State Leadership Academy for Disability Services, Year Two

by Ned Andrew Solomon, Director, Partners in Policymaking Leadership Institute, Council on Developmental Disabilities
group photo of a diverse group of about 30 adults who are state employees, sitting together on gym bleachers

The state’s Leadership Academy for Excellence in Disability Services (LAEDS), which the Council on Developmental Disabilities helped to create and launch in conjunction with Tennessee’s Department of Human Resources, has completed its second year. LAEDS is a training program for state employees whose work has a direct impact on individuals with disabilities and their families in Tennessee. The objective of this joint venture is to ensure that leaders who work in state government programs that serve Tennesseans with disabilities operate from a shared set of values, goals and principles while strengthening all agencies' commitment to collaboration.

“I was very interested in bringing together all departments who served citizens with disabilities to ultimately create more effective and efficient services by operating through a collective impact framework,” said Dr. Trish Holliday. “I believe everyone wins when we share resources and collaborate on processes and procedures to ensure maximum efficiencies. I was excited about the possibilities of bringing so many different methodologies together to discover how we could improve the lives of citizens with disabilities.”

Like other employee leadership programs sponsored by the State of Tennessee and facilitated by staff at the Department of Human Resources, LAEDS is comprised of several monthly training sessions that adhere to certain themes – competencies – which are meant to educate and increase the skills of those employees who have a desire to develop professionally. 

The Council congratulates 31 leaders from across state government who successfully completed this year’s program. The 2018 LAEDS graduates include representatives of seven state departments: Dept. of Education; Dept. of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities; Dept. of Health; Dept. of Human Services; Dept. of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services; Dept. of Veterans Services; and the Division of TennCare.

“The number of graduates and the departments they represent tell us this training will reach broadly across state government, in all the places we are serving people with disabilities,” said Wanda Willis, Executive Director of the Council on Developmental Disabilities. “We partner to provide this program because it goes to the core of the Council’s mission to improve services for Tennesseans with disabilities.”

Dr. Holliday said, “I am proud we have been able to create a leadership development platform that supports the aligning of multiple agencies with various responsibilities and goals. It is a true testament to our state executive leadership who recognized early the value of collective impact and the power of community.”


Each of the LAEDS sessions emphasizes a particular “competency” or themed learning module, and presenters are selected who can deliver that content. Competencies include Organizational Agility and Adaptability; Innovation Management; Managing Vision and Purpose; Composure; and Managing Diversity.

“We reviewed Managing Diversity with Dr. Herbert Marbury of Vanderbilt University who emphasized that a diverse workforce is necessary to serve our customers and that we must be diligent on the front end through our hiring process to ensure a diverse culture is created and maintained,” said 2018 LAEDS Graduate, Blake Shearer. “He also challenged us to not have a fixed mindset, that all of us have backgrounds that cause us to see diversity differently, but to never stop growing.”

Shearer, who is Director of Support Services for Student Readiness in the Department of Education’s Division of Special Populations, was particularly inspired by the Driven for Results competency, presented by LaConya Parham of the Dept. of Human Resources. “To me this is what we have to be all about - driven for results!” he said. “Our customers’ lives may very well depend on it. Certainly their quality of life does!”

Dr. Holliday is convinced that technical experts are vitally important to the leadership competencies being studied. So much so that recruiting technical experts in different disability topics became a critical component to planning LAEDS year two, as well as creating a framework for other leadership academies within the State.

“The technical track brought subject matter experts to participants and offered an open forum for discussing challenges in particular situations and scenarios state leaders were experiencing in their roles,” explained Dr. Holliday. “The leadership competency studies offered reinforcement to how to apply what they were learning and drive performance excellence throughout their own divisions and teams. The combo approach created a powerful framework for advancing leaders in the area of serving citizens with disabilities.” For LAEDS year two, disability subject matter experts covered topics and best practices like supported decision making, person-centered planning, and the Supporting Families LifeCourse framework.

More than a training program

Under Dr. Holliday’s guidance, LAEDS is constantly evaluated in an effort to improve its offerings. Each session, participants are encouraged to make comments and give criticism which is reviewed by Human Resources’ staff in order to better meet the needs and expectations of those who attend. “By receiving consistent feedback on what is working and what opportunities for improvement existed, participants knew we were ensuring a customized learning experience built to equip them with the most current and relevant skills and practices to apply to their own roles,” said Dr. Holliday.

Through the process of continual improvement and by being responsive to its students’ needs, Dr. Holliday believes LAEDS has evolved into something much more than just a “training program”. 

“I have witnessed the unfolding of an amazing collective impact opportunity as participants have learned more about their industry together as well as create a larger network of professionals for problem solving and solutions sharing,” she said. “Participants have had the opportunity to explore a common agenda for bringing positive change to serving citizens with disabilities. Most importantly, I believe LAEDS has created more open and continuous communication across the many players to build trust, assure mutual objectives and create common motivation.”

For LAEDS 2018 graduate Shalita V. Wells, brainstorming, problem-solving, and just interacting with her peers from diverse state agencies was one of the most vital aspects of the training. “We got to network and learn about other departments,” she said. “We socialized and we bonded - an experience that will be helpful and taken into account as essential resources.”

“In order to commit to a common agenda, shared measurement systems and joint action plans, we have to develop collaborative mindsets and demonstrate our need to trust each other, and know that our collective interests are equally valued and protected,” explained Dr. Holliday. “Continuous communication provides the platform for trust to be developed, concerns to be addressed, and ideas to be discussed between state departments, thus reducing silos.”

Team Projects

LAEDS is unique because it also includes a team project requirement. This year the class undertook team projects spanning various topics in disability services. One project evaluated the State’s resources for Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) compliance. Another project looked at developing a statewide strategy for “cross-system” person-centered planning, practices, and services with a focus on increasing employment opportunities, independence and community living options for Tennessee’s citizens with disabilities.

“I am personally passionate about this, as I am a mother of a son with a disability and know the difficulties of navigating services between departments that assist with my son’s needs,” said Dr. Holliday. “The more alignment within state government, the more the citizens receive top quality services with minimal redundancy or extra layers of processes and procedures.”

A third project involved coming up with a marketing strategy to attract and increase the number of employees with disabilities working for the State. At the end of this year’s Academy, all the teams presented their projects to the Executive Leadership Council, which is composed of top leaders from all participating agencies in LAEDS.

Listening to those who experience disability

During the final summit, LAEDS participants heard from a panel of Tennesseans who receive state disability services. For many in the class, that component brought the purpose of the year-long training all together. “This moment was so vital to us as a class, because it reminded us of who we are and what we are called to be,” said Wells.

“I am reminded of the first time we came together as a group,” said Shearer. “I recall a statement made, that across 21 different state agencies, there are dozens of state programs that affect over 1 million people with disabilities in Tennessee. We were challenged to think about the collective impact we can have when we work together!

“On our final summit when we had several individuals and self-advocates speak to us, the resounding message was that state services are improving but we had to continue to be driven to improve our results that impact their lives,” continued Shearer. “We cannot ignore or be in denial about real life challenges that people with disabilities face on a daily basis, whether it’s [navigating] a complex service system, securing competitive employment, finding reliable transportation, or having consistent service providers - just to name a few. However, what we can do is to be driven to improve those results.”