In his 1961 inaugural address, President John F. Kennedy said “Ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.”
Similarly, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Chief Learning Officer Trina Shields, née Greer, asks the leaders and employees inside and outside of her organization not what learning can do for them but what they can do to promote each other’s growth and development.
As CLO, Shields is a strategist, consultant and program developer. She offers support to 11 divisions, including the Food and Drug Administration, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Institutes for Health and Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services. Her reach extends to approximately 88,000 government employees in more than 100 occupations who face shifting policies and health issues, such as the execution of the Affordable Care Act and dealing with cases of Ebola on American soil.
But the breadth and scope of Shields’ job isn’t her biggest challenge. She said minimal budgets and low employee engagement thwart her work the most. They also provide the inspiration for some of her greatest achievements. “We’ve had to be creative and innovative in how we bring development to HHS … and understand that everything we do has to have a bottom-line impact and improve business and employee performance,” she said.
The Magnificent Eleven
Organizations under the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services — and CLO Trina Shields’ enterprise learning direction — include:
- Administration for Children Families (ACF)
- Administration for Community Living (ACL)
- Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ)
- Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR)
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)
- Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMMS)
- Food and Drug Administration (FDA)
- Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA)
- Indian Health Service (IHS)
- National Institutes of Health (NIH
- Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA)
To do so, Shields relies on her love of collaboration. That’s what led her to refocus HHS’s learning department on consultancy, partnering with universities and other agencies to promote better leadership practices and increase engagement.
Don’t Follow the Leader
Shields said she took an unorthodox path to become CLO at the organization where she held her first job. Her current role was never on her radar, but she said she has always wanted to know more about how people think and make decisions.
She graduated from George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, with a degree in psychology before taking a position as an accountant at HHS. Shortly after, she moved to the Treasury Department, where she advised the federal government on financial management education, operations and policies. Shields consulted with managers on their operations, including setting up organizational structures from scratch. Her role as a systems accountant and project manager foreshadowed the consultancy approach she would adopt as CLO for HHS.
Shields earned her MBA from Howard University but only after being torn between business school or a master’s in divinity, a professional pastoral degree. Putting the latter on hold didn’t stop her from becoming a licensed minister, however. She is senior pastor for a church in Leesburg, Virginia.
“That’s probably my biggest love, but again, it [is] still tied to the psychology of learning,” she said. “It’s a different venue, a different way of doing it, but it’s still the care of growing and building people.”
At the start of her career, however, Shields needed a paycheck, and earning an MBA was the best way to meld her love of helping people with her interest in organizational development. After graduate school, she entered the private sector, taking a 12-year break from the government. She worked at two consulting firms as a change management consultant and human capital practice manager before moving on to Booz Allen Hamilton.
Her work there would have a lasting effect on her. As an associate in the company’s organizational change and strategy practice, she led strategic communications and change management for mergers and other organization transformations.
She subsequently completed her Ph.D. in applied management and decision sciences and started teaching as an adjunct professor for various universities. In 2008, Shields decided to venture back to the federal government. “Organization development is all about the people, and being in the classroom is more about teaching,” she said. “I see teaching as a way to reach people, a means to an end, but not the end.”
So Shields started looking for a position that would allow her to use an organizational development lens rather than focus on only learning delivery. She got her chance when she returned to HHS in 2008 as senior adviser for HHS’ leadership development programs. After six months, she shifted to a deputy director position for HHS University, and by October 2010 was named CLO.
Antonia Harris, deputy assistant secretary for HHS until 2012, interviewed Shields for the HHS Universitydeputy position that would eventually place her in the CLO chair.
“Immediately, Trina understood learning and development,” said Harris, who now serves as chief human capital officer for the General Services Administration. “But one of the things key to leading the enterprise program was having an agency vision, the ability to sell that vision to the agency and getting them to buy into it and implement it.”
Hungry, Hungry Learners
Shields possessed the necessary trifecta of skills, in part because of her experience as an organizational development and change management consultant for both federal and private entities. Her vision had to incorporate several challenges based on HHS’s organizational structure and culture, the least of which included having to serve 11 very different but equally needy government branches that are vocal about what they want from their learning department.
“If our components are focused on Ebola and don’t have the important resources, they’ll tell us,” she said. “We work through compromise. It is highly political, sensitive and bureaucratic. We call them our 8,000 pound gorillas — they have a voice, and their voices are heard.”
The factions of HHS are centralized, but they run their own learning programs, which made it easier for Shields to position HHS as a consultant to the individual departments’ talent development efforts rather than try to reach everyone with the same programs.
But even though Shields’ experience as a consultant filled the powder keg, something had to spark it. In 2010, HHS was in the middle of retooling its learning programs with 3-D simulations, classroom-based training and an extensive course catalogue filled with rising enrollment numbers. However, budget cuts meant they had to reorganize and restructure again.
The divisions “needed us to consult, facilitate and enable them to improve performance,” she said. “They didn’t need us in the trenches, so we got out of the training business and got more into the organizational performance improvement business.”
Now Shields’ programs target mission-critical competencies and occupations, leadership development and skills training needed across the organization. Teaching technical skills, such as lab safety or paperwork processes,remain under each individual division — and, by extension, each divisions’ allotted budget.
Reaching Across Agencies
Anyone, especially someone new to the CLO role, might consider it daunting to abandon specific learning delivery for a consultant gig. But not only did Shields’ aim to turn her team into a collaborative adviser for HHS’ divisions, but also she wants to extend their efforts across the federal government as a whole.
To do so and remain under budget, the department had to look outside. Shields created “Higher Education @ Work,” a partner model that connected HHS with 22 universities. Instead of relying solely on departmental programs, employees can access certification and degree programs with tuition discounts. This eases HHS learning delivery costs and increases the level of education its workforce can receive.
“Most agencies were afraid to ask universities for savings and discounts,” Shields said. “They didn’t negotiate the contracts in ways that both employees and contractors could benefit.”
But Shields did, and HHS’s learning programs grew from small offerings inside one part of the government to become an organizational development and efficiencyconsultancy that helps other agencies as well.
The budget also inspired Shields to collaborate with other CLOs and federal agencies, such as the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and the Office of Personnel Management. These meetings of the minds helped her understand where everyone else was struggling and how they could work together to make ends meet while still delivering learning.
Shields said such collaboration helped HHS avoid more than $7.9 million in spending in the last two years because it cut the need for external vendors and contractors.
Rules of Engagement
HHS’s budget has increased over the past few years, and Shields has been able to refocus learning. What started as a lean consulting approach targeting specific competencies expanded to at-risk areas such as supervisors and leaders who contribute to another problem facing the federal government as a whole: lack of engagement.
Morale in the federal sector has plummeted thanks to shrinking budgets, government shutdowns, questionable job security and four straight years without pay raises. Although salaries increased 1 percent in January 2015, there’s still little money for employees to pay for external training, and small budgets meant they receive less opportunities for workforce development.
“Our workforce isn’t going to be engaged unless they feel empowered and involved, unless you know how to communicate with them, unless they know you care,” Shields said. “You have to figure out ways to foster employee satisfaction, and it starts with the managers.”
She had her work cut out for her. The Federal Employee Viewpoints Survey, an annual engagement measurement, showed that HHS ranked seventh among 19 other large complex agencies for engagement. Although that’s not a bad score, Shields said the responses pointed to management as a dissatisfactory area. This mission-critical department issue put the HHS learning team back in the driver seat to deliver solutions to the problem.
To improve the quality of leadership in all HHS divisions, Shields relaunched the department’s senior executive service candidate development program, which targets high-potential employees with 12 months of training on leadership competencies.
She started a senior executive mentoring circle in which the HHS secretary and her direct reports mentor a group of high-potential managers. HHS managers also go through two years of basic training that teaches them how to get in front of performance management issues, such as employee grievances and turnover, before they escalate. The training gives them the soft skills they need to increase overall engagement.
But her proudest achievement is a boot camp-styled program where she teaches basic coaching, values-based coaching and performance-based coaching. It began as an HHS-exclusive offering, but it became so popular she opened it to other federal agencies, then lent it to the OPM with the support of the Federal Chief Learning Officer Council.
Sam Davis, vice president of the American Management Association’s customized consulting solutions, said both manager-to-subordinate and peer-to-peer coaching can play a pivotal part in boosting employee engagement, not only because it clarifies a worker’s role in achieving goals but also it enforces mutual interest between employees and managers in a worker’s skills and performance. “It tends to create much more of an open-door, open-communications environment,” hesaid.
That’s precisely Shields’ goal. She said her vision for HHS’s leadership style harkens back to her days at Booz Allen Hamilton, where managers had an open-door policy that invited collaboration with lower-level employees. “Those basic tenants contribute to my deeper interest in helping people be successful,” she said. “You have to take time to really see employees as a partner, and not just as subordinates.”
That sentiment applies to what she teaches her managers and how she executes her own job. She said she fears becoming so elitist that she only focuses on part of the workforce. To mitigate this concern, Shields is developing growth programs that will reach everyone in the organization, not just high potentials and those already in leadership positions. Not only will this engage those on the lower rungs of the career ladder, but also it will prepare them to be the federal government’s next generation of leaders.
“That’s the philosophy. People don’t care how much you know; they know how much you care,” she said. “You have to show people you care about their success.”