For Kevin Bruny, chief learning officer for Chesterfield County, Va., developing the county’s 4,400 employees helps the community’s citizens enjoy a better quality of life.
April 21, 2014
Few cities and counties employ CLOs. According to Kevin Bruny, chief learning officer of Chesterfield County, Va., that may be because most local governments don’t have a clearly articulated strategic plan for how their employees are supposed to perform.
“They don’t think they need a plan because they’re all about executing the daily services, but we disagree with that concept,” he said. “We believe it’s important to have a strategic plan that focuses on making sure our community is thriving, secure and healthy through intentional initiatives beyond just daily service delivery.”
To accomplish that, County Administrator Jay Stegmaier said government employees need to be trained not only on the importance of good customer service, but also on the specific skills each employee needs to make that happen.
Even in the debate over how many services government entities should provide, no one disputes that people should get decent service when they come to a city hall, county courthouse, division of motor vehicles office or federal post office, Stegmaier said. One Chesterfield elected official said as much during a public meeting several months ago.
“She wanted to let the citizens of Chesterfield County know that, while people might have different ideas about what government should be, what has amazed her was that for six years since she’s been in that position, she has never heard a complaint from any citizen about the way they were treated by a county employee,” he said.
Chesterfield has received numerous awards — including seven consecutive years on the Training Top 125, the only local government to receive such recognition — due to the evolution of its learning and talent development initiatives. Stegmaier said Bruny deserves “an enormous amount of credit in leading the organization through this process.
“You would have a hard time finding a better learning officer anywhere. He’s even produced a little profit center, helping other public and private organizations figure out how to use training and development to improve service and add to the bottom line.”
The Road to County CLO
Bruny’s journey to the county was circuitous. After graduating from West Virginia Wesleyan College in 1984 with a bachelor’s degree in psychology and a minor in music performance, he took a job at a Thalhimers department store in Richmond, Va., as a floor supervisor in the men’s suits and accessories department.
“I quickly realized that I did not want to be in sales,” he said. “Instead, I decided to set my sights on personnel.” Bruny applied and was chosen to be the store’s administrative assistant for compensation and benefits, and was soon promoted to pension and profit-sharing coordinator.
In 1988, he moved to the Christian Children’s Fund as its benefits and training coordinator. While there, the nonprofit’s training vendor told Bruny he should consider a career in training and development. So he went back to school, earning a master of education degree in adult learning and human resource development in 1991 from Virginia Commonwealth University. Afterward, he took an internship at Chesterfield County.
His first training experience was teaching adult learning principles to police officers, who he said can be a tough audience. “They’re so confident and present themselves as if they know it all.” But he did well, and was hired as the county’s training administrator, becoming instrumental in the county’s push to train employees on “total quality, a concept just coming into vogue at that time.”
Xerox Corp., the county’s copier provider at the time, helped put its comprehensive total quality system in place. For that, Chesterfield won the state’s version of the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award, and a decade later, its total quality system served as the prototype for development of the nonprofit version of Baldrige.
Bruny laid the groundwork for these initiatives, but in 1997, he left for three years to gain some private sector experience as vice president and human resources consultant at the former Crestar Bank in Richmond. He returned to Chesterfield County in 2000 as assistant director of human resource management. In 2003, he was appointed to the county’s newly created CLO position, and became director for the county’s Center for Organizational Excellence.
Creating Award-Winning Programs for Local Government
The Center for Organizational Excellence provides learning and development services to the county’s 4,400 employees. It contains six schools: School of Applied Business and Technology; School of Health, Environment, Safety and Security; School of Leadership and Personal Effectiveness; School of Policy and Practice; School of Public Safety; and School of Quality and Continuous Improvement.
In the latter school, employees can be certified under three programs, Quality Generalist Certificate, Quality Specialist Certificate and Quality Manager Certificate. To date, 2,294 employees — more than half of the county’s employee population — have completed one or more quality certificates. Bruny led the effort to create the schools as part of development of Chesterfield University.
“My role is strategic in nature in that I ensure our learning programs are relevant to performance needs, but the learning staff create and deliver offerings,” he said.
Those offerings include customer service classes, such as “Dealing With Difficult Customers,” and a four-day “Customer Star Service” certification that incorporates live classroom calls, secret shopping and coaching following class completion. Online customer service learning aids include courses such as “Identifying Your Customers’ Expectations,” and electronic books such as “101 Activities for Delivering Knock Your Socks Off Service.”
Customer satisfaction and customer-perceived value are measured through the county’s “Citizen Satisfaction Index” and the “Citizens’ Rating of Quality of Life,” derived from biennial surveys. In Chesterfield’s 2012 survey, customers gave the county a rating of 82 percent. For public safety services, citizens gave an overall rating of 92 percent.
While much of the county’s predominately baby boomer employee base still enjoys instructor-led classes, online learning is its most rapidly growing development delivery method, with a 116 percent increase in utilization in 2013.
Chesterfield is also experimenting with mobile learning, helping employees transition with online resources such as “iPhone Orientation: Multitasking on the iPhone.” The county’s blended learning approach also includes performance support tools such as skill briefs, videos, online books, simulations, coaching and mentoring, role-play exercises and job aids. In 2013, 1,562 employees, or a third of the staff, accessed these informal learning resources to increase their skills, particularly within on-the-job training. For instance, police officers use a firearms simulator to test their reactionary “use of force” in a variety of environments, including hostile fire, and Emergency Operations Center employees conduct role-play exercises to better prepare for long-term disaster recovery.
Measures of Success
Overall, county employees completed 244,235 student hours of learning in 2013, an average of 56 hours per employee. Learning effectiveness is measured using the Kirkpatrick model. Last year level 1, which evaluates effectiveness and learner satisfaction with courses, measured 4.5 on a 5-point scale. Level 2 measures the effect of courses on action learning. In 2013, the average pre-test score was 71 percent; the average post-test score was 93 percent. Level 3 measures specific learning programs through electronic surveys completed by graduates and their managers one year following completion of a certificate. In 2013, 91 percent used knowledge gained in their work environment to positively affect a customer, and 86 percent have used knowledge to improve a process.
For level 4 measures, employees enter a success story into the Chesterfield Quality System Central database on the county’s website about costs avoided or hours saved in a particular process. Since 1994, the practice has generated 1,471 process improvements, resulting in more than $16.2 million in costs avoided and 61,483 hours saved.
The county also has a yearlong Emerging Senior Leaders Program to prepare high-potential employees for senior roles. Sessions are run by department executives, including one by Stegmaier and the county attorney on ethics and being successful in a political environment. Bruny said though he’s most often in consultation with county leaders on how to best create learning opportunities to meet specific performance needs, he, too, will occasionally find his way into the classroom for leadership development at senior levels.
Chesterfield offers an early career high-potential accelerator program as well. Bruny said it was created due to concern about the county’s ability to attract and retain millennials to replace an aging workforce.
“Advancement can be a challenge in government, as many people aren’t leaving their positions as quickly and others are waiting in the wings,” he said. “So we try to develop people by having them move laterally within the county, to gain more experience and get a leg up on developing themselves as future senior leaders.”
Bruny — who is also an adjunct assistant professor for the University of Richmond’s School of Continuing Studies, and contributed a chapter to the book, “The Next Generation of Corporate Universities: Innovative Approaches for Developing People and Expanding Organizational Capabilities” — said the county could not have this much success with its learning and development initiatives, particularly with high potentials, if its workers belonged to public employee unions.
Everyone has the same access to talent development programs, and leaders select high potentials and emerging leaders from those who choose to participate. “But if our employees were unionized, my guess is it would be a totally different ball game,” he said. “We wouldn’t have the freedom to allow people to make choices and take advantage of what we are offering.”
Boosting the Bottom Line
Bruny and his team manage to generate roughly $40,000 in revenue each year by selling the center’s curricula and providing custom curriculum development services to other local and state government agencies. “People reading this may think that’s chump change, but in local government that’s huge,” he said.
Rick Albee, principal at Hiller Avenue Partners, which focuses on executive and career coaching, said he appreciates his longtime colleague’s understanding that trainers are “key enablers of success for the overall organization. That is the strategic angle of human resources that many people aspire to, but don’t know how to achieve,” he said. “As a result, the C-suite often underutilizes HR in aligning people practices with strategic success.”
Bruny has been able to get county executives to understand how training can make employees better at meeting the county’s strategic objectives. But there are challenges to implementing formal learning and development programs within local governments, including having to work within budget constraints that are a product of the political process.
While the county’s overall financial picture is beginning to bounce back after the recession, its budget might have to be cut to cover a number of unfunded mandates from the state, such as having to contribute to pension shortfalls for teachers within the county.
In Virginia, local governments and the state share responsibility for paying teacher pensions, but under a new accounting standard issued by the state’s Governmental Accounting Standards Board, municipalities and counties might have to foot more of the $15.2 billion in total unfunded liabilities for teacher retirement plans after June 15, according to the Virginia Association of Counties. The group is trying to get the state to pay its portion of teacher pensions directly to the Virginia Retirement System, so liability for teacher pensions is proportionately shared between the state and localities.
Sarah Ray Pickard, former chief learning officer in Prince William County, Va., and another of Bruny’s colleagues, said developing government employees should be a budget priority. “We’ve got to spend a bit of money internally on our employees making sure they can provide the kind of service the community is asking for,” she said.
Bruny and his team, she said, are “the front runners” of what local governments should be doing if they want to be successful.
Local government can be a challenging environment. But there’s something to be said about people who put themselves in a local government service mentality. Bruny said they really appreciate having opportunities to further develop themselves.
“For me, it’s all about how I can help people develop and do well for themselves,” he said. “I’ve stayed in local government for 20 years because I feel good about what our employees can do for our citizens in creating the best quality of life within our community.”
Katie Kuehner-Hebert is a California-based journalist. She can be reached at editor@CLOmedia.com.