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Learning as a Cultural Catalyst in Government

Monday, April 22, 2019

At a time when the shelf life for knowledge is decreasing and the pressure to manage critical skills gaps is increasing, continuous upskilling and reskilling has become a strategic imperative for any organization seeking a high-performing, engaged workforce in an age of disruption. The importance of continuous learning has reached an all-time premium in government, given the unique challenges related to frequent hiring freezes, the growing attrition of eligible retirees, and bureaucratic structures that often fail to attract younger or more specialized workers.

Learning at the State of Tennessee

Tennessee met these challenges head-on by being the first state in the country to appoint a chief learning officer to revamp the state’s approach to learning so that it could better attract and retain top talent and comply with legislative demands for increased accountability. As the state’s appointed CLO serving more than 42,000 employees across 95 counties, Trish Holliday began with a vision of transforming Tennessee into a performance-based learning organization that could “grow its own” talent and be a better steward of its training resources.

Learning for Leaders

Successful learning organizations know that engaging and growing talent begins with effective leadership across all levels. To that end, Holliday and her team began transformational efforts with a focus on renewing and reforming the state’s leadership development processes for current, future, and emerging leaders. Senior leaders were actively recruited as learning champions who emphasized that learning was a critical part of everyone’s job responsibility. Middle managers were regularly invited to give input about the tools they needed to be successful as the state transitioned from a tenure-based to a performance-based culture. Frontline supervisors—considered the “heartbeat” of the organization—were taught how to use S.M.A.R.T. goals for performance management, and a four-level certification program was developed to regularly hone supervisors’ skills in keeping with defined core competencies.

One of the hallmarks of the state’s transformation has been the award-winning LEAD Tennessee program, a 12-month intensive, high-impact learning experience that brings together executive leaders and mid-level managers to build a pool of leadership talent. To date, more than 1,000 graduates have completed the program, with program participation contributing to improved job performance and higher rates of retention and promotion.

In addition to LEAD, 24 other specific leadership academies have emerged since the inception of the CLO function in 2012—each of which is sponsored by commissioners from those departments.


Learning for the Long Run

For government organizations to attract, retain, and empower leaders from multiple generations, roles, teams, and skill sets, an environment that’s conducive to continuous learning is essential. We know that if employees aren’t learning, they’re leaving. Yet in times of financial hardship, organizations often make cuts to what they see as nonessential programs, which frequently include training. This is a major risk in government, where nearly every moment is marked by budget deficits, political demands, and evolving administrations.


To remain stable, flexible, and relevant amid constant change and resource constraints, it’s been mission-critical that Tennessee’s learning and leadership development platforms be seen as a valuable, apolitical part of the state’s strategic success. This goes beyond showing the value of specific initiatives in the short term, but to also showing sustained value over the long run.

Join our session on May 20 at the ATD 2019 International Conference & Exposition to discover proven best practices for growing the kind of mature, resilient, value-added learning enterprise that can stand the test of change and time. Explore how your learning function can meet leadership challenges and close critical skills gaps in the face of shifting capability and business needs. Learn how the state of Tennessee has leveraged a learning organization to catalyze culture change, future-proof its workforce, and become a recognized employer of choice.

Practical tools and tips will be provided, along with lively opportunities to share ideas and resources. Whether you’re in the public or private sector, this session will offer new insights about the promise and potential of learning as a catalyst for organizational growth and transformation.

About the Author

Holly Burkett, SPHR, CPT, has more than 20 years’ experience helping diverse, global organizations achieve strategic change impact with workplace learning and talent management initiatives focused on leadership development, succession planning, career development and coaching, and performance improvement. Formerly with Apple, she is now principal of Evaluation Works, a performance consultancy in Davis, California.

She recently wrote the “Talent Manager as Change Agents” chapter in ATD’s Talent Management Handbook and was a contributor to the Human Resource Certification Institute’s (HRCI’s) The Rise of HR: Wisdom From 73 Thought Leaders, an e-book distributed to more than 1.5 million HR professionals around the globe.

Holly holds a doctorate in human capital development, along with a master’s of human resources and organizational development, and is a frequent conference presenter, international facilitator, and writer.

About the Author

Trish Holliday serves as assistant commissioner and chief learning officer for the Tennessee Department of Human Resources. She provides state appointing authorities with executive coaching and drives overall curriculum development of statewide leadership programs. Contact her at

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