Little did Thom Terwilliger know that when he took the job as chief learning officer for the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., or FDIC, in 2007, his first major challenge would be front-page news.
About a year and a half after Terwilliger started as the top learning professional for the independent government agency responsible for providing deposit insurance to most of the United States’ banks, the country’s financial system collapsed.
The industry’s downfall — which started in March 2008 with the failure of Bear Stearns Cos. Inc., once one of the country’s most successful investment banks, and was exacerbated by Lehman Bros. Holdings Inc.’s bankruptcy the following September — started a ripple effect that would keep the FDIC in all-hands-on-deck mode for years.
When an FDIC-insured bank fails or is unable to meet its credit obligations, the agency is responsible for shutting it down and taking it into receivership until another financially stable bank purchases its assets. As the financial crisis kicked into gear, many regional and community banks found themselves in dire straits.
In 2005 and 2006, there were no bank failures, according to the agency’s failed bank list. In 2007, the beginning of the recession, there were three. As the crisis deepened, that number grew — from 25 bank failures in 2008 to a peak of 157 in 2010. In 2011 and 2012, there were 92 and 51 bank failures, respectively. As of August of this year, 20 banks had failed.
The glut of failures put the FDIC’s numerous field offices in overdrive and forced the agency to open temporary ones in areas that were hardest hit. Bret Edwards, the director of the FDIC’s Division of Resolutions and Receiverships, said the agency hired more than 2,000 temporary employees to handle the crisis. In response, its learning and development team created just-in-time training, learning guides and new courses to ensure new employees could support the increased work load.
Leadership development efforts also played a heavy role, as temporary supervisors brought in to handle the crisis had no experience working for the federal government or an agency like the FDIC. Now, with the crisis mostly in the rearview mirror, Terwilliger said the focus has shifted to addressing challenges that many of his peers in the industry face, like measurement and social learning.
On measurement, Terwilliger said the agency’s learning function is working to push assessment beyond surface levels like satisfaction and smile sheets. He said by 2015 the function’s goal is to have evaluations that reach all five levels of Donald Kirkpatrick’s evaluation taxonomy.
With social learning the challenge is being cautious about finding the right mix of social technologies and more traditional approaches. “As I’ve been learning more about [social learning], we have to figure out a way to do that blended with the important foundational learning and development, because we can’t sacrifice one for the other,” Terwilliger said. “We have to find a way to integrate them.”
The World Over
Terwilliger’s path to becoming a learning professional is diverse. Born in South Korea and adopted at 2 months old by a U.S. family, he grew up as one of nine children in northern New York.
“I experienced very, very dangerous situations being an Asian-American,” he said. “That helped build character. Through my career, I’ve seen that in other areas. At the end of the day you just have to dust yourself off and go on. Because I was an abandoned child and I knew my life story, I sometimes think I was born with resilience to survive and continue to move along.”
Wanting to follow his grandparents’ public-service background, Terwilliger, 55, joined the Air Force after high school, starting as a cook in food service. He planned to do one four-year tour, but ended up staying for 28 years. He occupied roles from cook to logistics planner, career field manager, as well as commandant of cadets at the University of Texas at Austin.
Terwilliger’s education background is equally varied. In addition to having two diplomas from the Air Command and Staff College and Air War College from Air University in Montgomery, Ala., he has two undergraduate degrees. One is in restaurant management from the Community College of the Air Force, and the second is in business administration from Christopher Newport College in Newport News, Va. He also holds an MBA with a concentration in management from Golden Gate University in San Francisco. “I always thought I’d go on to a career of business in some sort,” he said.
Terwilliger’s move into a learning career path came not necessarily because his interests changed but because of happenstance — and traffic. Wanting to get a doctorate in business, he had two schools in mind, both of which had him returning to southern Virginia after being stationed in South Korea. The first was a doctorate of business program at Old Dominion University in Norfolk; the second was a doctorate in education at the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg.
“I knew I didn’t want to have to go through the Hampton Roads tunnel to go to class,” Terwilliger said, referring to the route he would have taken each day to Old Dominion. “It would have been a hell of a lot of traffic. So I applied to William & Mary first. I was surprised I got in and really was fascinated with the field of education.”
Terwilliger earned an educational specialist degree from William & Mary and a doctorate in education. He said his background in business and education, as well as his leadership experience from time in the service, gave him an advantageous blend of skills for the career he would eventually pursue.
After positions as varied as deputy director of hospitality in the Air Force — a position responsible for the policy development and oversight of more than 150 hotel properties and 500 food service programs — to associate professor of leadership and national security strategy at the University of Texas, Terwilliger was the assistant vice president for academic affairs and director of institutional research at National Defense University in Washington, D.C., from 2002 to 2007.
In 2006, he started his own consulting firm, CSJ Associates, specializing in organizational development, and in May 2007 the FDIC hired him as chief learning officer and director of its corporate university.
Just in Time
Just because the number of bank failures has continued to decline as the recovery moves on does not mean the FDIC’s work — and, as a result, its need for learning — has diminished. Coming out of the financial crisis, Terwilliger said the FDIC’s corporate university has gotten even busier thanks to the new financial industry rules put in place in reaction to the crisis; the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act was signed into law in 2010.
The agency’s learning organization is trying to leverage social learning to meet needs in this area, but has been slow to completely accept it. “From our vantage point, social learning is the learning that happens outside of the classroom and outside of the formal, on-the-job training,” Terwilliger said.
However, the FDIC has taken steps to integrate social learning with its more traditional delivery options. For instance, as mortgage rules have changed, the agency designed informal videos to keep employees up to date. Terwilliger said it uses classroom and other traditional delivery methods to introduce new content, then uses videos and other social learning methods to reinforce what is most important and introduce current information.
The agency’s learning function is also in the process of building a database of learner profiles for every employee. These profiles will include customized information about how each employee learns. Terwilliger said having these individualized profiles will also help in determining how to best integrate social learning.
Being able to meet the needs and mission of the organization at large is also how Terwilliger said the learning function approaches measurement. In addition to using Kirkpatrick levels one through three when evaluating training programs — Terwilliger said the goal is to be at levels four and five by 2015 — the FDIC’s corporate university has a 500-day plan and performance goals with which to measure learning success.
With its corporate employee program — a training program designed to take a new hire through the process of being commissioned as a bank examiner, which takes about four years — the learning function measures against attrition and turnover. Terwilliger said the function also started a new reporting process to track these employees’ progress through different benchmark stages.
Moving forward, he said the FDIC’s corporate university is preparing for the next crisis. “The post-crisis focus we have is really looking at things like knowledge management [and] succession planning. Last year, more people retired across the federal government in general than in any year in history. We’ve got to be more prepared for that.”
For his part, Terwilliger said he wants to continue to build the FDIC’s corporate university so he can leave it better than he found it. That means continuing to align just-in-time learning to the rapid and ongoing needs of the banking industry, as well as matching the learning organization’s performance with the organization’s overall mission. “If I can do that, or at least be on the trajectory of being able to do that, then I think it has been a success.
“It’s exciting to watch this team because they really do amazing things,” he said. “We have engaged in simulations that prepare employees for the next crisis. We have transformed the leadership program. We are providing learning and development for [new] parts of the organization. We’re focused on a vision that will carry the organization well into the next phase of its history.”
Deanna Hartley, a former senior editor at Chief Learning Officer, also contributed to this story.
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