NESCSO proactively invests in State employees to improve the effectiveness of Health and Human Service agencies.

NESCSO helps State agencies improve the effectiveness of publicly funded health and human services by investing in State employees

NESCSO HHS Training and Leadership Development Initiative: Vermont Agency of Human Services

The Vermont Agency of Human Services (VT-AHS) recently completed a Leadership Academy. Managers from several Departments, including Health, Mental Health, Vermont Health Access, Corrections, and Disabilities, Aging, and Independent Living, met from September 2020 to May 2021. NESCSO funded the Academy as an initiative under our Focus Area 1: Strengthening the Organizational Capacity of New England’s State Health and Human Services Agencies and to support VT-AHS’ commitment to investing in current and future Agency leaders to drive change and ultimately serve beneficiaries differently and better. NESCSO contracted with the Center for Health Care Strategies (CHCS) to provide the training. 

Thank you to Katie Whitney of VT-AHS and Lauren Moran of CHCS for the following summary.

“Each session I learned something new to me. I appreciated the representation of each division within the agency of AHS, which allowed me to learn more about different roles and areas of focus.”

-VAHSLA Cohort 3 Participant

“Collaboration with folks from every department in the agency was very valuable. Really all of the topics were extremely interesting and will be useful in my work moving forward!”

-VAHSLA Cohort 3 Participant


The Vermont Agency of Human Services Leadership Academy (VAHSLA) is an eight-month professional development and leadership training program for managers within the Agency of Human Services (AHS). It is sponsored by NESCSO through the State Health and Human Services Training and Leadership Development Initiative and administered by the Center for Health Care Strategies (CHCS) in partnership with AHS. The VAHSLA prepares motivated staff with strong leadership skills and the potential to take on higher levels or more expansive roles in the future through a combination of technical skills building and leadership development.

The VAHSLA supports emerging leaders by providing a forum for professional development that helps participants:

    • Drive collaboration, programmatic change, and streamline policies and programs in order to improve results and ultimately better serve Vermonters;
    • Build a deep understanding of the Agency’s mission and key strategic priorities;
    • Gain an understanding of the available levers for driving lasting cross-functional alignment and transformational change; and
    • Foster peer relationships and connections across departmental and functional siloes.

Participants receive ongoing support through delivery of a curriculum that fosters stronger, sustainable connections among health care, public health, and social services sectors to better meet the goals and needs of the people AHS serves. Facilitators assist participants in building leadership competencies and technical skills in order to understand and use curriculum learnings in their daily work, all in an effort towards improving health and well-being in communities, especially among populations most at risk of inequities.


In May 2020, the third cohort of VAHSLA participants completed the program. Katie Whitney, AHS Director of Organizational and Human Resources Development, shared her reflections on VAHSLA’s impact.

Q: What did VT AHS hope to accomplish in providing VAHSLA? How did you hope it would impact Vermont residents?

A: By providing a programmatic forum for our emerging leaders, we hope to build a successful leadership track for future leaders at AHS. Investing in our organization’s future leaders is critical to the success of our agency and our mission to promote the health and well-being of Vermonters and to protect those who are unable to protect themselves. Through this program, we foster inter-departmental collaboration and provide a steady pipeline of effective leaders, prepared to step up and take on more expansive roles at AHS. By investing in our workforce, we promote greater retention of high performers, stronger, more inclusive and intentional culture dynamics, and develop a team better prepared to thrive in dynamic and uncertain conditions. Ultimately, we impact Vermont residents by creating greater stability and resilience within our workforce and thus, can find ways to better integrate our programs and thinking to provide more effective services to Vermonters.

Q: The VAHLSA provides a forum for staff across AHS’ six departments to build relationships and collaborate over the course of the program. Why are these relationships important to AHS leadership?

A: At AHS, we value the skills and expertise of our staff. It is mission critical for us to promote inter-departmental, strength-based relationships across our agency. By fostering relationship building between our emerging leaders, we are helping to build a culture of mutual respect, teamwork, and integration. In providing this amazing professional development opportunity, our goal is to forge meaningful connections among peers and help build natural supports within our department networks.

Q: AHS staff have a wide variety of responsibilities in their day-to-day roles. How does the VAHSLA better prepare them to succeed day to day? How about meeting the Agency’s long-term goals?

A: VAHSLA provides the framework for emerging leaders to: (1) increase their self-awareness; (2) build relational skills; and (3) focus on evidence-based leadership skills to prepare for the shift from managing self to managing others in the future. VAHSLA gives participants the opportunity to become acquainted to the complex issues we face in the health and human services field and problem solve as a team. They each bring their experience and knowledge of their specific departments to the table for a chance to grow together, connect across organizational functions, and consider future scenarios where they can strive for more integration of services and thinking.

VAHSLA gives emerging leaders at AHS the exposure to executive and senior leadership. This type of connection strengthens relationships across different leadership levels at AHS to gain a better understanding of human services and how we do our work. The program promotes a work environment that thrives on continuous improvement and encourages professional growth and development of best practices while acknowledging the valuable contribution our emerging leaders have in improving the lives of Vermonters.

Q: Committing the time and staff resources to VAHSLA in the middle of a pandemic is a significant commitment? What makes this such an important priority for VT AHS?

A: Leadership during times of crisis is an important skillset for all effective leaders to strive for. Everyone looks to leaders for their next steps and for reassurance. During this pandemic, we made the choice to continue to invest in our future leaders and make a commitment to their continued growth and development. Many of our program participants were reassigned job duties to focus on the pandemic response. The program offered a space for them to recharge and build in time for themselves. Topics surrounding our response to the pandemic helped participants reflect on how to lead efficiently in times of crisis. The sessions allowed participants to connect with their peers across the agency to think creatively in how we address challenges in our work and how to effectively handle crisis and ongoing change. For many, VAHSLA was a chance for participants to engage in work outside of the pandemic and help them recharge and find inspiration to go back and tackle the challenges they face in their roles. Our program was incredibly successful in building strong connections during a time when most folks were feeling isolated due to the pandemic. VAHSLA became an outlet for developing strong relationships and for thinking critically about the problems we face in unprecedented times. The conversations and interactions in each session really shed light on how we can come together, even in times of crisis, to promote integration, creativity, and critical thinking.