In an HR career spanning 25 years, Sheila Norden has helped navigate many mergers and acquisitions (M&As)—and their profound effects on workers. “That’s a stressful time,” Norden says of a consolidation’s impact on people. She knows because she’s seen it from both sides: as an HR leader and an employee.

Since March 2022, Norden has served as CHRO for Universal Engineering Sciences (UES), an Orlando, Fla.-based engineering and consulting firm. UES has acquired more than 15 companies in just the past few years—doubling its employee count and tripling its revenue. UES now employs more than 3,400 people across the country, with plans to add 1,500 new roles by 2025. For the past two years, the Zweig Group Hot Firm List, which annually recognizes the fastest-growing architecture, engineering and construction firms in the U.S. and Canada, has put UES at the top of its list.

For Norden, that’s a lot of change to manage. She oversees not only the HR function but also UES’ marketing and communications. To head both functions, Norden says she relies on the strong leadership of her five departmental heads across HR and marketing.

Norden and her 50-member team focus on attracting and retaining talent while nurturing the company’s culture. With employees coming together from so many distinct companies, Norden and the rest of the executive team have helped build the organization’s culture in part by defining its values, as summed up by the acronym STRIVE: safety, teamwork, responsiveness, integrity, value and excellence. 

“Those values tie us together and help drive culture as employees deliver services in a way they’re proud of,” she says.

Defining values is one thing. Executing them is another. And that requires a regular cadence of communication in a variety of forums—including occasional companywide town halls, regular meetings held by regional leaders, performance management reviews and ongoing communications via the company’s internal platform.

M&A Lessons

Norden became involved with mergers and acquisitions very early in her HR career—before she was even aware of it. In 1998, she worked as a manager of benefits, operations and compliance for a medical and ­surgical supplier. Pharmaceutical giant ­McKesson had bought the company, but Norden didn’t know that until six months after she started her job. Her role, she says, “ended up going away because of integration activity, so I understood early on what it meant to sell or buy a company and then go through an integration.”

 Even though her position was eliminated, Norden’s relationship with McKesson was just getting started. She stayed on and was still at McKesson a few years later when, for the first time, she worked as an HR professional on mergers and acquisitions—work she considers the most challenging but also the most rewarding of her career.

“As an HR person, if you want to learn how HR impacts the ­business and why HR is so important in ­driving organizational culture to get business results, work on ­mergers and acquisitions,” Norden says. “When people ask me how to grow their careers, I say find out how to get on an M&A team.”

Norden went on to support ­various transformations at ­McKesson by “helping people migrate to new teams and new roles and ­helping them become successful at ­something they maybe hadn’t ­imagined they could do,” she says.

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Respectful Leadership

But mergers aren’t the only changes Norden has helped manage. There was one particular transformation at McKesson that other companies have also undertaken: the shift to tech-­enabled self-service HR. Under that model, managers and ­employees can perform some HR-­related tasks, such as changing a title or address, rather than submitting requests to the HR team. Some individuals asked why they suddenly had to do HR’s work, so Norden helped them understand that it wasn’t about whose work it was. Instead, it was about empowering everyone with the tools to complete the work in the most efficient way. 

“Ultimately, the goal was to free up the HR team to focus on talent and development and to meet the organi­zation’s strategic goals—not to be a transactional process shop,” she says.

That kind of change management involves “a big mindset shift inside an organization,” Norden adds. How does she help employees adopt such a shift, whether it’s a new acquisition or a new way of working? “It comes down to respect,” she says. Especially when acquiring other companies, “[y]ou have to respect their history and the way they do things—which made that company the one you wanted to buy. You have to try to take the best of both organizations and find common ground.”

As Norden sees it, respect hinges on communication. From the ­moment of an M&A announcement to the completed integration, people need to know what’s happening—­before it happens, when possible. The HR team needs to communicate early and often, helping to build relationships and ensure that companies don’t lose the talent they need. 

“Sometimes what you’re acquiring is good people,” not just the company itself, Norden says. “You don’t want to lose people because they don’t feel part of the new organization or might not know what their future holds—even though ­sometimes you might not know what their future might be.”

So, the HR team must make ­employees part of the conversations and decisions about their own professional futures. Respectful HR leaders ask for people’s participation and input and listen to what they value and prioritize. And that takes time, Norden explains. 

When a co-worker told Norden her schedule is always jampacked, Norden knew why: “It’s because I spend a lot of time with people. I make time for people.” That time investment also helps form connections among her team members so they can better collaborate with each other.

“Sheila is a strong leader,” says Liz Musico, McKesson’s vice president of HR, recalling her former ­colleague’s people-centric focus. “She developed her direct and indirect reports and infused talent across the enterprise.”

With any organizational transformation, transparency is critical. Norden recalls working on acquisitions in which, the day the deals were announced, she knew certain locations would close. “You cannot sugarcoat that. You cannot say, ‘Oh, we would never do that,’ when you know long term that might not be true. You have to be transparent,” she says. That means the HR team might have to convey that, even though terminations are not in the plans, the organization can’t yet predict every decision but will keep everyone informed. 

“You need to tell people what they need to hear, but you also need to help them get to the next place,” she says. “That level of respect is what makes or breaks how well an acquisition works.” It’s also what informs ­Norden’s “always-­approachable style,” according to UES CEO Dave Witsken, who describes Norden as “hardworking, prepared and detailed.”

Stability Amid Change

While Norden’s career has focused on change, her own professional and personal life has been remarkably constant. She worked for McKesson for almost a quarter century before joining UES, and she has been married to her husband, Lee Norden, for more than 28 years. (They married during spring break of her senior year at Virginia Tech and have a son in his 20s). Norden now lives in Orlando but remains loyal to her hometown of Richmond, Va., where she lived for more than 40 years.

Norden’s parents modeled her constancy—and her drive. Norden’s father, Ralph Shortt, who worked for the same vending company for 40 years, encouraged her to pursue her professional dreams.

“My dad was a big supporter of women in the workplace,” she says. “He always said, ‘You can do whatever you want to do, and don’t let anybody tell you different.’ ” Norden’s mother, Pat Bowyer, worked in finance for grocery chains and later for the state of Virginia. “I was very fortunate to grow up with an intact nuclear family,” Norden says.

The youngest of three athletic siblings, she recalls a household that was both fun and competitive. Ever since her early-childhood idolization of gymnast Mary Lou Retton, she has been fascinated with athletes who reach the top of their fields. “That helps me think about how I want to lead—what makes people behave that way and keeps them focused?” 

She strives to emulate leaders who win “in a good way,” she says. “They don’t win despite other people, but because of other people.” 

At Virginia Tech, Norden studied psychology. She planned to become a social worker or therapist. But after graduating in 1995, she held a summer internship before entering graduate school for social work that made her realize the line of work wasn’t for her. 

“I could not really manage the emotional load of social work,” she says. “I could not separate, so I brought it home.”

With her career plans upended, Norden thought back on different jobs she’d had and enjoyed—and she recalled a temporary position she’d held at a bank. For one assignment there, Norden helped interview and select teller candidates. And she loved it. “I can read people really well,” she says. 

So she entered the graduate HR program at Virginia Commonwealth University, earning her master’s ­degree in HR in 2000.

Norden, who calls herself “a teacher at heart,” continues her love of education today. She’s ­currently in a remote graduate ­program at Liberty University, working toward her doctorate in business administration with a ­specialization in leadership. She hopes to complete that degree in 2024. 

Once she ultimately retires from HR, Norden doesn’t think she’ll stop working. Maybe, she says, she’ll embrace yet another change and start teaching.     

Novid Parsi is a freelance writer based in St. Louis.


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