In high school, when asked what she wanted to be when she grew up, Sheila Wright expressed an interest in advertising. Her college aspirations were to be a labor relations attorney, and in graduate school they shifted to organizational and then talent development. But before all that, when she was 10?
“I wanted to be a teacher,” she said, reflecting on her Baltimore-area childhood. “Wow. It’s full-circle in a way.”
All of Wright’s interests merged in her current position as chief learning officer for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. “At 40-plus with still 20 years to go, I’ve got my dream job,” she said.
The Path Well-Traveled
Wright started her career in learning and development at the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission, a bi-county parks and recreation organization in the Washington, D.C., area. There she coordinated training events on health and safety before she left for Morgan State University in Baltimore, where she received her bachelor’s and MBA in management.
While there she worked as an academic coordinator, helping students maintaining full-time positions during the day while working on their degrees at night, as well as individuals receiving government subsidies and assistance.
Wright’s focus shifted to adult learning and helping others transition into careers. In November 2000, she started working for HUD’s real estate assessment center while completing her doctorate at George Washington University. The federal sector showed her a new level of structure, one that relied on regulated development for the workforce and provided learning opportunities within agencies. Her job revolved around offering technical training to the organization’s property inspectors.
It was this first stint at HUD that taught her the mantra that would drive her future success. Wright said her supervisors pressed upon the organization that, “We are our own competition. My competition is me. So daily, monthly, yearly, I look at how I can better myself. How can I advance?”
Two years later, she found the answer in the Transportation Security Agency, newly formed but still under the U.S. Transportation Department. “The wonderful thing about TSA was that it was a baby organization,” Wright said. “It gave anyone coming there an opportunity to be very creative.”
As TSA worked on its mandate to federalize the airports after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, Wright worked on her personal mandate to improve herself, creating and managing supervisory leadership training programs for a fast-paced environment. By March 2003, the agency was under the new Department of Homeland Security, and Wright moved to the fledgling organization’s headquarters in June 2005.
Although she was hired to focus on executive-level training, the spirit of self-competition drove her to take on other duties, such as managing enterprise-wide programs and minimizing redundancies to reduce cost. Soon, she assumed the responsibilities of acting director. “It put me in a sink-or-swim position where I had to pick up those programs and move them forward until we could get fully staffed,” she said.
In 2007, Wright moved back to her origins at HUD as the training director responsible for providing learning opportunities to 1,500 employees in the organization’s Public and Indian Housing branch. In three years her work — which focused on technical education, mission support, course fare and leadership development — caught the eye of the department’s senior leaders, who asked her to replicate much of it department-wide.
Surveys had shown the 9,000 employees in the department felt their training needs weren’t being assessed, and they didn’t have the educational tools to complete their job responsibilities. Both problems pointed to a need for better learning opportunities.
To remedy that the department set a goal: 75 percent of the workforce had to complete some type of learning activity. Championed by the chief operations officer and acting deputy secretary, the department met its learning goal in fiscal year 2011 and exceeded it in 2012. Although Wright wanted to raise the goal to 80 percent in 2013, priorities shifted due to funding.
Wright incorporated programs from the Public and Indian Housing office into the whole department via an initiative for paraprofessional employees looking to develop the skills that could move them into more concrete positions. “It let those employees know that we cared about their career development and advancement,” she said.
She did all of this in the eight months she spent as acting CLO. She permanently took the position in 2012.
Learning as Survival
Today in her work at HUD, everything comes back to self-competition.
“You have agencies that look for a champion, and one might say the CLO is the champion,” Wright said. “I want every employee to be a learning champion.”
Wright’s office — the Learning Enrichment and Resource Network — is well on its way to making that possible. LEARN aims to make employees accountable for their own development and “to get the employees excited about learning, to make learning attractive and a part of survival instincts,” she said. She wants her workers to think, “I need to eat. I need to work. I need to learn. If I don’t learn, I can’t survive.”
Showing employees that learning doesn’t necessarily involve a classroom is one of the first parts in Wright’s campaign. Further, the term “training” is too specific to the job. Success, she said, is when program participants can use what they learned to advance their lives both in and out of the office.
But HUD’s workers are typically in for the long haul, with the average tenure lasting 20 years, so development within the organization is still a major focus.
“We have a lot of people in the organization who don’t want to be supervisors because of the challenges,” said Towanda Brooks, HUD’s deputy chief human capital officer. “She’s taken on the challenge of trying to motivate people to take on more of a leading role in defining their careers.” This includes creating an employee development strategy and a leadership reference guide that helps them plan their whole career through e-learning, mentoring and other learning methods.
Wright also challenges HUD employees to develop professionally through rotational assignments, giving workers the opportunity to serve the department in different capacities. For example, a management analyst might learn the skills necessary to be a city planning and development representative by working on projects in that position.
HUD isn’t the only governmental department that uses rotational assignments. Although the practice is generally passé for the private sector, federal organizations such as the Defense Department, Energy Department and the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission still use them for learning and development.
“We’re big believers in individual development plans,” said Ben Ficks, chief learning officer and associate director of human resource training for the NRC. “Development is not just formal training, it’s mentoring and coaching and on-the-job experiences. Course rotations are a key piece of that.”
At HUD, the approach doesn’t just affect workers’ cross-departmental skills. Employees in rotational assignments or who are being mentored often bring a fresh perspective to departmental processes, something that can be used to resolve procedural challenges.
This kind of developmental application also helps the organization prepare for the impending wave of retirement that could soon leave several top positions open. The average HUD employee is 50 years old, and the organization faces the same retirement exodus that threatens other government agencies. The rotational assignment program, along with many of the other initiatives LEARN provides, cultivates talent from within “so that we’re not experiencing as much of the brain drain,” Wright said.
Of course, that doesn’t mean close-to-retirement employees are ignored. Wright said the challenging part of creating the right development options is that people in the early part of their career embrace learning differently than those who may be nearing retirement. “We don’t count anybody out here,” she said. “We have to look at the needs of all our employees.”
Just Around the Bend
Future plans for the department’s learning programs center on Wright’s push for employees to take personal responsibility for their development.
A new talent management system will log learning progress for supervisors as well as employees, an option that will help employees track their development and improve their skills. Giving workers a tool to monitor their own change and advancement should encourage them to continue, Wright said. Again, it’s all about self-competition.
It’s also about inclusion. A virtual private network system will allow HUD employees from all over the country to virtually participate in classes at headquarters, which Wright hopes will make field employees feel just as included as those in Washington. “They’re our front line, and they’re the most important asset in meeting the mission of our agency,” she said. “It’s important to us to make sure they have just as many opportunities if not more.”
Quality is just as important as quantity when it comes to field employees, however. The department’s new metric system, currently in phase two of development, will help LEARN target its assessment and evaluation process to deliver tailored materials based on different offices’ needs. For example, if the Chicago office has a larger skills gap in critical thinking, the department can send specific content to that base. Wright said on top of making sure employees get the help they need, it also allows the department to be fiscally strategic.
Wright has seen her initiatives turned to ash in the inferno of budget cuts before, including the 80 percent learning goal she wanted to set for 2013. Like most government organizations, HUD has limited funding for such initiatives, but its CLO hopes to have a solution. In the movie “Field of Dreams,” Kevin Costner’s character is told “If you build it, he will come.” To Wright, if the workforce values learning, it will get the right funding. In this chicken-and-egg cycle, however, first she has to get employees hooked and talking.
“Like other organizations, we have to do more with less,” she said. “The one thing about working here that I think is great is the support of our secretary and other members of the senior leadership team who recognize some of the challenges and know the part learning plays. I think if many of the agencies have at least that acknowledgment among the senior leadership that will keep learning in the forefront.”
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