate finance firm. It was a right time/right place scenario as within eight months of starting there, the head of HR exited the company, and at 27, I found myself taking the role of VP: HR. The company grew mostly by acquisition, and I was able to grow in my career exponentially. We went from around 400 employees when I started, to 4,500 employees in 17 countries at our peak. I eventually was promoted to Chief Administrative Officer, where I was responsible for HR and everything else involved in running the back end of the organisation, other than finance. I spent 20 fabulous years there, travelling the globe, soaking up new cultures and ways of doing things, learning about financial services and immersing myself in the intricacies of M&As. During that time, we had three different ownership structures, including two global investment companies, KKR & Co, and then later a Warren Buffett JV.
Did you get to meet the great man himself?
I did! I was tasked with hosting a special day for clients, where we visited Berkshire Hathaway companies in Omaha, culminating in a conference and dinner with Mr Buffett. I had the privilege of working directly with him to prepare for the event and then carry it out. It was a great experience and a privilege to be exposed to one of the greatest business minds ever!
But then you took a detour to indulge another passion?
After two decades, I took a break from corporate life to pursue a life-long ambition to start my own business. I love to cook, and I converted an old hair salon in our neighbourhood into an 18-person eatery and named it after my youngest daughter: Ashley’s Café was born. I found my HR and business skills invaluable in getting things up and moving.
So how did you end up in executive search?
The café proved very popular, but after three years, I missed the cut and thrust of corporate life and successfully sold it. I then took on a CHRO position at a regional bank where I did not have to travel, and three years later, I was recruited by Diversified Search Group to be their Chief People Officer.
Chief People Officer?
Yes, the Chief People Officer is mainly internally focused – it’s the next evolution from the traditional CHRO position. I have responsibility for Human Resources and everything people-operations related: I help with internal communications, I work closely with the CEO to determine how business growth affects our people strategy, and with our head of DEI to operationalize our DEI strategy. I also work on acquisition and integration opportunities with a people/operations lens. I am responsible for supporting development across the organization and ensuring our programs support career growth for our people and revenue growth for the firm. It also involves organizational design work too, as I help guide the executive team on decisions related to their organizations.
What motivates you to do what you do?
I like being part of the solution and figuring out challenging situations. Being able to help a company be better than it was yesterday and watching that translate into financial success and engaged employees really motivate me. I love seeing the positive change that I had a hand in creating.
Do you have a mentor? What’s the best piece of advice you’ve heard so far?
Not currently, but I’ve been lucky enough to have a few along the way. Best piece of advice: Stay true to yourself.
What advice would you give your younger self?
Believe in yourself. If you are unhappy with your situation, you are in the best position to fix that. Figure out what needs to change, and then take make it happen.
Do you have a superpower?
I guess it would have to be my ability to multi-task and still stay incredibly organized.
How do you relax and unwind?
I adore watching my kids engage in their activities, especially music and sports, but they are older now. I have several hobbies, including gardening, hiking, cooking, and cycling. I love being outdoors and head for the beach or the mountains when I need to relax. A glass of good red wine sometimes helps as well…