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Tamla Oates-Forney on the Future of Leadership Development

A series of terraced balconies.

Tamla Oates-Forney has worked in HR for more than 30 years, starting at age 15 with the Employment Security Commission in Lincolnton, NC. She held a number of positions in 20 years at General Electric (GE), including leading and working in diversity, equity, and inclusion for multiple GE businesses and leading HR for GE’s operations in sub-Saharan Africa. She also served as chief people officer for WM, North America’s largest environmental services company, and CHRO for USAA before becoming CEO of Linkage, a SHRM Company, in 2024.

In the following Q&A, Tamla Oates-Fortney discusses her views on inclusion, equity, and diversity (IE&D), workplace civility, and the state of leadership.

What led you to take this new role as CEO of Linkage, a SHRM Company?

Before coming to SHRM to lead Linkage, I had a pretty extensive career in the HR space and a passion for helping companies fulfill their strategies through human capital. I have an interest in making sure that they have the right talent with the right skills in the right roles to usher their companies along, so leadership and talent development programs and strategies are things that I’ve been doing my entire career. I think my Linkage role is the perfect culmination of my purpose, my passion, and my profession—like my dream job, where all of it comes together.

What do companies need to understand about IE&D [inclusion, equity, and diversity] and leadership development?

That it’s not a charitable initiative; it is a strategic imperative. If people really got down to the lowest common denominator, all of us as people are different. Even if you are the same gender, even if you are the same ethnicity, even if you grew up in the same hometown, there are things that make us uniquely different. We are all different people who have different points of view and different experiences that make companies stronger.

A lot of companies equate inclusion, equity, or diversity with having to compromise or sacrifice quality because of differences, when in fact, the opposite is true.

What are your thoughts on the state of leadership and inclusion in the workplace today?

I think every single company is going through a major transformation. There is not a company out there that’s not being transformed, and so must their leadership. Right? The leadership has to transform. So I think a lot of companies are asking, “What does leadership look like in the future?” I think the days of leadership being command-and-control are gone. Now there’s more empathy and co-creation and collaboration and providing flexibility for their workers. Companies are going to have to evolve the way they lead, the way they inspire, the way they influence.

With that, I think companies are having to become more inclusive because I think the generations in the workplace are demanding it. You have five generations in the workforce and their needs are different, so that in and of itself is the power of inclusion. You have to be inclusive of family needs now. I think gone are the days where people integrate their lives into how they work. More and more, people are looking for jobs that will enable them to integrate their work into how they live.

We used to talk about work/life balance. Now, it’s really work/life integration. Because our experience with the COVID pandemic has proven you can integrate your life into how you work. There’s been a pendulum shift in the work/life space. A lot more employees are demanding flexibility because their lives now have taken precedence, and a lot of companies are now providing more flexible options.

With the upcoming election, civility in the workplace has become a hot topic of discussion. How does uncivil behavior affect the lives of women and minorities?

If your organization or workplace isn’t civil, then I think you’re not going to be able to attract great talent and, more importantly, retain it, because they don’t feel safe. They don’t feel psychologically safe and, in some cases, physically safe. I think if you’re creating an environment that doesn’t appreciate the power of differences and cannot work to have civil conversations when there are differences, you’re going to subject yourself to not being able to recruit and retain the best talent because they don’t feel their voices matter. Psychological safety is very important in the workplace because workers have to feel like they belong. You can have differences of opinion, and you can agree to disagree in a civil way.

What are some strategies that companies can pursue to support women leaders, diverse leadership, and purposeful leadership in general?

The first thing is being aligned on why diverse leadership matters, declaring that, and making sure that your actions support your narrative. Look at data and gather insights to make sure you understand what’s going on in your organization. Do women and underrepresented employees feel valued? Do they feel respected? Do they feel like they can contribute and succeed? What does your leadership team look like? Does it represent the communities in which you live, work, and serve? Don’t guess on any of these things—ask and analyze. And when you ask, take the appropriate actions and communicate progress. Ensure that your focus on diversity is not at the exclusion of any population, but is truly for the inclusion of all.

How should companies approach measuring and reporting on the results of those strategies?

I think the same way they do anything else or any other metric that’s important to a business strategy.  

We’ve been talking about this for a long time, and we’re in 2024, and we’re still talking about the same thing. It’s not difficult. It’s a business imperative. I think we just overcomplicate it. And we make it something that it doesn’t have to be, and I don’t know why that is.

The idea of promoting diversity within corporate leadership is not new, but progress has been slow. How can Linkage help?

First, let’s reposition women in leadership roles not as “women leaders,” but as competent and capable leaders who happen to be women. Women are just as capable, strong, emotionally intelligent, etc., as men. Period. And I want them to be positioned as great leaders first.

Next comes working with companies to see what is causing women to not excel in their organizations. Is there something systemic that needs to be addressed? Or is the company’s ecosystem not set up to support women with their needs? Oftentimes, women are not only executives but caregivers, wives, and mothers. They have multiple roles to balance.

I want to make sure we’re able to partner with companies on that and talk with women about what it is they need and are not getting in the workplace that’s causing them to exit.

What are some of your goals for Linkage in the year ahead?

While I am only a month into the role, I want to leverage the great legacy of Linkage but accelerate it with the power of SHRM. It’s important to understand where you’ve been to get to where you want to go. I want to be intentional about blending the two without compromising or sacrificing the integrity of either. The power of the collective is amazing and can be a game changer.

I also want Linkage to be globally recognized as an award-winning leader and go-to provider for effective leadership development strategies and programs and serve as a catalyst that changes the face of leadership, not just gender and ethnicity, but purpose and inclusion.


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