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News | Nov. 2, 2021

New human resources director shares first impressions, leadership philosophy

By Beth Reece

Sharyn Saunders was just a junior in high school when someone first noticed her penchant for guiding others. As a military dependent used to moving every few years, she’d grown a knack for blending quickly into new groups. A guidance counselor took note of Saunders’ flair for connecting with others and asked her to befriend a suicidal classmate. 

“After just a couple weeks it was clear he was trying really hard to hang out with one group of people when he would’ve had a better fit with a different group, so I introduced him around and he found some great friends as well as hope for himself,” she said.  

Thus began Saunders’ enduring desire to make a difference in people’s lives that she aims to uphold as the Defense Logistics Agency’s new human resources director. From her first job as a probation officer and subsequent roles helping fellow service members adjust to overseas living to heading the Army Resilience Directorate, Saunders brings to DLA an acute understanding of HR’s most basic function: taking care of people. 

One month into her new role, she said she’s impressed with what she’s discovered about the agency’s processes, organizational structure and strengths. 

“Employees here seem full of heart and very driven, and those are the kinds of personality traits I like to be associated with. It makes me feel very much at home,” she said. 

She regards employees’ “immense” talent as one of DLA’s greatest assets and expects their diversity to play a big part in future growth. 

“When you have the level of talent and excellence DLA already has, it’s very hard to get to that next level,” she said. “It will be the diversity of our thought and our experience and lifestyles that will help us find opportunities to reach those new levels.”

Saunders also values the agency-wide emphasis on culture, and added that such unity will help leaders and employees build upon the current framework laid out in DLA’s People and Culture Plan. 

As she leads areas including organizational manpower, performance management and training, Saunders said she will challenge employees to think critically. A great meeting for her is one in which employees consider numerous angles, feel empowered to share unique points-of-view and even counter one another. 

“When we’ve got a little bit of disagreement and passion, that gets everyone thinking and helps us put more information on the table so we can make the best decisions,” she said. 

The fifth line of effort in DLA’s Strategic Plan – Future of Work – will depend on employees’ ability to think openly and innovatively, she added. Though she suspects some supervisors will want to return to old ways when a return-to-work order is called, Saunders said leaders should heed lessons to modernize the workplace.

“I think if we return to the status quo, we’ll be putting ourselves at risk because there will be other agencies that will be highly innovative that will grab our talent,” she continued. 

Planning the future workforce will also require employees to shift from transaction- and process-oriented work to deliberate planning that enables DLA to meet emerging demands from military and federal partners. New skills and occupations may need to be created, for example.

Integrity will be crucial to those efforts, Saunders said. 

“Integrity is the key to trust and relationship building. Most of our challenges won’t be solved by a single individual, but by teams coming together to figure out how to solve issues,” she added. 

Employees’ code of integrity is also a window to personal values, she continued. 

“It helps others understand who you are and what you stand for, and allows you to hold your ground, to be genuine and authentic,” she said, adding that employees should also feel free to have fun at work. 

“To me, there’s a place in adulthood for play and the more we’re able to exercise that, the more we tap into our creativity and imagination. I want my staff and the people I’m engaging with to have that sense of play and lightheartedness and dreaming because that’s part of how we bring the future to life,” she said. 

Saunders was the assistant director of HR for the Drug Enforcement Agency before joining DLA. She is also a lieutenant colonel and reservist with the Air Force District of Washington’s Manpower, Personnel and Services Directorate.