Michael Dorsey ensures that every Department of Human Services employee has the training they need to serve Maryland residents.
When Maryland residents experience a crisis, they can turn to the Department of Human Services, the state’s primary social service provider, for help and guidance. DHS assists more than 1 million people annually, although that number is likely to rise in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The department, through its 24 local administrations—covering areas such as child protective services, supplemental food assistance, and other entitlement programs—aggressively pursues opportunities to help people in economic need. It also provides preventive services that work to protect children and adults in each of Maryland’s 23 counties and Baltimore City.
“The mission of the DHS is to meet the needs of the most vulnerable citizens of the state of Maryland,” says Michael Dorsey, the agency’s chief learning officer. To do so, Dorsey must ensure DHS’s 7,000-plus employees have access to the training needed to fulfill agency initiatives.
Showing up, adding value
Dorsey—who actively sought out a career in training and talent development—has been with DHS since 2014, starting as a trainer and working his way up the ranks. Now as CLO, he is charged with leading the agency’s Learning Office, a centralized function responsible for the oversight of the overall design, coordination, delivery, and evaluation of professional development and learning programs.
DHS has a wide gamut of professionals, explains Dorsey, including social workers, program administrators, call center reps, and claims processors. It is people in the field working directly with citizens, as well as those managing processes and functions that happen behind the scenes. He adds that DHS’s employee demographics range from high school graduates to individuals with postgraduate certifications.
“At the Learning Office, we have to recognize that the learner may look different, depending on what group they’re in. It can be a challenge to balance and meet the various needs of each group,” says Dorsey.
In practical terms, that means the Learning Office has such responsibilities as helping social workers earn specific continuing education credits to maintain their licensure; providing programs that meet state and federal compliance requirements; communicating agency policy and procedure changes; and training all DHS employees on general topics such as customer service, technology adoption, communication, ethics, and emotional intelligence.
Dorsey and his team also make sure DHS staff have opportunities to pursue leadership development, mentoring, and coaching programs.
According to Dorsey, training and development is more than just a crucial means of preparing DHS employees to perform their jobs and support their careers and well-being. As a government agency, there are limits on salary, so offering other benefits is important. One of those benefits, Dorsey says, is “a cadre of learning tools that employees can use to work on their professional development, like certification.”
He adds: “It’s not just about offering training. We’re also trying to facilitate learning as a whole. Ultimately, we just want the Learning Office to be a value-add to the department.”
Case in point: DHS is dedicated to employee well-being. As a result, the Learning Office delivers programming to help employees tackle such issues as stress management and avoiding burnout, which surface regularly given the nature of the work.
“When I’m watching the news and hear about a fatality of a child, I hold my breath and wonder if it’s one of ours,” says Dorsey. “Our people experience a lot of secondary trauma and burnout. We try to accommodate that, and work internally and with partners to provide different types of training and learning experiences to help our staff deal with those traumatic experiences.”
Indeed, Dorsey is proud of the function DHS performs in the community. He says that most people are familiar with the agency’s programs, such as child protective services and those that manage foster care and adoptions, distribute food stamps, or provide energy assistance—but many would be surprised by just how far-reaching the department’s work really is.
For instance, he makes clear that the Child Support Administration is more than a collection agency. “There are programs that work to make sure the custodian parents have what they need, even helping them with job coaching and workforce development,” he says.
And as effects of the coronavirus have spread, Dorsey adds that DHS employees are at the front lines, “working hand in hand with Maryland’s Emergency Management Administration.” Some employees coordinated shelter operations to help residents meet stay-at-home orders. Others are responsible for distributing food and support packs to people who are quarantined.
“We are the agency that shows up,” he says. “Our people, the work that they do, there’s nothing like it.”
Growing servant leaders
DHS offers a leadership development academy to provide agency leaders with unique opportunities to sharpen their skills and increase their contribution to organizational excellence and growth. Dorsey notes that the academy was also designed as part of a larger succession management strategy, concentrating on “how to build up and develop the agency’s bench.”
Dorsey details three different aspects of the academy. First is the flagship development program. Any full-time merit staff member can apply, from directors of local departments of social services to a frontline case manager or a receptionist at one of the local offices.
But it’s a competitive application, Dorsey says, with a steering group that scores and reviews the blind applications. Typically, each class is kept to 30–35 participants and lasts about nine months.
Second is a mentoring program. Anyone in the agency can participate, and about 30 cohorts are divided among five different regions throughout the state.
The Learning Office facilitates pairing protégés with the right mentors based on experience, development needs, and locality. The office also prepares both parties for the experience.
“We teach them how to maximize the moment, providing guidance on activities they should do, topics to discuss, where they should be by certain points in the process,” Dorsey explains.
The final piece of the leadership development academy is the executive leadership development program, which is a much smaller group comprised of assistant directors or those in higher positions who aren’t appointed by the governor’s office. Dorsey says the program’s purpose “is building the team, because as administrations come and go, these are the people who will still be there.”
Learning for that group, he adds, “is dealing with a very specific vantage point.” To that end, there’s a major emphasis on coaching. Dorsey notes that coaching starts with a few group sessions with the facilitator and extends to executive coaching that lasts anywhere from six to 12 months.
A central message throughout the academy’s offerings is instilling the concept of servant leadership and integrating it into the work that DHS leaders perform. Servant leadership is a philosophy in which the leader’s main goal is to serve the organization and fellow team members. According to experts, a servant leader shares power, puts employees’ needs first, and helps people develop and perform as highly as possible.
Dorsey explains that the academy looks at servant leadership from different angles, “like the ethics of a service leader, the strategy of a service leader.” The goal, he notes, is to have participants consider the question: “What does it mean to be a servant leader?”
For instance, participants of the academy meet monthly to study insights and learn how to apply the servant leader philosophy in their daily work. They even take a trip to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, to explore leadership lessons that the historic battle that took place there can impart about the real-life scenarios the agency faces, such as limited resources, communication challenges, internal politics, and disruptive technology.
Like any modern organization, DHS faces common challenges around people management and supervisory skills.
“I think in some sense that we take for granted just what is Professionalism 101,” says Dorsey. “Professionalism and communication look a little different these days. We’re dealing with a different culture and a different mindset. Understanding something as simple as what is considered common courtesy can be a challenge.”
To address those challenges, the Learning Office started building a training program developed specifically for supervisors who had been managing for five years or less. But DHS soon realized all supervisors needed the training.
“We started to ask, ‘What happens to the current supervisors?’ By not including every supervisor in training, it’s almost like we’re setting them up to fail,” Dorsey says.
Enter Fast Track for Supervisors. Two years ago, DHS made it mandatory that all supervisors go through the program.
The series of classes covers core ideas around what it means to be a supervisor and key competencies such as communication and emotional intelligence. Further, the training program delves into processes such as the effective way to conduct an employee performance appraisal, and it reviews the various tools supervisors have at their disposal to do their jobs.
The Fast Track program has trained more than 1,500 supervisors, including the Maryland secretary of Human Services. The program has been so successful—and useful—that the Learning Office is in the process of designing a similar program for administrative staff, Dorsey points out.
Pledging customer service
The nature of DHS’s work is serving citizens, and every employee is responsible for delivering exceptional customer service. That is a mission close to Dorsey’s heart, because he’s been on the receiving side of DHS’s services.
He shares that before being hired as a trainer with the agency, he and his family fell on hard times and had to apply for food assistance. His experience with DHS throughout the process was less than stellar.
Whether by chance or fate, on his first day with the agency, Dorsey was asked to help with a pilot customer service training program. “It was one of those things where I was at the right place at the right time,” he says.
Since that time, Dorsey has helped revamp the agency’s entire customer service training program, helping to create a customer-centric culture at DHS. Called G.O.L.D. Standard Customer Service, the program was designed to meet the governor’s customer service promise, which pledges to provide constituents, businesses, customers, and stakeholders with service that is “friendly and courteous, timely and responsive, accurate and consistent, accessible and convenient, and truthful and transparent.”
Each year, all full-time and contractual employees receive training or refreshers that provide an understanding of DHS’s customers and its service strategy. In fiscal year 2019, the Learning Office deployed 28 G.O.L.D. Customer Service sessions throughout Maryland, and department staff completed 18,459 online short-course refresher modules.
“It all goes back to customer service,” Dorsey states. “I keep my food stamp card in my wallet as a reminder.”
Happening right now
A core value at DHS is “valuing and acquiring knowledge for the development of staff and for making informed decisions.” That’s where the Learning Office shines, and it hasn’t stopped during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Right now, the focus primarily is making sure the agency can get the work done with little to no people in the offices and keeping our staff and the public safe,” Dorsey notes. He adds that there are still “people who need food, children being abused.”
During this time, he and his team are thinking about how they can encourage and motivate department staff and how to give them valuable tools. With that in mind, the Learning Office is developing new materials, such as five- to 10-minute online modules, that can help staff learn how to supervise from afar.
In addition, Dorsey describes how some of the agency’s current face-to-face training has online post-training tools learners can access. His team is working on adding content from the in-person sessions to those online materials. And for training that was already delivered online, such as basic webinars, developers are incorporating features that boost interactivity.
The silver lining, says Dorsey, is that he’s starting to hear that “people are seeing they really could learn something from sitting at their desks.” What’s more, if disaster strikes again, the Learning Office has established plans to help DHS adapt and continue serving Maryland residents.
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