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Dr. Trish Holliday is a trailblazer and a lifelong learner. In 2012, she became the first-ever chief learning officer (CLO) for the state of Tennessee, making Tennessee the first state in the U.S. to create this role for its state government.

Dr. Holliday was beyond qualified for the role—before being appointed to CLO, she worked for the state as an assistant director of the employee training and development division and director of strategic learning solutions, where she focused on training the leaders of tomorrow and reframing training as learning and development for employees.

So what does it take to succeed in a brand new role and set the standard for learning in the government? ReWork recently sat down with Dr. Holliday to discuss her position as CLO and how she continues to transform learning in Tennessee through her innovative leadership development program.

ReWork: Why is the position of CLO so important in a state government?

Dr. Trish Holliday: We have 43,000 state employees, and that means that all those different agencies' employees are learning different approaches to performance management, how to coach employees, how to resolve conflict, how to navigate change and how to build teams. There was no consistent learning across the enterprise. By creating this executive role in the chief learning officer, the message was that we're going to have one learning strategy.

How did you approach the role? What did you do first?

I went on a listening tour with all of the state appointing authorities and said, "Please talk to me. What are your pain points? What keeps you up at night regarding your workforce?" What was really important [was] that if learning was going to truly be a cultural driver, we had to create learning that mattered. The only way I knew [how] to do that was to start talking to the people running different organizations within our government.

Can you share some of the programs you implemented based on what you learned through conversations withe leaders, and how you went about putting changes in place?

One of the first things we did was change our vocabulary. The word 'training' really connotes an event, and it suggests that you just do it and then you're done. So, instead of saying 'training,' we started saying that we're creating 'learning and development' for state employees because that terminology connotes a journey. It's a process.

The momentum was incredible because people were starting to seek out learning opportunities because they wanted to know more, not because they were told they had to.

Can you explain why leadership training was particularly important, and talk a little bit about the LEAD program?

If we want great organizations, we have to have great leaders. As part of the LEAD program we created, all our participants (namely leaders across the state government) got an executive coach for a year. What I discovered as I traveled the country and talked with other governments was that our approach was pretty unique. Giving somebody the opportunity to have an executive coach and work on people skills development for a concentrated year is a pretty powerful and significant component.

In LEAD Tennessee, we put state-level, higher level executives and emerging leaders in the same learning community. The design behind that is state executives can learn from emerging leaders, just like emerging leaders can learn from state executives.

What really made LEAD stand out is I asked the cabinet, the governor and his team to help me pick the topics we should be covering in the program. So now the state executives are invested and personally saying, 'Here's what people need to be learning.'

Did technology play a role in helping you launch this program?

Technology has definitely helped. We used an enterprise learning management system to manage our content and learning programs.

It's helpful because learners can advance across different learning tracks using that learning management system, and their progress data is housed in one place. We can get data to show real time and [see] what we're doing and the significance of it.

You went back to school to get your doctorate. Why was it so important for you to continue your education and actually do what you're advocating for?

I wanted to have the highest level credentials I could have to give the state the opportunity to be validated in this space. A lot of times, credentials get you in the door [and show] that you have the educational aspect of what's needed to be successful in a particular [area]. I wanted to be a model for the folks that I work with across the state: lifelong learning is so critical to our success because it's how we continually improve. We're getting better every day.

What's next for the state of Tennessee when it comes to learning?

We've spent a lot of time building programs and pathways for success for our leaders. My passion now is for the employee because I really want employees to feel like they have a pathway of growth.

I want to build a platform they will be very proud of and excited to participate in.

Photo: Creative Commons