Adele Cook: A Leader Who Championed the Training Function Revolution

Adele Cook: Championed the Training Function Revolution | The Enterprise World

A separate learning and development unit for different divisions was standard practice for decades. While the distinct units approach worked well in the past, modern leaders noticed room for improvement.

Around eight years ago, things finally changed—the Arizona Department of Economic Security (AZDES) shifted its approach to a more unified Office of Professional Development (OPD). The transition wasn’t a massive deal on paper, yet it significantly impacted the outcomes across the organization—enhancing employee operations, cultivating a sense of belonging, and boosting productivity.

While there was a lot of support leading up to this change, there were also question marks. At the helm of the Arizona Department of Economic Security, one of the pivotal professional development leaders championing this transition was its Chief Learning Officer  Adele Cook—making her one of the most iconic leaders to watch in 2024.

Finding Inspiration through Challenges

When Adele Cook joined the AZDES, it had a decentralized learning and development function with a “training only” focus. Adele and the leadership at the time realized the massive potential if they could merge the training units. They predicted it would improve quality, processes, timeliness, and efficiency by enabling the training members to work on multiple projects simultaneously—increasing flexibility.

However, the biggest challenge was gaining support in these endeavors. For many years, the training function was a passion project for Adele Cook as she led the efforts to boost its popularity.

Adele Cook has witnessed numerous iterations of the training function—from the decentralized to a community of practice, to a community of excellence, to a federated model, and now to a modified yet federated model. At eight years old, the functioning of the office is currently centralized as the business units choose their projects and staffing levels.

It took planning and gaining acceptance and support, hiring the best people, and bringing enhanced quality to the mix so that we were serving our agency in the best way.”

A Proud Servant Leader

Adele Cook is a proud servant leader with values revolving around dedication, trust, integrity, fairness, and performance. She believes in cultivating a thriving environment to enable peak performance. The definition of thriving for Adele Cook is providing individuals with psychological safety, where they are heard and cared about with uncompromised transparency.

Communication is a vital part of Adele Cook’s leadership philosophy. She conducts a weekly “CLO Chat” to keep the communication clear and honest. Just recently, Adele Cook shared her leadership point of view with the entire team to better understand their expectation of her. The organization also has “We wills,” to set the tone of interactions and behaviors for all.

I imagine my leadership style will continue to evolve, but it seems to be working:  the last eNPS of the entire team was sixty-seven, and of management (just a few weeks ago) was seventy-six.

Metrics related to all the OPD programs:


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Organizing Forward-Thinking Initiatives

Today, professional development is an ultimate recruiting and retention tool that frequents the list of things most employees consider before joining the organization—it also necessitates innovation to achieve successful retention.

During Adele Cook’s tenure, creating the federated OPD enterprise model was a critical risk. It required six months of continuous work to gain agreement and a one-year preparation period before implementation to minimize risks as much as possible. According to Adele Cook, innovation and risk typically take the form of forward-thinking initiatives to improve the organizational culture of professional development.

Due to the complex nature of the job, rolling out innovative learning programs with business partners that could potentially fail is a significant risk. It is especially crucial for Arizonians at vulnerable points who might not get the necessary services without solid preparation. OPD mitigates risk by merging innovation with traditional methods targeted around on-the-job performance and the KPIs of business partners.

“Measured innovation enables the team to bring significant yet gradual changes—ensuring stability and continuous improvement.”

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Nurturing the Talent

To identify top performers, OPD assesses current job skills and leadership potential. The process might involve experience as peer reviewers or project team leads. For instructors, this includes observation and evaluation metrics. It evaluates instructional designers through courseware audits, peer reviews, and learner feedback surveys.

We value both leadership ability and strong performance while recognizing that advancement isn’t always vertical; we also develop talent for specialized roles.

Development focuses on certification programs, mentoring by experienced team members, and individual coaching by managers. Learning from colleagues is a key driver of growth, with formal training playing a smaller role and self-directed learning being the most significant factor. The organization actively encourages mentorship by creating dedicated time and has recently implemented a company-wide program to ensure continued excellence.  

Providing Safety and Economic Security

Arizona’s Department of Economic Security (AZDES) is a social services agency with over 9,000 employees state-wide. Its mission is to empower vulnerable Arizonans toward safety and economic security. To achieve this aim it offers numerous comprehensive solutions—from childcare assistance and disability services to unemployment insurance and agency collaborations.

Within this structure lies the Office of Professional Development (OPD), responsible for agency-wide training and development. The office reports to the Deputy Director for Operations. OPD prioritizes speed and performance through a specialized team structure.

Each AZDES division has dedicated OPD instructional designers and trainers who nurture strong partnerships and subject matter expertise. It ensures that training aligns with divisional needs and that instructors are well-equipped to tackle the specific challenges of the program area.

Metrics for the Advanced Leadership Program:

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Empowering the Noble Workforce

AZDES offers various learning and development services, including job skills training, leadership development, coaching, and consulting. It continually collaborates with public and private organizations to ensure high-quality, impactful training for the DES team members. The objective is to empower a workforce to uplift Arizonans during their most vulnerable moments.

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I like to say that learning and development is a noble profession, and when performing it in support of the most vulnerable, it becomes a noble calling.

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As a Client-focused and data-driven organization, AZDES tailors its services to their client needs and measures the success of each service through ROI and feedback. It identifies the gaps between client requests and agency trends, constantly creating solutions such as the agency-wide “Person-Centered Approaches” course.

At AZDES, strategic planning plays a critical role in ensuring continuous improvement. Its Breakthrough Objectives (BTOs) focus on long-term agency growth and OPD’s internal development. The current BTO of “Cultivating a Culture of Continuous Learning” expands professional development options while integrating them into agency culture for better accessibility.

Tackling Setbacks with a Balanced Approach

Adele Cook’s primary concern is ensuring the responsible use of taxpayer (investor) funds, avoiding wasted time on unsuccessful products, and adequately preparing her team to meet DES goals.

To avoid failures, Adele Cook accurately evaluates each initiative. According to her, recovering from a failed attempt unharmed is as crucial as achieving success. This emphasis on recoverability fosters psychological safety. By aligning products and services with the business needs, AZDES minimizes the risk of missing the target. Its robust certification programs ensure team competency.

Staying Ahead of the Curve

Ever-ready with its effective learning solutions, AZDES maintains a close relationship with its business partners to support them during the changing conditions. 

Strategically aligning its products and services to the business KPIs puts OPD in a unique position to drive success.

At an agency level, AZDES is currently going through multiple modernization projects —OPD powers professional development and at times helps with the creation of non-training artifacts related to policies and procedures in support of the projects.

Understanding the crucial role of learning and development, Adele Cook spends quality time with her colleagues and attends webinars and conferences to gauge the agency situation better. She transfers these learnings to her team to collectively stay at the industry forefront.

Our leadership development program is best in class in design and delivery and has driven improvements in productivity, performance, and planned retention.

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A game-changer function

The success of OPD  revolves around creating an environment that empowers the entire organization. Every product is designed precisely with key performance indicators (KPIs) in mind—directly enhancing the performance of its team members. It also helps better support those in vulnerable circumstances.

The investment in a dedicated learning and development (L&D) function is a game-changer for the agency. The internal teams are agile and adapt well to meet specific demands, especially compared to external vendors. This approach has been instrumental in its success, empowering both DES team members and the agency.

Successful Product Launches, Programs, and Solutions

1. Leadership Development Program: 

  • Starts with the Leadership Essentials Program
  • Followed by a 12-month Advanced Leadership Program with ongoing support
  • Adopted by other agencies and featured in conferences/articles
  • Success due to collaboration with internal/external experts and subject matter expertise within DES

2. Job-Specific Training Program: 

  • Implemented over time and adopted by business partners with positive feedback
  • Success due to internal team collaboration

3. Person-Centered Approaches Class: 

  • Early program but end-of-class data shows promise for a positive impact

4. DECODE Standard Practice: 

  • Combines traditional design with Agile methodology
  • Ensures quality, timely, and impactful training
  • Well-received by business partners
Adele Cook: Championed the Training Function Revolution | The Enterprise World

How AZDES is Leveraging Technology?

  • Accessibility First: The program utilizes technology to ensure training is ADA-compliant, promoting inclusivity for all learners. 
  • Modern Tools: Cost-effective tools keep the program on the cutting edge, utilizing the latest advancements in technology. 
  • Maximized Accessibility: Technology is leveraged to create the most accessible training experience possible.
  • State Leadership: The team is a leader in accessibility within the state. 
  • Agency Focus Supported: The program proudly contributes to the agency’s commitment to accessibility.
Adele Cook: Championed the Training Function Revolution | The Enterprise World

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