In 2012, Tennessee became the first state in the country to establish an official chief learning officer role, appointing Trish Holliday to the position. It was a decision that transformed the state’s approach to learning and one that has helped it attract top talent in a tight hiring environment. “I came here to revamp, rebuild and rebrand training for the state of Tennessee,” Holliday said.
In many ways Holliday had been preparing for this role most of her life. Her father was a missionary, and after completing her bachelor’s degree in sociology and her master’s degree in divinity, she spent 18 years working with him at Mountain TOP Minis-tries in Tennessee Appalachia. “That’s where I began to understand that my life’s work was to help people reach their full potential,” she said. During that time she created programs for local youth and families and helped build clean water systems and repair homes so the people of the community could live a better life.
In 2005, Holliday left the ministry for a job as training officer with the state of Tennessee, where she quickly moved up the ranks to assistant director, then director, and ultimately CLO. “The work I did in ministry prepared me for government,” Holliday said. In particular, her time at Mountain TOP showed her that she has a certain knack for working with executives and leaders, helping them identify the skills they need to thrive in their roles.
A Vision for Tennessee
The Tennessee government is the largest employer in the state with more than 42,000 employees across 95 counties and 23 cabinet agencies, ranging from the departments of agriculture and education to health, human resources and the military. When Holliday first joined the organization it was a sprawling and highly compartmentalized place where training was viewed as an event — usually compliance related — rather than an ongoing learning opportunity. “It was a ‘check the box’ environment,” she said.
When she was appointed CLO, she knew that if she could tear down silos and create a more collaborative and aligned learning experience with the backing of agency leaders, she could transform it into a place where people embraced learning as a career-long goal. “My dream was to make the entire state of Tennessee a learning organization,” she said.
She got early support in achieving this goal when Bill Haslam was appointed governor in 2012. He and Rebecca Hunter, commissioner of the department of human resources, came to these roles with a plan to make Tennessee the No. 1 state in the Southeast for high-quality jobs. “That meant workforce development would be critical,” Holliday said.
Hunter recognized the value of having a state CLO, and in April of that year she asked Holliday if she’d be willing to help make Tennessee an employer of choice. “I’ll never forget that day,” Holliday said. “It was the most impactful I’ve had since being in the ministry.” As CLO, Hunter encouraged Holliday to rethink the state’s approach to learning and to create a more centralized and aligned learning department.
“Rebecca Hunter has been a true learning visionary,” said Stephanie Penney, assistant commissioner and chief services officer for the state — and one of Holliday’s close peers. Penney noted that Hunter set the stage for Holliday and the rest of the learning and development team to take the necessary risks to transform the state’s learning experience. “We never have to sell her on an idea; she is always open to trying something new,” Penney said of Hunter.
Leading With Leaders
Holliday’s initial directive as CLO was to create a more centralized learning and development environment that would allow the state to better leverage training resources, while creating a more collaborative space where departments could learn together and share best practices. She began by revamping leadership development training for current and future leaders across state government. “We wanted to take an inside-out philosophy,” said Holliday. “If we want to promote leaders from within we needed to grow our own.”
She began with supervisors, who Holliday calls the “heartbeat of the organization.” Her team created a statewide four-level certification program for all supervisors to advance their leadership skills and to create a formal career ladder to move up the ranks of leadership. The level 1 certification became mandatory for people moving into supervisory roles for the first time, and each additional level helped them build the skills to lead larger and more complex teams.
Then she moved on to LEAD Tennessee.
LEAD was an existing state program for current and emerging leaders that puts roughly 150 rising leaders through 12 months of intense, high-impact development covering eight leadership core competencies. Leaders participate in live programs, online training and one-on-one executive coaching throughout the year. The goal of the program is to build bench strength within agencies and create a pool of leadership talent to move into high-level positions in the years to come. “LEAD Tennessee is unique because it brings together executive leaders with midlevel managers to learn together,” Holliday said.
Holliday worked with the development team to hone the curriculum and track its impact — because in state government proving the value of a program is key to maintaining support, she said.
She found that the 1,100 graduates who’ve completed the program have higher rates of retention and promotion than other leaders, and 98 percent say the training helped them improve their performance on the job. Even better, a third-party study of the program found 91 percent of the department heads who sent their people to LEAD felt it was worth the cost to the department. That is significant considering the pressures state agencies face to justify expenses. “LEAD is really making a difference for our leaders,” she said. “We’ve even had private-sector organizations ask us how they could replicate the model in their own organizations.”
Lifelong Learning for All
The LEAD program is limited to a handful of leaders from each agency, which means dozens of promising candidates are turned away every year. Holliday didn’t want these ambitious employees to get discouraged, so she decided to create complimentary programs, called the Commissioner’s Leadership Academy, giving each agency’s best people a chance to advance their skills. She believed that an intensive internal leadership development program targeting the specific needs of agency leaders would help increase engagement, reduce attrition among the state’s high performers and better prepare them to move into the LEAD program later in their careers.
To create the CLA curriculum, Holliday’s strategic learning solutions team collaborates with each agency’s executive leadership to identify core competencies needed by their supervisors and to create customized content using specific case studies and examples from their work. “It is a way to provide candidates who don’t get into LEAD with the next level of training,” Penney said.
After they launched the first few academies, agency leaders quickly recognized the value of the training for their bench of rising leaders, said Jennifer Harris-Brown, director of talent management for the state. The state now runs 28 specific leadership academies, each of which is sponsored by the commissioners of those departments. “These are all voluntary programs, which shows how hungry they are for this kind of training,” Harris-Brown said.
Holliday’s department has also developed training for executive leaders and middle management, as well as cross-department academies targeting leaders with specialized leadership development needs. For example, the Leadership Academy for Excellence in Disabled Services offers training for leaders in any of the seven departments serving the 1.5 million state citizens with disabilities. These targeted training programs provide a centralized learning environment, where leaders from across these agencies can share best practices and problem-solve as a group, Holliday said. “A lot of these folks didn’t realize other agencies were offering the same services, so it is helping them to be more effective.”
Many of these graduates then go on to the state’s Black Belt Leadership Program, which is a self-directed six-level structured development opportunity where trainees advance by completing strategic development courses and performing service tasks. “Service is an important part of government,” Holliday said.
Amid creating all of these leadership programs and transforming the culture of learning for Tennessee, Holliday went back to school to get her doctorate in education in 2015, officially earning the title and nickname “Doc Holliday.” “I wanted to have the highest level of credentials to lead this office,” she said. “It is part of how I model a commitment to lifelong learning.”
A New Perspective
All of these training programs, coupled with Holliday’s constant communication that learning is an inherent part of the state employment environment, have helped make the Tennessee government an employer of choice in the state, according to Harris-Brown. “I never would have considered working for state government before I heard what Trish was doing,” she said.
Harris-Brown had been working in the private sector as a director of human resources when she attended a Society for Human Resource Management event in 2012 and heard Holliday speak. “At the time I thought of state government as slow and not very cutting edge,” she said. But when Holliday started talking about the learning transformation efforts she was pursuing and the commitment she had to turning state government into a learning organization, Harris-Brown was intrigued.
Two years later when she went looking for a new job, she recalled Holliday’s presentation and sought out a role in her department. “At the time the department wasn’t even advertising jobs, so I had to make the effort to apply,” Harris-Brown said. “I wouldn’t have done that if I wasn’t excited about what Trish was doing.” Harris-Brown was hired as a facilitator in April 2014 and is now working with Holliday to deploy many of the state’s new training initiatives.
“Trish is an extraordinary visionary,” she said. She noted that she is always willing to take on any challenge that the state’s leaders throw her way. “She always finds a way to make it work and to push us past our own boundaries.”
Holliday’s enthusiasm and accomplishments are also regularly noted by agency leaders and commissioners, who credit her with creating a new learning culture for the Tennessee government. “Once they see the transformation that happens when their employees go to quality programs with quality curriculum, they all want more,” Harris-Brown said.
They also regularly invite Holliday to strategy meetings and reviews to get her input on how learning might help them address the challenges they face. “When they reach out to me, it’s an indication that learning is appreciated,” Holliday said.
But she isn’t willing to rest on her laurels. In 2019, she’s focusing on creating more access to learning for all employees via a digital learning platform that offers mobile microlearning opportunities. “Imagine if all employees had learning at their fingertips how engaged they would be,” she marveled. That passion and willingness to tackle every challenge is giving the state of Tennessee an advantage that will help them attract talent for years to come.