Centralization. Decentralization. Consistency. Flexibility. There’s a constant push and pull taking place in the learning function. Sometimes there’s a need for more control and consistency across the organization. At other times, flexibility and local ownership takes precedence.
Stephanie Speights has been at the forefront of that debate for more than a decade. In this podcast recorded live in front of an audience at the House of Blues in Dallas, the chief learning officer of Children’s Health shares how to navigate centralization conversations with executives, tips to overcome organizational skepticism and how important it is to focus on getting the right people on the learning team.
Her insights are practical, useful and informed by experience. And that ability to tie learning into the organizational strategy is in demand. Since this episode was recorded, Stephanie took on the CLO role at Parkland Hospital and Health System, one of the largest health systems in Dallas.
Plus, co-host Justin Lombardo talks about the three things to look for in a new CLO role and why he thinks centralization is the way to go for the modern learning function.
Thank you to our episode sponsors:
This episode of the Chief Learning Officer Podcast is brought to by Bridge, the makers of Practice. Practice can scale the competency and confidence of your teams to ensure your organization thrives in today’s fast changing, unpredictable world. Visit getbridge.com to learn more.
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Podcast Producer: Jesse McQuarters.
Note: This transcript has been edited for space and clarity.
Mike Prokopeak: Welcome to the Chief Learning Officer podcast. I’m Mike, editor in chief of Chief Learning Officer magazine. Always a pleasure to have you join us, so thank you. I’m joined today by my co-host, Justin. Welcome, Justin.
Justin Lombardo: Hi, Mike. It’s good to be back.
Mike: It’s summer in the city of Chicago.
Justin: It is.
Mike: It’s going to be in the 90s later this week.
Justin: Upper 90s, but definitely that’s hitting like two thirds of the U.S. So all of our listeners out there will be melting in their cars along with us.
Mike: Well, it’s summer time so we pack a lot of living into the summer time here in Chicago.
Justin: We do.
Mike: Our guest for today’s podcast is Stephanie Speights.
Justin: The name is vaguely familiar.
Mike: Yeah, someone you know, Justin. I know you actually know very well.
Justin: I do.
Mike: So I talked with Stephanie in Dallas at our Chief Learning Officer Breakfast Club event there, where she was at that point and until very recently, vice president of talent management and chief learning officer at Children’s Health in Dallas. She just landed a new gig, it’s still in Dallas, as senior vice president, talent management and development and CLO at Parkland Hospital and Health System. So congratulations to her.
Mike: But interestingly, Justin, she knows you and in fact was part of the team that actually hired you. You were the first CLO at Children’s Health, a brand new position. They were looking to centralize their learning function. When was that that you took that role?
Justin: I actually took it in 2009 and was there about three and a half years. Stephanie was one of the directors in the organization that would be reporting into me when they centralized all this. So she was part of the interviewing process along with the other directors in learning and clinical education. She was a star from day one. I’m glad she got the role after I left. She’s one of those people that you look at and you dig in a little bit and you go, “OK, she’s going to be a CLO at some point when she wants to be.” So I think it’s lucky that Parkland gets her now after she’s had this kind of experience. So I think it’s a great gig.
Mike: We talked a little bit in our conversation about the chief learning officer role at Children’s and why she decided to end up taking it and what that means and her path there. So we definitely dug into that when we were together in Dallas. But we also talked about the centralization of the learning function, in healthcare in particular, and it’s a trend you know very well obviously as you were her predecessor at Children’s and you were the first CLO who established what became known as the Learning Institute.
Mike: So let’s talk about centralization, Justin. When you were recruited for this job around 2009, how did you know that this was going to be a job you wanted? Because it was a big change for that organization at that time.
Justin: It was. And that’s a really good question and I think it’s something that probably our listeners all go through when they start to get recruited and sort of say, “Hmm, should I do this? Not do this?” And I often get younger people that are moving forward in the learning and development space who say, “How do I know that I should go interview?” So I’ve got some standard things that I look at and Children’s met the criteria.
First of all, was that they at least had one senior executive who understood what it meant to bring in a CLO. That was going to be a key thing. If you have everybody that’s sort of functioning in a state of what I would call naive enthusiasm-
Mike: Fantasy, in some way.
Justin: Fantasy. I was going to be a little more delicate about that. I refer to it as naive enthusiasm, where they’re like, “We really want this.”
Mike: Well, the idea is attractive, it makes sense, but how do we actually make it happen.
Justin: Yeah, we can create something new here [and] let’s go do this. And then you start doing it with them and they go, “Oh, no, no, no, no, that’s not what we meant.” The chief administrative officer kind of had a handle on it, theoretically what it would mean. So did, interestingly enough, the chief operating officer. And so that was kind of good. So there was that. They had the baseline there.
Justin: They actually were in some pain as well and I think Stephanie talked about this in the interview that when you dig around into that they had a lot of duplication. They had people doing the same thing. They had some errors, they had waste going on and they lacked consistency. And they knew that this was happening so they wanted to fix that. And so I thought, OK, there’s a reason for it. It’s not really a burning platform. It was more a smoldering porch but they were getting towards the burning platform fairly quickly. So that was number two.
Number three is kind of a standard in my mind: Are these people that I would like to go out and have lunch with? And if the answer to that in my head is no, I would never take a job. And that’s strong advice I would give people. If, in the course of the interviews, these are people that you really enjoy having an intellectual exchange with, that you think, “These are people I would like to talk with more and not just about hard business things but people I’d really like to talk with more because they’re intellectually stimulating, etc.,” if you don’t get that feel, and I summarize that by saying, would I want to go out and have lunch with them, then don’t take the job because you won’t get anything done with them.
So there were those reasons: two of them very strong business reasons but one personal to do it. I knew though it was going to be a big culture shift but that was OK because I’d done the same thing at Northwestern Medicine for the hospitals there and had gone through that. So that’s how I realized I would do it. Also, at the time, Children’s was ranked the number three children’s hospital in the U.S. That’s a pretty high ranking and so you have to respect the institution for that.
Mike: Well, let’s zoom out a little bit and think about centralization in general. So we talked about what in particular you as a CLO assessed in that particular position and from an organizational standpoint to determine if you’re going to be successful, that this was going to work, if it was a job you even wanted to take and that Stephanie eventually ended up taking.
But looking at it more broadly, how does an organization know when it’s time to centralize your learning operations? When I was talking to Stephanie, it’s always referred to it as a bit of an accordion: We centralize then we decentralize, and we centralize and we decentralize. We kind of go back and forth like we’re squeezing the organization. How do you know when it’s time to centralize? What are some of the hallmarks there?
Justin: That’s a good question. Well, one is when the squeezing of the accordion sounds like a cat yelping. Something’s wrong. You need to something.
Mike: You don’t know how to play.
Justin: Yeah, you don’t know how to play so there’s a problem. But I think you dig into what the operations are seeing. And again, it’s back to the thing we talk about all the time, it’s the business objectives and the data that you are seeing from the business executives.
So if you’re starting to see inconsistencies, if you’re starting to see from division to division and an organization that things aren’t handled in a standard way, if you start hearing from your learning and development people, “Well, we can’t do this,” or “Somebody’s already done that, we’ve got to redo this,” so you get a lot of duplication or you hear from operations, “Training isn’t getting us anywhere. This isn’t working,” You’re probably ripe to look at the structure. And that would be one of the first things because something’s wrong. It’s not making sense.
I’ve seen, and this is my bias, that when you start running into that you probably have a decentralized organization or an organization that if it is centralized at that point, is totally disconnected from operations. So in both cases you’ve got a big issue. But when you see those kinds of things then you know you’ve got to really look at what’s going on because somehow the investment is not being solidified and normalized to reach business goals.
Now, to Stephanie’s point there’s going to be times when you’re going to centralize and then take your foot off the gas pedal and pull it back and maybe decentralize a little bit. But I think that those are some of the core things that you look at. Is it not making a difference? Is it being approached differently?
Now I have a bias and you know what that is. I believe pretty strongly that most organizations, given certain criteria should have centralized learning and development and now, to a great extent, a talent development structure. I think the decentralization is typically much, much less effective.
Mike: Talk that through. Why do you believe that?
Justin: Because I think more and more companies are national, multi-site, global or may have, if not geographic diversity, may have entry points for their customers that are digital, that are face to face. Most companies now have one of their hallmarks is the customer experience should be consistent no matter what portal they come to us. In healthcare, we would say not only does the customer experience or the customer service part of it need to be consistent but the patient outcomes need to be consistent no matter which one of our facilities you go to.
The minute you have that kind of a business goal and operational goal you have to talk about centralization. Add to that when you have centralized functioning in terms of expenditure on production or what your revenue stream needs to be and what your net margin needs to be. If you’ve got a strong talent development function, you’re going to want to centralize because you’re all trying to get to those same goals.
So the closer you get to that the more you need centralization because if you don’t have it you’re going to have inconsistency. You’re going to have inconsistency whether or not it’s regional, or it’s by portal or by national companies. So that all mitigates towards saying, “We need to centralize this to make sure that the learning and the skills and the knowledge are the same against the same business objectives.”
Mike: So that experience whether it’s an employee or a customer experience needs to be consistent?
Justin: Absolutely. In a larger scale, when you’re trying to present consistency of culture and engagement as well as values there is no way you can have that dispersed by region. Because even if you say, “All right, they all know exactly what it is,” I guarantee you, you will have drift just as you do even when it’s centralized – drift in understanding, drift in interpretation – but it will get greater if you’re decentralized and it will be different because it will flow at a different rate. So my bias is for anything where it has to be consistent from site to site, facility to facility, group of employee to group of employee, it makes no sense to decentralize.
Mike: Which is just about every organization.
Justin: That is. And like I said, well, there’s a certain amount [inaudible 00:10:53].
Mike: There’s some flexibility within there but by and large you do need to centralize within the organization.
Justin: Right. Now what you can say though is, “Well, what if they have different lines of business?” One is B2B, one is B-to-consumer. One could make a case that the subskills and things like that need to be slightly different. And then you say, OK, that’s fine. But then you have to look very precisely at the core stuff and say irrespective of whether you’re B2B or B-to-consumer, you still want to make sure the same quality standards are adhered to. So you can augment regionally but with the core still being done centrally.
Mike: All right. I want to backtrack to something that you talked about when we were talking about you first taking on this job and I think Stephanie in carrying through some of that work you started: the questions that you ask of executives. Let’s say you made the case for centralization and they get it, “I’m on board with it. I feel like this is the right direction to go.” What are the questions that are next to ask? What are the things that a chief learning officer should ask of executives now that they’ve made the case for it? What are the questions to ask so that you know where you stand and can be more successful at this?
Justin: That’s really good because again it’s the theory, and in theory I understand why we’re doing this, let’s go ahead. In healthcare, and this is going to upset some of my friends who I love dearly in nursing, one of the first questions you need to ask the chief nurse is, “That’s great. So you’re going to give me the 45, 50 or 60 headcount that are currently clinical educators reporting into your division [who] will now report to the CLO in a centralized function.” And then you look at their face. And as the horror spreads from feature to feature, you kind of have to walk them back through that. I joke but that’s the reality of it. That’s where the rubber is hitting the road.
Mike: It’s not just nurses. This is anybody who’s had the ability to do things on their own.
Justin: On their own, absolutely. And I use nurses because the model historically has always been that nursing educators report to a senior nurse educator. So they’re the ones that often feel they have got the most at stake. And so that’s the next set of questions, what are you going to do when you take it over? Now, you get a theoretical answer but I think anybody who’s going to do that centralization has to be ready for the first time they actually grab something, whether or not it’s a resource, or even take a program and say, “We need to retool this and look at it differently.” You’ve gotta be ready for the conversation [about] how did that pain feel? The conversation you’ve got to have with the senior executive. And usually it comes down to, “Great, we agreed to this theoretically. Now, I’m doing this first step. What will I need to do to convince you that it was a good idea for you to let me rebuild this, or take this over, or totally redefine what you’re doing?” And then you create a compact with them, “Great. Give me 90 days. If this is still working the right way, then we’re on target.”
Those are the kinds of discussions you need to have next. Then it drives down to the next level where you have to say, “OK, what are you going to do when the current person who’s in charge of this for your division comes in saying, “They’re totally destroying what we’re doing.”?
Mike: Yeah, when the resistance becomes hardened.
Justin: When the resistance becomes real for the first time you’ve moved out of the theoretical. And that’s when to some degree the new CLO should be the one to say, “Let me take the hit.” Don’t go to another vice president and ask them to give you cover because that’s kind of a cowardly way out and a good way for them to think in their mind, “That person really isn’t up here. There’s somebody else.”
But the other thing is you get further with them. They don’t want their people to be upset with them so you sort of say, “Let me take the hit. Let me continue to be the one to fight the battle here, not you.” That gives them cover. It also helps you because they can then approach the resistance from a different angle. So those are the kinds of questions I think you have to get into.
Mike: What if you’re not a new CLO coming into a role who’s in charge of these things? You’ve got history. You came into this situation where you were brand new to it and had this mandate from the start. What if you’re an existing CLO who’s been asked to centralize or has been on this journey?
Justin: Already in the organization and suddenly they pull you from division X and say, “We want you to be the CLO to centralize this?
Justin: To some degree that’s when you’ve got a little bit of a leg up because you probably have relationships with some of the people, but the challenges may still be as great because you’re still requiring people to look differently at how they’ve done things to change. You also may have a situation where suddenly your peers are now your subordinates. And that really does change the mix pretty significantly. So you’ve got to look at it that way. You can also make it easier because you know what bodies are buried where.
Whether you’re new to the organization or new to the role of the senior learning leader, you’ve got to uncover the rocks, you’ve got to do the archeology. Stephanie mentioned this and I just chuckled when she did because it was something she and I laughed about when I came in and we did an audit of the headcounts for learning and development and we found the oddest titles.
Quality instructor. Well, what exactly is that? Or quality custodian was a good one, and you go, “What exactly is a quality custodian?” When you dig around and scratch in there, it’s like, “Oh, they’re just another trainer.” So you have to pull them out and you go through that. And even if you’ve been in the organization, the leg up you have as you know where some of those bodies are at but you still have to uncover.
Mike: Well, I think this is perfect time to actually turn this over to Stephanie and I know that you’re going to enjoy this conversation with her. So let’s get learning.
Justin: Sounds good.
Stephanie Speights: It’s great to be here. What an honor. I’m humbled and I just want to make sure everybody knows that while I might be in the spotlight right now, I feel like I’m representing 60 amazing professional educators.
Mike: Let’s talk a bit about your career path because it’s been a little circuitous. From what I understand, you actually went all but dissertation on an English Ph.D, and then found yourself in a different path. So maybe you can walk us through a little bit of how that happened.
Stephanie: Sure. To your point, I’ve always been a teacher, so you’ll hear that connection come up later, and I had one of those experiences where I plowed through. I went from high school to undergrad, to starting graduate school, to starting a Ph.D program without taking a breath and doing any real reflection, or even if I did reflection, I had limited understanding of what my options were. And so at the point I had finished my comp exams for my doctorate, poverty set in.
Mike: As it does for graduate students.
Stephanie: As it does, and also just not really knowing what did I have to say. I just wasn’t sure what original idea I had to share which a lot of people deal with when they’re working on that dissertation work. And so strange circumstances led me to talk to someone who also had an English degree and said, “Hey, I got to tell you about this company. They don’t hire people who know technology. They hire great teachers and then teach you technology.” And I was like, “Tell me about this magical, amazing place that will take someone like me who my extent of a technology at that point was WordPerfect for DOS.
Mike: Is that the one with the green font with the-
Stephanie: Oh, hush.
Mike: I remember it.
Stephanie: ExecuTrain’s model was we’re looking for people who can take challenging, complex ideas and make them very accessible to people who are afraid of technology and afraid of the change that that will have in their career. And so your interview was an audition. It was not traditional interview. And to this day I use that same approach to hiring facilitators. It’s an audition because I’m interested in how well do you take a complex idea and turn it into a simple concept.
I can go on and on about that experience, but it was very much life changing and it was an experience that helped me realize I need to be in an environment where people can immediately apply what I’m teaching. And that was the reflection that I was unable to do when I was 21, 22 years old, that I knew I wanted to be a teacher but the only models I had were my mom, who was a literature teacher as well, and it was like, one day you’ll understand why Chaucer is going to influence the way you look at the world. One day, in 30 years, you’ll come back and have appreciation for what you’ve learned today. Well, I realized that I needed that immediate [impact]. I needed to know that what I was doing was having immediate impact and it was an environment that really allowed that.
I will say that I worked for an amazing person who actually pushed me back to finish the dissertation. He was the kind of leader who said, “I don’t want to be the reason you don’t finish that important goal.” And he said, “Take time off. Go do it.” And I did it but the whole time knowing I was going to come back to corporate learning and development.
Mike: So you knew pretty quickly once you went to ExecuTrain – that whole thing that I thought I was going to be doing, this is the way I want to go now?
Mike: So you’re having fun talking to people about technology, traveling around with all of the fun of being a consultant, which means you got to do the fun stuff, but you have none of the responsibility for anything else once you’re done there with the-
Stephanie: For the after effect.
Mike: But then you decided to go into internal roles where not only did you have the fun part of it, where you’re going out there talking to people, going through the training and the courses that you were doing, but then also had to take on the responsibility of seeing that through, too.
Stephanie: You’re left with the outcome, right?
Stephanie: If they get it good, if they don’t get it not good. And so yes, I think that vendor experience – ExecuTrain was a vendor to organizations – really influenced the way I work with vendors today, knowing what it’s like to be on that side of things.
The next thing was I had an opportunity to go into a completely different field in financial services. Capital One at the time was not a bank, it was only a credit card company. It was “What’s in your wallet.” And I got to be a part of a call center environment. I was responsible for all of the call center education as well as the leadership, more of the operational leadership education, not what was considered at the time HR leadership education.
That’s where I learned a lot about productivity, workforce planning, the power of brand, how you leverage people’s pride to lead to a more powerful outcome and for them to take ownership for what they’re doing. I learned a lot about the importance of motivation, personal motivation in that experience. I was only there for 18 months but I would say it was significantly effective in helping me understand brand and identity. Capital One had a very mature evolved competency model that everyone spoke, that everyone referenced when giving feedback. There was a very strong expectation around feedback. And so that was a pretty powerful impact on me.
Mike: So that sort of a lot of the later lessons that you would continue to apply sort of sunk in at that point when you were at Capital One.
Mike: And then you went to Washington Mutual – WaMu.
Stephanie: WaMu, right. Washington Mutual, the story there is that I had taken time to complete the dissertation and I had treated it like a job. I left Capital One for nine months, treated it like an eight-to-five kind of job, went to work every day at the library. So as I was finishing up that process, I was recruited to WaMu. They were centralizing. They had made a big purchase of BankUnited in Houston and New York and they were centralizing all of their operations in Irving. And having had some call center and service background, they found me and it quickly turned into a job that I was wearing many hats. It was all new. It was geographical cultures coming together to try to make a lot of money. This was in the 2002 to-
Mike: Pre-mortgage crisis.
Stephanie: It was, absolutely. The money was flowing. It was, “What do you need?” It was sales training, sales, sales, sales, it was productivity, it was risky, lots of dinners and lots of… I don’t want to speak badly of WaMu because it was a wonderful experience with a lot of great people who were very committed to doing great work. But it was a weird time to be in that industry.
Mike: The business model had been getting a little ahead of where it probably needed to be at that point.
Stephanie: Yes, yes. It was just more and more and more, so the speed. Talking the business became probably the most important competency that I grew at Washington Mutual.
I was in the function of commercial real estate at Washington Mutual which, no offense to all the guys in the room, but there was one woman for every nine men. That field was very male, very sales, and so you were always speaking in bullet points and in financial terms and trying to show how you could contribute to the bottom line.
Mike: I want to dive into Children’s next. But looking back at that path and picking up some of the themes I’m hearing, obviously, speaking the business you mentioned. What else would you say were some of the key themes that started to build over this time that led you into this next step of your career?
Stephanie: When I think about the thread from the point of ExecuTrain to WaMu, to even going into Children’s, a key thread and people who work with me now will find this somewhat funny, was technology. It was the power of technology to change the way people work. In every situation, the need for effective learning and development was very much about people felt afraid of how technology was going to change what they had been doing for their entire careers. At ExecuTrain, it was about moving to Microsoft Office and away from written ledgers and moving to spreadsheets and getting comfortable with how all of those things fit together.
At Capital One, this is when that early artificial intelligence started coming into play. So for those of you… I hope you never have a call from a collector. But if you do, by the time you pick up the phone or by the time the person at the call center picks up the phone, how much they already know about you because of that connection of your phone number and the last four digits of your account, and how the machine technology was feeding information to the person on the other end of the phone about who you were, whether or not you were going to be able to make your payments, what kind of education you need about how credit works. I mean, it was smart stuff. And that was a brand new way of serving and servicing people and that was a big influence. And then moving to WaMu where it was very much about faster loan applications, faster ways of underwriting loans and people’s standard approach to how they had done their work was completely changing, similar to Children’s Health, too.
Mike: One last question before we shift to Children’s Health. Are there things that as you look back at that time in your career journey there that you’d like to take back, that you wish you would have done a little bit differently as you approach the next phase of what you’re doing?
Stephanie: So I’m always hesitant to answer that question because even the bad experiences are-
Mike: Are learning experiences.
Stephanie: What doesn’t kill you, teaches you something, right?
The only thing that I can really think of is I had moments of fear. I think that a lot of us who are in the learning profession or just lifelong learners in general, we want to know everything before we feel like we’re ready to contribute. And I think I missed a few opportunities along the way because I felt like I didn’t know enough and I just needed to spend a little more time getting better at something before I could step into what was needed. So at this stage of my life I am much more inclined to say yes and then figure it out later.
Mike: All right, so let’s talk about Children’s then. You started in 2009. Not as chief learning officer but actually in finding the chief learning officer.
Mike: And so there’s a little bit of an interesting backstory there. But maybe before we get into that, tell us a little bit about Children’s Health.
Stephanie: Yes. So the things that I would hold up as things that I think are just powerful for me is it is the eighth largest children’s health care provider in the United States. It is the second busiest emergency department of children’s hospitals in the United States. A lot of people don’t realize that we actually have three hospitals. I was talking to someone earlier about our beautiful Plano campus. We have three hospitals. We have the one that most people know about in downtown Dallas, we have our Plano facility and then we have a long-term rehabilitation center called Our Children’s House. It’s for kids mostly with chronic conditions who need long-term rehabilitation before they’re ready to go home. But we are also in the school system doing virtual care for kids so that their parents don’t have to take off work and take them to a doctor. We have an amazing group of people who are committed … a very mission-driven organization.
I kick off orientation every two weeks and when people ask me what has kept me at Children’s Health for 10 years, I talk about that magic that happens when something you love to do gets married with an organization with a powerful mission. You just can’t re-create that. And so that’s my story about Children’s.
Mike: So obviously you didn’t think that when you started on this path of being a corporate learning and development person that you would end up as the chief learning officer at a health care system.
Stephanie: No. I didn’t think that would end up the chief learning officer five years ago.
Mike: So how did you end up coming into Children’s Health?
Stephanie: So as the banking crisis was starting to happen, I saw a little bit of the writing on the wall and was ready to do something else. I took a very short deviation away from my roots there and worked with Dianna Booher, some of you may know Dianna Booher. I went and worked for her for about six months. She is a guru in the communication field. I was teaching business writing and presentation skills and loved it very much but what I missed so much was having a team. I was very much an individual contributor and I liked being on the road and being back in the classroom a lot. But the power of working with incredible people in a team environment, I ached for it, not to be a really dramatic or anything.
So my ExecuTrain roots came back. One of the owners of the ExecuTrain of Dallas called me when I had left Booher. I was trying to figure out what I was going to do next and the former owner of ExecuTrain Dallas called me when I was on a driving trip to see my parents in Birmingham and said, “Just wondering what you’re doing these days.” And I said, “I’m looking for the next thing.” And he said, “Well, I’m doing some consulting work for Children’s and they need a training manager. They are moving from paper files, medical files, to the electronic medical record. They have this massive training project that’s going to take years and they don’t have a training manager. They just lost theirs. Are you interested?” Sign me up, right?
Mike: Yeah. Funny you should ask.
Stephanie: Funny you should ask, right. And so I interviewed a week later and started in contract. It was that same [story where] people need to change the way they work, technology is blowing their minds, people are scared, there are physicians and nurses who are saying, “I’d rather retire than do this,” and they needed someone to come in and run that show.
Mike: And so similarly, there was also a push to create a chief learning officer position, somebody who would come in and oversee not just the training towards the electronic record and management system, but also oversee learning and development as an organization. And you were intimately involved in that process with somebody we both know, Justin Lombardo, who was the first chief learning officer.
Stephanie: Yes, that was an interesting path. So when I started I didn’t know anything about Children’s. All I knew is about the job. And so I was actually hired into IT because it was a very decentralized model. Anything technology was housed in IT. Obviously being a health system, there is a very large and strong clinical education function that needs to happen and that was under the umbrella of nursing because the majority of educators were nurses. And then there was HR education, which does most of the leadership development.
Mike: Pretty much everybody else.
Stephanie: Yeah, everybody else. So when I joined, I learned pretty quickly from our chief administration officer that there was a move to centralize all learning to create what we now know as the Learning Institute. And I was the representative of IT and then there were two other peers who were involved. In addition to changing to the electronic medical record, which was mammoth, [we] started on the path of looking for a chief learning officer. So I had the privilege of learning about what that was because I didn’t come from an environment with a CLO. Actually, that’s not true. WaMu did have one but at WaMu it was centralized, decentralized, centralized, decentralized. Anybody who’ve been through that fun game?
Mike: It’s like an accordion. The way you just described it it’s like-
Stephanie: It is, it is. Right. So I knew about it in that context, but it never had any direct impact on me because I was part of a more decentralized model. But I got to be a part of [answering] what are the benefits? What are we driving for? Why do we think this is going to be the good fit for Children’s? I got to be part of that discovery. So I came in as a manager, a training manager, and they were hiring a vice president and that’s a two or three level change. This is where I stopped being afraid. I threw my hat in the ring so that I could get interviews so I could meet some of the stakeholders in the organization and begin to be part of the conversation. But yeah, we hired our first chief learning officer from Northwestern in Chicago. He spent, I guess it was three years at Children’s and he by far was the right change agent for what Children’s needed.
Mike: So I’m curious to go back to the decision of why hire a chief learning officer. That was really interesting to be a part of the conversation. What was pushing the organization in that direction that said, “Okay, you know what? We really need somebody at this level, at the vice president level, who can be this person who oversees everything and drive this change.” What were the reasons as it was happening at that time?
Stephanie: I think there are the practical reasons and then there are the cultural reasons. I’ll start with the cultural reasons at Children’s. For the longest time our tagline brand, and it still influences, we like to be the first, we like to be out in front, and that means you’re always taking risks. The first for this, the first for that. That influenced that. CLOs in health care are not typical and centralization is very unusual. And so our chief administration officer was very much trying to align how we look at learning and development and all of the things involved with that, how we could differentiate ourselves.
So that was happening over here from a brand and from a cultural perspective, but then the practicalities of just the continuous sense of we were redoing work, there was duplication of effort, not knowing when things crossed over between something that was technical and something that was clinical, who owned it, how was it supposed to get done? And when things go well, I own it, right? But things go bad, you own it. There was a lot of that.
But anyway, the practicalities of knowing we could get some efficiencies and knowing we could raise the game in terms of the quality of what we were producing and how it was affecting our workforce.
Mike: So now it’s centralized?
Mike: At this point, you would call it centralized?
Stephanie: I would definitely call it centralized.
Mike: But when you started, especially when you were hired into the IT, at that point it was very decentralized?
Stephanie: Very decentralized.
Mike: Can you give us a sense of the scope, like how many folks are on your team, what sorts of things are they doing on a regular basis? Sort of up and down the organization, who are the folks there serving?
Stephanie: The story I love to share about the power of centralization done well is just to kind of do a side by side of what it looked like nine years ago and what it looks like today. When we went through that awful exercise of trying to find where are all of the learning professionals in the organization – you all have done that, right? And people have interesting titles like quality specialist, or sometimes it’ll say trainer but that’s not really what they’re doing. So that huge exercise of there are people with titles and then there are people who functionally are acting as training professionals. I’m getting a lot of nods here.
So when we pulled everybody together except the ones who were the holdouts that dug in and said, “You’re not touching our team” and they somehow got permission to do that, we brought together 63 FTE. Now that sounds like a lot but keep in mind that in the healthcare space, in a hospital setting, an educator, a clinical educator at least generally needs to be an expert in that area of specialty. So the NICU needs a NICU nurse who is an educator. The emergency department will have at least one educator because you have to have that specialization. And so when we pulled everybody together, HR, IT and all of the clinical staff, we had about 63. That was at a time when our employee population was about 4,200. Today, we have more than 7,500 employees and our FTE count which now includes not just nurse educators, but all physical therapy educators, all radiology, sim lab and a wide range of other things is 63 FTE.
So the population of the employee base has nearly doubled, but the size of the learning and development profession has stayed exactly the same. And I would say even more importantly, it is extremely collaborative and you will not see duplication of effort because as a request comes in or as a need is identified, there is a process where we say, “OK, who are the right people to be involved in this? And how will they affect everyone?” As opposed to, “Here is my client group, here is my group, here is my group,” and then everybody is trying to do something separate. So that’s probably the biggest impact.
Mike: Well, so you just within a couple of minutes just laid out an incredible vision for what you’ve achieved but it was by no means an easy task. In talking to Justin quite a bit in particular with nurse educators, there’s a lot of skepticism for people when you come in as a centralized function and say, “We’re going to run what you’re going to do. You have to run things by us. You have go by these standards and procedures.” They don’t necessarily like that. So how did you overcome some of the skepticism as you were going through that process, perhaps with nurse educators but with other folks that you mentioned managed to carve out their little fiefdoms?
Stephanie: I’ll mention two things. The first thing is whether you’re in healthcare or financial services, it’s outcomes. Outcomes, outcomes, outcomes. Credibility is built from results. And when something happens that you lead or that you drive and it is so evident and obvious that it was done well because behavior has changed, because people understand the tasks in front of them, they know why they’re doing it, they know how they’re going to be held accountable for it, then it’s a lot easier.
People will now come back to you and say, “Hey, you remember what you did over here? Could you do that again? Could you do that again, and could you do that again?” And so at the time Justin was there, it was very much around, “You’re not touching my people,” and today we’re like, “Hey, would you take my people?”
We’ve been able to shift but that was a four or five year journey and I think that’s part of the issue that all of us… We want change fast, we want to see the impact and we have the pressure to produce the impact fast, like show us that that’s going to pay off in the end but you only have a year to prove it. Fortunately, we were in an environment where there was patience and there was a commitment to it.
The second thing that I would mention besides outcomes is the painful part is you have to switch out people. The historical role of educator, whether it’s clinical or technical or whatever it was, was very much either a, “Hey, I’m tired of doing bedside nurse. What’s available for me?” “Hey, why don’t you be the educator?” That’s the worst case scenario when always like that but it was kind of the place where nurses got to at least step down. And the importance of treating the educator as a center of excellence and requiring and expecting competencies just like you do in a clinical space, means that some people are going to either opt out or need to be helped opting out.
Same thing on the technical side. We had trainers at the time who were just really, really, really great system people who loved explaining things, great help desk folks, but didn’t have… either didn’t want to, because in some cases it was like, “What do you want to do?” And people opted out and that was fine. But to say, hey, we’re now going to have a process and we’re going to use instructional design methods, and we’re going to do X, Y and Z, people were like, “You know, I think I’m going to go over here and work as an analyst in IT.” And that’s fine. That was a fit. We just had to switch people out.
Mike: Yeah, I’ve heard that a lot from chief learning officers who’ve come into situations and have said, “You really have to focus on your talent on your team” and you cannot be the dumping ground for the folks you mentioned who were just wanting to kind of step away. You’ve really got to fight to keep that integrity to your team in order to make that happen. But you’ve had the luxury obviously of probably having support from the top to be able to do that.
Stephanie: Mm-hmm, I did.
Mike: What advice would you have for folks who maybe don’t have that support or have leadership that isn’t thinking about it in those terms? It is sort of just saying, “You know, take on these folks. It’ll be fine. I don’t want to have them on my team anymore.” How would you advise approaching that situation?
Stephanie: I can only think of one situation where I was under the pressure after we came in and started moving towards centralization. I can think of one situation where there was a part of our organization that was starting to streamline and shrink and that director came to me and said, “Hey, we’re going to move them into the training team.” I was like, “You’re speaking a language I don’t understand. Help me here.”
So what I did was I involved her in the selection process. I said, “Look, I am open to it. I understand what you’re trying to achieve. I understand there is a history of doing this. I have some concerns. I would like for you to be involved in seeing how we would select a learning professional for this kind of role.” And I involved her in the audition process and the interview process to see what is it we’re looking for, how do you know it when you see it? And there were some pretty obvious disconnects.
What she thought they might be able to do when she realized the kinds of things we were looking for, it was a lot easier for her to say, “Yeah, I see what you’re saying. This person is not the right skillset.” But there were other options, too. I think if I had been between a rock and a hard place that would have been a tougher situation.
Mike: A couple more questions about Children’s and then I want to transition a little bit. You’ve got a number of team members here. You’ve mentioned you’ve got 63 FTEs now. How do you develop your team to be ready for the challenges that are continuing to come across their table? What sort of things do you put in place to make sure that not only are you assembling a great team of highly capable professionals and selecting for that but you’re also developing them continuously to do that? What are the things that you do?
Stephanie: So I’m going to cheat and say I lean on them to develop themselves and to develop each other. There are some formal ways that it happens. As an example, a few years ago when we ratcheted up the number of folks that were coming into our team, we made the investment and bringing in a train-the-trainer facilitation skill kind of thing. Every once in a while we’ll do that sort of, “Hey, there’s 20 people who’ve never gone through this type of formal learning. Let’s bring that in.”
But from an ongoing perspective and big kudos to David and other members of our leadership team who were always as part of every staff meeting or on a quarterly basis making sure that coming together in a staff meeting isn’t just about, hey what’s going on and what’s coming down the pike, and what do you need to know, but there’s time carved out to talk about a best practice, or to highlight a project, or to talk about lessons learned, or to bring in a new skill set or to talk about how you can employ pretty simple change management techniques when you’re doing your initial consulting and triaging, look at a training plan that worked and why it worked, and that sort of thing.
So I think it’s just this kind of ongoing but also reading what’s out there in the industry. I’m a huge reader of anything that Bersin puts out, anything that Harvard Business Review puts out. The Work Institute just came out with a lot of great data on employee engagement and retention and trying to stay a little bit current and sharing that. It’s really important.
Mike: If you had to pick out one program or one initiative that you felt has been particularly successful to highlight as this is where the team really came together and achieved the thing that we set out to do and did it well, what’s one that comes to mind that you would point to? And why is that one particularly successful?
Stephanie: I’m going to talk about a recent one and I am not the expert so it may sound a little sloppy. But one of the privileges of working in healthcare is that you know that when you are working with clinical staff you are connected to something pretty powerful, because there is a child who will be the recipient of that skill. And so that is both good and that also creates a level of weight that can be a little bit scary. Well, many of you may know within the last few years there has been a significant increase in child suicide. And so there are some new expectations and requirements about how we screen children coming into either the emergency department or being admitted into the hospital, even if they’re coming in being admitted for something completely unrelated.
There is a process to screen these kids to find out if that’s something they’ve ever thought about or if they might be at risk of self-harm. Depending on their age, we might be screening the parent and asking the parent information. Depending if they’re older than 10, we’re asking the child. And that as you can imagine is an extremely sensitive thing. I mean, think about yourself as a parent. Your child gets admitted for surgery or has a broken leg or something, and all of a sudden, you feel like the clinician is asking about, “Have you ever felt like you wanted to hurt yourself?” And you’re like, “Whoa, what is that all about?
So considering how sensitive and big a deal that was there was a planned project that brought together not only the operational leaders, but of course instructional design, videographers that people could see what it looks like when it’s done well, bringing together the clinical educators who live this world, and that collaboration involved everything from technology to the accountability piece, to the instructional design, to the communication plan, which can be the trickiest part. Sometimes we go, “Oh, I don’t do communication.” Well, the communication plan or lack of can make or break any education effort you have.
So that was probably… I mean, it won an access award not that that’s the end-all be-all because that is important but more importantly we had clinicians who received that education to come back and say, “I have to tell you this story. I use the screening method, and there was a child who had we not screened this way would have been at risk for self-harm. And it’s because of that, I was able to identify the need for some additional support for this family.” That’s the reward. Those don’t happen every day, but that was probably the most recent example of being able to see how what we do as a profession can impact lives in the most primal way.
Mike: Was there a way that you did it from a learning and development standpoint that you think made it more successful than others? Because it seems like it’s a very highly personalized thing, it’s not something you can do with a mass approach. What was unique about the approach with that particular instance?
Stephanie: I don’t know that it was unique. I hope it’s not unique. I hope it’s pretty common. We really strive, we put a lot of emphasis on the importance of educator as consultant. And the educators, especially the one who was taking point as the project lead, I think that she was able to demonstrate the consulting skills to bring in all of the stakeholders that had some skin in the game, maybe even identify some people who didn’t think they had skin in the game but found out that they did, and to bring all of the appropriate people together, to bring the customer into the picture, get the parent perspective, get the child perspective, and make sure that all of that was represented in the work that was done, so that by the time the communication went out, people knew it was coming, it was already a done deal.
Mike: All right, shifting gears a little bit. I’ll do a speed round here. I’m going to ask you a couple of questions, something that might surprise us to learn that you think. So tell us something that might surprise us in the audience about your beliefs about adult learning. What’s a belief you have that might surprise all of us in this room?
Stephanie: Not everybody likes games. Look, you can be on the gamification trail if you want to [but] not everybody likes games.
Mike: What’s something that folks might be surprised to learn about Children’s Health?
Stephanie: I referenced it earlier. I think people might be surprised to know just where we are. More than 100 schools in the Dallas area, those schools are relying on us to provide their general pediatric care for their kids. Of course, our goal is always to connect those kids to a pediatrician as their medical home but we’re trying to meet people where they are and people just may not even be aware of that.
Mike: So we’ve talked a lot about you but what’s something that maybe you haven’t talked about that might surprise us about you?
Stephanie: I think a lot of people are probably surprised about learning and development experts because we talk in front of people all of the time, because we’re often the ones facilitating conversation, there’s usually an assumption that we are extroverts. I am an extreme introvert. I like you all right now but when today is over I’m going home to my cave, right?
And so I always get reactions like, “You’re a what?” My house is quiet and the rooms are dark and when somebody says, “Hey, do you want to do something after work?” I’m like, “You all have fun.”
Mike: Report back to me tomorrow.
Mike: Let me know how it went, yeah.
Stephanie: Yes, thanks.
Mike: Last question for you. As you look at what’s on the horizon for chief learning officers, what’s an issue that you don’t see the community really grappling with very well, that you think we need to really start doing ASAP when we walk out those doors, something that we really need to be thinking about and grappling with as chief learning officers?
Stephanie: I’ll readily admit in all candor this is something that I’m trying to wrap my head around, too. The current labor force situation means that we can’t expect that just because people are hired into a job that they are ready for that job. In fact, we’ve got to be thinking about how we actually create job skill training in the employment space. I know many of you are probably, if your organization isn’t already, you’re probably starting to talk a little bit about workforce development as a strategy.
For as long as I’ve been in the L&D space, by the time they come to orientation, the thing they were hired to do, you expect that they know how to do that or they wouldn’t have been hired into it. And it’s getting to a point where there are far more jobs available than the skills that people have available.
So you’re probably going to need to be thinking about how do I create a workforce development solution that when we hire them, they come into that space and we get them ready for the job that they were hired to do. So that paid training experience – the employed trainee – everybody’s got trainee programs, manager trainee programs and that sort of thing but this is bigger. This is more cohort based, we’ve got to bring in people who have the raw material and then train them to do the job we need them to go in and do. And so we’re seeing a lot of need for that right now.
Mike: It’s interesting you bring that up because that also ties into a lot of organizational strategies, too. It’s not just a learning and development strategy that you’re talking about. This is what organizations are seeing as one of the core issues that they’re facing as they look ahead to the future, is the lack of available talent, the turnover in skills, the half life of skills just continuing to speed up. And so how do we as an organization deal with that before it becomes a problem within our walls?
But then you also run up into the issue of, “Okay. Well, I have only a limited amount of budget to spend within our organization. How am I going to conceivably now look beyond our walls to participate in workforce development?” So any thoughts you have on that?
Stephanie: To me that’s a business problem. Not having a workforce for the things you need them to do is not a learning and development budget issue. That’s a workforce budget issue, which kind of goes back to the bread and butter issue related to L&D is you don’t want a learning strategy, you want to be part of the business strategy. Learning is just one of the legs of the many legged stool of a business strategy. And if you can’t find the workforce you need to run your business, that’s a workforce business issue and so you’re just tied into that. That shouldn’t be separate.
Mike: Thank you, Stephanie, for being our interview subject.
Thank you again for joining us for the Chief Learning Officer podcast. If you liked what you heard, please consider giving us a rating on iTunes. And if you have a comment, a topic or something that you’d like to see us tackle on an upcoming episode, be sure to drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org. We look forward to having you back again soon. Keep on learning.
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