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Kevin Preston
CTDO Magazine

Making and Supporting Connections

Friday, January 14, 2022

Strong partnerships and collaboration are at the heart of talent development for CLO Kevin Preston and his team.

Nearly everyone has been feeling the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. For nearly two years, it's changed where, when, and how people work. Arguably, those working in healthcare have significantly felt the impact.


"Everything has been focused on COVID-19," says Kevin Preston, chief learning officer at Presbyterian Healthcare Services. "It is the one thing that everyone has been working on. There has been a moment of solidarity." But with that has come significant burnout.

"The hospitals are full, and everyone everywhere is tired. Our clinical team and our frontline operational professionals are feeling frustrated and exhausted," Preston explains.

Preston oversees L&D at PHS, focusing on initiatives that build the day-to-day operational skills of the healthcare system's 13,000 employees. Founded in New Mexico in 1908, PHS is a statewide, not-for-profit healthcare system and health plan comprised of nine award-winning hospitals in seven communities.

The health system also has more than 100 clinics that offer access to over 50 specialties, including primary care, children's care, women's care, cancer care, heart and vascular care, surgery, behavioral health, and urgent care.

Preston and his direct team of 70 employees are charged with designing, delivering, and tracking everything from technical training on practices such as how to manage electronic health records to general onboarding of new employees to coaching and mentoring leaders to administering employee skills assessments.

Current priorities

Recently, their efforts have been focused on supporting employees and reducing burnout. He points out that there has been a discernable boost in people participating in the employee assistance program and calling Code Lavender, a crisis intervention tool used in hospitals where any person—clinicians, care teams, and employees—can call for help when a traumatic event or series of stressful events occurs.

To respond to staff's elevated stress levels, Preston and his team have prioritized developing resources that address employees' physical and emotional well-being. First, L&D developed webinars and podcasts that offer staff practical advice on how to manage stress and burnout.

The team also produced the Leader Connects webinar series for managers, which offers a holistic picture of well-being and how that ties to work satisfaction and performance. More importantly, Leader Connects has focused on how managers can support their teams during these stressful times.

"It's a leader's job to ask whether their people are OK. These webinars help them to not fear asking that question or to not be afraid of what the answer might be," Preston says.

"We also tell leaders that they can't solve all of their team members' problems, but sometimes just asking about their well-being helps. It lets people know that you care about them."

The Leader Connect webinar series was one of the first initiatives L&D created when the pandemic pushed learning into a virtual environment. And although the series has achieved overwhelming success, Preston notes that at first his team thought no one would be interested in the webinars.

"Everyone was too busy. They were freaking out. But we soon learned that they really wanted to talk to each other," he says, and the webinars were a safe space for them to do that.

Building community

That need for community and connection is one Preston is familiar with. He joined PHS in 2018 and is its first CLO.

"This is a brand-new role for the organization, and it was established as a way to connect our many different learning initiatives," he says.

To ensure that all L&D solutions are aligned and tapping the best learning tools and techniques, Preston developed a community of practice with members of his team and PHS educators who don't report directly to him such as the those who work with clinical education and the nurse advice hotline, as well as the claims training team.

Participants are invited to quarterly meetings to discuss their current projects and share best practices. In total, about 150 people working throughout the healthcare system participate.

Individuals may discuss PHS-specific issues such as how to leverage different features of the learning management system or share useful templates. Or the discussion may focus on core capabilities around instructional design such as how to write effective learning objectives.

For example, Preston shares that at a recent meeting, one of the community members gave a presentation on evaluation. They covered the basics including Kirkpatrick's four levels of evaluation, detailed their own approach to evaluation, and outlined a case study on how they evaluated learning programs related to one of PHS's residency programs.

"Everyone involved with learning at PHS is amazing at what they do, but sometimes they don't have core learning skills," Preston says, explaining that they may not have a background in learning and came into their role because of their subject matter expertise.

"So that's what we're trying to do with the community—discuss adult learning theory, instructional design, evaluation, technology, and so on. It's entirely about the field of L&D."

The community is also a vehicle for networking. "People working in some of those smaller training departments now have an opportunity to get to know other people and not feel like they are completely alone and don't have any peers."

For Preston, the community of practice also represents his own values around the significant role relationship building plays in the success of learning. "So much of what we do in L&D relies on our relationships," he says.

He continues, "I don't do things by myself. I partner heavily with the chief nursing officer, with the chief medical officer, with hospital leadership, with other aspects of our clinics and our health plan, and with experts on my own team.

"In L&D, you must have productive relationships with people. They have to trust you and feel like you know what you're doing."

Becoming a strategic partner

Those partnerships extend to clinical education as well, which another team—led by the chief nursing officer—manages. Preston works closely with that team on many efforts. Likewise, organization development consultants on the L&D team are assigned to strategic plans and projects that may be managed elsewhere in the business.

"We try to ensure that there's a learning and organizational development component embedded into any strategic initiative," Preston states. "Let's say a decision from leadership directs the business to change jobs in some specific way, start a new service, adopt a new technology, or open a hospital. Our team's role is to say, ‘Let's help you figure out how to do that effectively.'"

Whether it's a business-wide shift or a change in procedure on the clinical front, the internal consultants on the L&D team take a change management approach and assist with the organizational analysis to help determine "what has a component of learning, a component of change, a component of communications," he explains.


For instance, when PHS was changing the way it staffed and used medical assistants in many of its clinics, Preston's team partnered with the clinical education team to map out what that process would look like. The new clinical model affected the daily work of several groups in that department as well as the way patients receive services. 

The change management team worked closely with senior leaders to identify the model's learning and change needs. The clinical education team analyzed all the elements of training, competencies, gap analysis, and instructional approach for the multiple pathways needed for medical assistants and registered nurses who were navigating the structural change.  

"Clinical education helped identify what learning components would be needed to educate medical assistants to perform the changed role well and safely," Preston says. "And from the change management perspective, we asked, ‘How do people feel about this change? Are they on board with it? How will others who work with them be impacted?'"

He points out that almost nothing is without change. "If you're asking people to do something different, you're going to get some resistance. So, how are you going to overcome that resistance?" Preston posits.

"If we just focus on the learning aspect of any initiative, then we're going to miss the boat," he states. "We're going to end up training people on something that may or may not work because they're not on board about why they're doing it."

He also notes, "The great thing is that we're starting to hear from our senior leaders that they need help with change management. That's exciting because they didn't say that in the past.

"They don't always know what change management means. They just know that they need it. And I'll take it. It's a great entree for my team to get involved in initiatives early on."

Thinking about the future

Today, Preston is focused on how he and his team can help PHS move forward despite a talent shortage. "Being able to find people who are skilled and then be able to develop and retain them is challenging right now."

And based on the team's recent experiences with transitioning and adapting to online learning, Preston is confident in his team's abilities. "Presbyterian is probably the most in-person place I have ever worked," he remarks.

He adds, "The learning team pushed the envelope on how we could leverage technology to get people to connect with one another. I felt so proud to be part of a team that could really have meaningful support for the organization and was able to quickly turn on a dime."

Whether it's recruiting, upskilling and reskilling, engagement, or employee well-being, Preston believes there is a role for L&D to play. In fact, he affirms that if it relates to the employee life cycle, it affects talent and learning.

He advises talent development executives in similar situations to gain a deeper understanding of their business if they want to bolster organizational efforts. "Sometimes it's easy in the L&D space to think that we don't need to get too involved in the day-to-day business operations. But we really do, because it drives how employees interact and what they need to know to perform their jobs. It drives what our focus in talent development should be," he says.

That starts with asking lots of questions. "We should bring to the surface issues that other people don't. We should be like the grain of sand in an oyster. We should be just a little bit irritating," Preston explains. "By pushing just a little, we can give a lot of value to the organization."

Read more from CTDO magazine: Essential talent development content for C-suite leaders.

About the Author

Ryann K. Ellis is an editor for the Association of Talent Development (ATD). She has been covering workplace learning and performance for ATD (formerly the American Society for Training & Development) since 1995. She currently sources and authors content for TD Magazine and CTDO, as well as manages ATD's Community of Practice blogs. Contact her at [email protected] 

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