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CTDO Magazine

Meeting Needs Through L&D

Thursday, April 15, 2021

Eileen MacDonald Cooke ensures CVS Health employees have the training and development they need to effectively fulfill their critical roles.

At some point this year, you will likely visit one of CVS Health’s 10,000 retail locations to fill a prescription, pick up an over-the-counter medicine or personal care product, or buy a birthday card. Or you may go in to receive a COVID-19 test or the vaccination against the coronavirus.


In doing so, you will interact with one of CVS Health’s 300,000 workers who are employed across the US and Puerto Rico. Many of the retail and healthcare provider’s employees are in recognizable roles, for example working as store associates, managers, pharmacists, and pharmacy technicians.

But the company also has staff working in nonretail pharmacies, delivering medical supplies and prescriptions to long-term care facilities, hospital groups, and patients’ homes. Meanwhile, additional workers support the entire supply chain from distribution centers across the country.

That’s not the whole story, though. Some 15,000 call center representatives are on hand to answer questions from customers, members, and providers. Finally, CVS Health has its corporate side, with individuals working behind the scenes in marketing, HR, finance, and other departments.

All those individuals have unique roles—positions that require training, development, and performance support.

“These are distinct environments with diverse learning and development needs because these individuals engage with customers and colleagues in in different ways,” says Eileen MacDonald Cooke, vice president of enterprise learning, development, and performance (LD&P) for CVS Health.

“To put people on a path to better health and to be transformational in the healthcare industry, everyone has to be great at their job. They have to not only learn how to do their job well, but with the pace of change in our industry, they have to constantly engage in upskilling and the learning required to remain up to speed and great at their work,” she adds. “That’s what my team focuses on: ensuring people have the skills they need and that they never fall behind.”

To fulfill that mission, the LD&P function's structure looks much like the company’s structure, with teams aligned to the organization’s largest business units. “Our LD&P team has to be integrated with the day-to-day functions, everything from hiring to meeting compliance to whatever critical healthcare or business objective is coming next from a product, services, or systems standpoint,” she states.

Case in point: The LD&P team has been in lockstep with company leadership as it made the decision to bring on new hires to manage the uptick in testing for COVID-19 and administering vaccines.

“There was never a gap,” Cooke notes, pointing out that her team immediately started to examine what new employees would need to know to start working as quickly as possible.

She says that is a big shift compared to some talent development organizations: “Others wait for the business to come to them to be told what to do. But we’ve put ourselves so much into the minds of our business leaders that they know the downstream implications if they don’t get LD&P involved early. It’s longer, messier, and more difficult for everyone when the business finds itself trying to catch the workforce up to where the business has headed. The business strategy and learning strategy have to climb together.”

She continues, “You can’t run an L&D organization that is relevant and responsive unless you’re connected with the business all the way through.”

Embedded and connected

A majority of the training the LD&P function delivers is focused on two key areas. The first is getting new hires up to speed, because as a large retail organization, there is a continuous flow of employees joining the workforce. For example, for pharmacy techs, onboarding and training cover such areas as understanding protocols and regulations, customer service best practices, and location-specific tools and processes.

The second key area is upskilling and reskilling existing employees, which means operationalizing much of CVS Health’s regulatory and compliance training. “A good percentage of our work in LD&P is to be a drumbeat for our tenured colleagues. That means reminders, refreshers, and other types of development,” says Cooke.

“There’s a particular cadence to making sure everyone stays credentialed, compliant, and highly proficient,” she adds, describing how the team has embedded prompts—or triggers—in the learning management system and in certain workflows that inform employees when they need to update a certification or when it’s time for content or L&D solutions.

Other factors such as a new role or promotion likewise initiate a trigger. Whether it’s for certification, updated protocols, new product information, or company policies, “Triggers help us know when employees need something and to what degree,” explains Cooke.

She notes that it’s vital to the company that staff are enabled “to engage in the moment that’s right for them in the workflow” and not just have learning continually pushed to them in episodic events. “Our biggest gift is our ability to meet people where they work, when they need us,” she says, adding that “you don’t want to develop someone’s skills too far in front of when they’re going to need to use them.”

And training for existing team members doesn’t just focus on compliance and technical skills—it delves more deeply into what Cooke describes as “soft skills that exponentially drive our ability to have the impact we want.”

Take empathy, for example. She explains that many of the customers with whom employees interact may be unwell or are caregivers. Amid that backdrop, training needs to “focus on ensuring our people are asking the right questions in the right way.” The point, Cooke says, is “making sure people feel cared for.”  

Supporting that array of topics requires not only hands-on training but also a constant flow of communication and access to fellow experts at CVS Health. For instance, before transitioning into their specific pharmacy, new pharmacy techs begin with a national, live orientation program along with other employees throughout the company’s ecosystem of stores. That program equips techs with a network of colleagues.

Cooke shares that the LD&P team also is building an infrastructure that enables workers to reach out to experts beyond their location at any time for answers to questions. She believes employees’ relationship with LD&P “is not a handoff; it’s a handshake. ... We’re in this together.”

Immediate need, long-term solution

As the pandemic unfolded last year, CVS Health employees found themselves working on the front lines. Cooke says that from the very beginning, her team was assessing what it could do to ensure the organization was supporting employees right away. 

For those who work in customer-facing environments, such as the retail stores, Cooke and her team immediately established a resource center. They quickly developed a series of short, two- to three-minute videos that cover topics such as what physical distance actually looks like in a store and how to use personal protective equipment properly.

 “We couldn’t be in 10,000 locations, but we could ensure that everyone in those 10,000 locations saw something that prepared them to be better equipped to handle things,” she says.

For ongoing training needs, Cooke’s team was already set up to move the bulk of its learning online. In 2019, it had begun studying best practices for delivering learning remotely and exploring how to prepare online versions of company learning assets.

The LD&P team spent months breaking courses apart and redesigning the learning. “We looked at what roles individuals would be doing and what the goal of training should be as roles and responsibilities evolved,” she explains. “Then we modified and modularized certain learning so employees could either attend classes or access tools and support as needed.”

And as training programs had to change in response to the pandemic, over the course of a weekend, the LD&P team was able to switch delivery and “start scheduling new learning options that Monday. That Tuesday, new hires were showing up to their store, going to a computer, and joining a virtual new-hire class,” she notes.

The change in design and delivery options means that for the long term the LD&P function can reach more people, more often, and in a more targeted way. “Through the innovation, you uncover other things that you just didn’t initially begin to seek out,” she says.


Like many organizations, CVS Health tried to put too much content into in-person training programs. The thinking, Cooke explains, was “we better make sure we cover every topic we possibly can because we’ve brought them together and we’re not going to be able to reach employees later.” But the initiative that Cooke and her team began before the pandemic has enabled them to “untether from that mindset. Virtual allows us to be agile.”

She adds, “You can't scale anything across an organization of 300,000 people without technology-enabled systems. It's all about scale and system.”

A targeted mission

The US Department of Health and Human Services has tapped CVS Health to assist with COVID-19 testing and vaccinations. In October 2020, through Operation Warp Speed, HHS finalized an agreement with the company to administer the vaccines to residents of long-term care facilities nationwide. And as vaccinations progress to more populations, COVID-19 vaccines are available at CVS Pharmacy locations throughout the country, subject to availability and eligibility.

In response, CVS Health has taken on the largest hiring drive in the company’s history, bringing on thousands of full-time, part-time, and temporary workers. Because the company is hiring those individuals for targeted functions, such as vaccinating people in long-term care facilities, Cooke says the LD&P team has temporarily pared down and shortened onboarding.

“During rapid-hire times for the stores because of the pandemic, we have to decide what that new hire needs to know right now,” she explains. “Once they are onboarded and working, we find the time and space to provide them with other aspects of their training as needed.”

She clarifies that she and the team maintain the vaccine protocols, compliance, and regulatory training required from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and pharmaceutical companies but may truncate other CVS Health-specific learning. For instance, course modules for new pharmacy techs may focus on only some stations or learning areas at first rather than the typical four. In another example, a particular location may need to increase its front-of-store staff. Initial training for those employees may only cover how to work the register and general customer service skills and skip stocking and merchandising practices.

“When LD&P gets the green light that things are easing up, we will check in to see whether it’s time to bring people in and do more training or whether we need to push additional resources to them,” she says.

 “It’s a different experience than a steady state. The goal has been to get them in, get them cleared for work. And new hires are committed. They were hired because they want to be part of ending a pandemic.”

Healthy business sense

Cooke wants her LD&P team to get even better at sensing business needs and performance status. “We work for the business, so first we are businesspeople. Our craft, our contribution happens to be learning development and the growth of performance,” she states.

Her advice to her team and to other talent development professionals is that they have to love the type of work that encompasses L&D and understand the function’s contribution to the business.

“You don’t have to be an expert in the business, but you have to be curious about it. And you have to understand strategy if you want to be world class in a business environment. L&D is no different,” she says. In practice, that means LD&P team members need to have a mindset that leads with questions about business objectives and priorities, the status of progress toward business goals, and even revenue gaps.

“Learning and earning trajectories are codependent,” Cooke adds, asserting that L&D must be front and center if the business or a specific mission is to succeed, such as COVID-19 testing and vaccinations.

“If the business has plans to go far in some direction and L&D isn’t coming along, the business won’t get to the destination. For the business to win, L&D must be lockstep on the course they’ve set.”

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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