Megan Garret from D&H shares advice on building a new learning department
eLearning Learning
October 14, 2020

Establishing a New Learning Function

Megan Garrett, the Director of Learning and Development at D&H Distributing, talks about she’s establishing an L&D function in an organization that didn’t previously have one. With support from leadership, Megan is developing a department from the ground up at this $4 billion dollar privately-held company. Learn how to gain internal support for your learning initiatives and training programs in this Powered by Learning podcast episode.


Show Notes:

In this episode, D&H Distributing Learning and Development Director Megan Garrett shares how she built a new learning function from scratch. She offers valuable advice including these key points:

  • While building a new learning department or offering, focus on a key project to get things started.
  • To help create your learning strategy, take the time to meet with people across the organization to discover what challenges they have and how training can impact their business goals.
  • Create competency teams across the organization to better understand what training is needed and in what area of the business.
  • Don’t overpromise. Give yourself enough time to build out your new L&D department. You can’t accomplish everything in a month or two.
  • Connect performance metrics with the training programs you're proposing. This will help your leadership see the business value of investments in learning and development.


Announcer 1: This is Powered by Learning, a podcast designed for learning leaders to hear the latest approaches to creating learning experiences that engage learners and achieve improved performance for individuals and organizations

Announcer 2: Powered by Learning is brought to you by d'Vinci Interactive. For more than 25 years, d'Vinci has provided custom learning solutions to government agencies, corporations, medical education and certification organizations, and educational content providers. We collaborate with our clients to bring order and clarity to content and technology. Learn more at d'

Susan Cort: Hello, and welcome to Powered by Learning. I'm your host, Susan Cort. With me today is d'Vinci CEO, Luke Kempski. Today, we're going to talk with Megan Garrett, the Director of Learning and Development at D&H Distributing about how to establish a new learning function at an organization. Welcome, Megan.

Megan Garrett: Thank you, nice to be here.

Luke Kempsi: Great to see you again, Megan. Welcome.

Susan: Megan, Luke and I have had the pleasure of interviewing you before and working with you at your last position, and we're just delighted to chat with you today in your new role and see what you've been up to since you joined D&H a year ago. I checked today and it'll be a year next month, so congratulations. Tell us a little bit about your career journey and also what you're doing now at D&H.

Megan: All right. Well, prior to coming here to D&H last October, I spent 22 years with the Hershey company. Started there pretty much right out of college during their first business process optimization, when they implemented SAP, I was on that training team and then just moved around in the organization from different training organizations. I was a sales trading for quite some time, and then I moved up to corporate. I supported international, I supported legal, I supported IT, I supported finance; you name it.

I pretty much supported almost every function at some point in time and also dipped my hands in a lot of the other talent processes, like our employee engagement efforts, diversity and inclusion, succession planning, pretty much you name it. At some point in time in the last 22 years, that was part of my life and it was a fabulous time. Then the opportunity came up last year to spread my wings a little bit and take on a new role as the Director of L&D for D&H. It's been a great opportunity so far.

Luke: D&H is a really pretty large and complex business, but not many people have heard about it. So if you could talk a little bit about the business, the size, and then where learning and development fits there today.

Megan: Well, D&H was a $4-billion privately held employee-owned company. It's headquartered here in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and it has distribution centers across North America. So it has two in Canada, four across the US, and there's also a headquarters office in Toronto Canada for our Canada folks. It is a distributor that sources IT and electronics as well as professional services like cloud services from leading manufacturers and then they distribute those solutions to resellers, e-tailers, retailers who serve mostly small and medium businesses, but also a lot in the public sector and direct to consumer. We really cover quite a gamut and it is quite complex, as you said. Coming in here, I had no idea really how complex until I really started diving in and getting into it.

Luke: Excellent. That's great. Prior to joining D&H, what did learning and development look like in the organization?

Megan: Well, there really was no set learning and development. There wasn't an L&D function. They had one corporate trainer who delivered the orientation, which was basically an overview of the organization and company policies, things of that nature. They did tours of the building and tours of the distribution center here locally. Then there was somebody who led a sales training for our salespeople coming in because our systems are very unique to D&H and very complex, so people would go through that sales training. Other than that, that was the training program. It was the reason why they brought me in because they really wanted to grow and take it to the next level.

Luke: Did they have a particular vision of what they wanted from the learning and development function? Was there a pain point that they wanted to solve or an opportunity that they saw that with learning and development could bring to the organization?

Megan: Well, when I first started talking to the owners, even during the interview process, a lot of the discussion was around leadership. We really want to develop our leaders so that they can develop their people. We really want them to know how to coach, so there was a lot of discussion about leadership development. Then when I got in the door, talking with all the leaders, people just wanted to grow their teams. They wanted to make sure that they had programs in place to take people to productivity faster, speed to productivity, that's what every manager wants.

When they come in the door, how quickly can we get them so that they are performing at a spot where we need them to be? I think that was overarching, those two things, getting our leadership where they need to be, as far as developing those coaching skills, feedback skills, delegation, all of those things that we want our leaders to be able to do. Then also making sure that we have people when they come in the organization, they can easily get what they need to develop.

Luke: Excellent. How does that work? You come on board, there's not really a learning and development function. They know they want to address leadership development. Do you jump right into that and try to just get a lay of the land before you really figure out what the overarching strategy is? Is that how it worked?

Megan: Yes, I actually basically took the first month and had one-on-ones with every leader in the organization pretty much from the Director up. I met with dozens of leaders and understood what their strategy was, what are their goals, what is their strategic vision for their team, what are they trying to accomplish, and then where are their pain points, what are they really good at and what could they be better at.

Met with everybody and outlined what that looked like because I really needed to understand that before I did anything else. Then the actual first training we delivered was leadership training, because we wanted to make sure that our leaders were asking the right questions to understand the pain points, because sometimes you have to be able to know what to ask and how to dig in so that people will reveal where they're struggling, because sometimes people don't want to reveal that they. They want to look like the model employee, like they're good with everything.

We jumped into that and how to have proper feedback conversations so that people could learn and grow, learn what they're doing really well, learn where they have opportunities to grow. That was really the first thing out of the gate. Then I began to create competency teams. I went to each function and asked the leaders to give me five to seven individuals at various levels of their function that could meet with me on a regular basis, so that I could begin to understand for your particular role at this level, what are the skills, what are the behaviors, what are the capabilities that are needed to be successful at that.

Now, at the next level, you tell me what are the skills, what are the behaviors, what are the capabilities needed to be successful in that role. Then from that point forward, we really could see, all right, if this is where I need to be to be successful, what does the training need to look like in order to build those behaviors, those skills, those capabilities? Now that I have those, if I want to move up to the next level, what does it look like at that next level so that people can then begin to start training for where they want to be once they reach where they are currently.

Really doing that across every single function and that's the space we are in right now, we're still working on developing those because they do take time. It's almost like herding cats, like trying to get on everyone's schedule so we can get together to talk about this stuff, can be really, really difficult, probably even more difficult than doing it in of itself.  We're in that area right now across all the different functions.

Luke: It's also a great way to learn about the company. I mean, you're able to really see all aspects of the company that way, which I think will be really helpful as you get to zoom out and start to think more strategically about what the learning and development function looks like in the people that you're working with, whether it's the talking to the executives or talking to people, to try to get them to start to define competencies. Are they enthusiastic? How are they receiving participation?

Megan: Very enthusiastic. I have to say everybody has been supportive. Everybody wants this. They want it yesterday, actually. They’re ready for it. Sometimes it's difficult to get on people's calendars, but I don't think it's for lack of wanting to have the discussion, it's just people are busy. We're probably busier now than we've ever been, at least that's what I understand. Partially because we're IT business and people are relying heavier on IT than they ever have before, because they're not at the office, they're at home. So that lends itself to people needing more support. It's definitely a pool, people are pooling, they want it.

Luke: Are you starting to envision how you get from what you're doing now to having more of an overarching strategy for how to-- like what does a learning and development budget look like? What does a curriculum? How do you reach all these different parts of the organization?

Megan: Well, actually, crazy enough, I had to present my three to five-year strategy within a month of starting. I actually presented that, and it was a three to five-year strategy. It was basically depending on, if it was pretty much just me, it's going to be five years. If I could source some help, then that might condense it down to closer to three years, but, basically, we're doing a few functions at a time. It was up to leadership to tell me where the priority was there.

A leadership is a constant. I've been running leadership training since month two of being here but working on the functional development is really being kind of piece meal and overlapping. I got one going and then a couple of months later I start the other one, and we're layering it like that.

Luke: Obviously, you're going to have way more needs than you're able to address. How are you going about prioritizing where to put your time and your resources at this point?

Megan: Basically, I've been doing check-ins with my manager and sharing with her where I'm at, how long it's taking to accomplish certain things, where we need to be based on the conversations we're having with leadership, and having her and the executives help me prioritize those things. So these are all the things that you're asking of me. This is the amount of time it's going to take to do it. This is how many hours I have in a day.

We have to do a little bit of a give and take where's the priority. Most of them, they're very understanding. They know it is just me, although we are looking at bringing in another resource, so that may help a little bit. We're going to be bringing another full-time person to help me, but it's really a matter of working with the leadership to understand what is most important to them.

Luke: Have you gotten a sense of, let's just look at the leadership training, how they like to learn from a leadership standpoint? Like what kind of format or approach do you think they're looking for?

Megan: Well, we had a great time when we were here in the building doing leadership because I make it very interactive. I'm having them stand up. I'm having them role-play. I'm having them take a really bad script of a coaching conversation and turn it into a good one and then deliver it, that kind of thing. Really making it fun and engaging for them at the same time as forcing them to learn.

We're trying to do that also in the virtual classroom but because of people's tolerance for being in that environment for an extended period of time, we've broken it up and we do like one class a week for an hour, an hour and a half, and then they have homework. Doing the script, rewriting the script is their homework that they have to do. Then they come back and then they do it the next week as part of the opening of the next week of activity.

We're trying to continue to make it interactive, which they seem to like. Nobody likes to be talked to, everybody likes to engage. I use chat a lot. We do all the virtual ones. We're using the chat functionality quite a bit, polling functionality in some of the classes. That tends to help people stay engaged. The feedback we've been getting is really good around knowledge gain, so people's knowledge of something before the class versus after.

For everything, it's at least been a two-point gain, which is great.

Luke: That is excellent. That does make it a lot more fun both the deliverer and to be part of. Certainly, you'll make a difference in the organization. When you think about where you want to be but not so much in the three to five year but just even 12 months from now, what would look different between now and 12 months from now?

Megan: Well, right now, everything is so manual for our people to request training and for me to track training. Actually Todd, one of my team members, does all that manually right now in a spreadsheet, and that is painful. We are implementing an LMS starting next month. We're going to be implementing our first LMS here at D&H. That will I think, ease a lot of pain internally for the team.

Then in addition to that, it'll give people the opportunity to access content much easier. We're going to pull in some third-party content, which I think will be helpful for just some basic skills, but Todd, who's on my team, is fantastic at developing video-based training. He's been doing a lot of that for actually a few years now for D&H. So we'll have all of that content that's very specific to our unique systems that we have here or processes that we have. That will be there and easy for people to hit when they need it.

Luke: I know from talking to you before that this isn't your first situation of procuring an LMS, but it's a different scenario and it's certainly a-- it's 2020, it's a different time. What's different, I guess, about how you're going about selecting one now compared to maybe how you've done it in the past?

Megan: Well, I think part of it was we wanted to get something that was-- It was actually my recommendation to get something that was much more holistic. We're not looking just at an LMS, we wanted to have a full suite. We wanted to have an applicant tracking system, an on-boarding system, the LMS, the performance management, the succession planning. I know from going through RFP processes for the LMS in the past twice in my time at Hershey, that there was a particular one that I really liked, that we didn't go with. And I was kind of determined that that should be the one.

When I saw what they were able to do now with that system, which even look better now than it did before, and it's a little bit more tech-savvy as far as on the back end building everything. It was a little bit of an easier choice because it does have all the different elements that we want, and it's a little bit simpler to manage on the back end than some of the previous ones that I had used before. So it was an easy selection for me. Everyone was supportive of it, and when I explained everything that I'd been through and what this is compared to what I had been dealing with before, and the price was right, too, which never hurts.

Luke: That's excellent. I’m sure you're looking forward to your at least third journey of implementing an LMS.

Megan: Hopefully, it'll be a little easier this time.

Luke: Yes, definitely. You might have fewer strong opinions in the rest of the organization because it is new in the process. What advise would you have to someone else who comes in to a fairly large organization that never really had a learning and development function and how they should go about assessing and figuring out where to start?

Megan: Two things I would say. Be honest with yourself because it isn't going to be easy. I never thought it was going to be easy, but as I got into it, you realize how difficult it actually is, and you have to be honest with yourself. Then you have to be honest with your manager and your entire leadership team, because everyone's excited for it and everybody wants it yesterday. Coming in new, you want to give it to them yesterday, but the reality is to do it right, you can't do that. You have to take your time, you have to understand the business, and you have to take the right steps. I would just say be honest, all around, with how long it's going to take you to do it. If you need help, if they want it to be done a little faster, tell them you need help because it's hard to do it solo. I would definitely say those are critical things.

Luke: Yes, for sure, don't overpromise.

Megan: Yes.

Susan: I can't help but think what a unique and exciting opportunity for you to build this learning and development program from the ground up and how fortunate you are that you had the leadership that really supported this and seemed to understand the strategy behind it. What advice would you give to someone who maybe is coming into an organization and wants to build a program but maybe doesn't have that C-suite support or maybe they have a program, but they want to revolve it and they need to do some justification? What would you say to them?

Megan: I would just say you want to do your research. If you have a mature background and you've done things like this before, showing them the business case for why is really critical. I did that upfront actually during the interview process. I probably met with 12 different people over the course of my interview process and made the case every time depending on whether it was the CFO or the CSO on why each of these elements is important from a learning strategy standpoint.

I think knowing your business as a leader, knowing your business as a learning professional, and why people need you, that's important. So you're selling yourself, you're selling them why. Then when you get into that C-suite with the owners or the president, again, sharing that full circle with everyone you talk to and what you talked to them about, what you're going to bring to the table, it's really critical. And giving them hard numbers when at all possible, any kind of numbers you can give around, success you've had in different areas of the organization, length of time, like I said, the productivity.

We don't have manufacturing facilities, but we have distribution facilities. When I talked about one of roll-outs I did in manufacturing and how we were able to train people on brand new pieces of equipment and what that looked like and how that rolled out and the speed to get that out to people, that resonates because at some point in time there'll probably be something similar in a DC that we have and I have that experience and can move in that direction.

Susan: That's great. Are you seeing some good results already in their distribution centers and other parts of the company?

Megan: I haven't been able to do a ton in the DCs at this point because we went into the lockdown after I was only here four months. I was still learning people within this building and learning our functions here. I did go to one of the DCs right before the lockdown, actually, and did some leadership training there. I've been actually rolling out some of the virtual leadership training with our DC in Atlanta, which has been going really well, really fantastic. I'm hoping soon enough, I'll be able to actually get out to all the DCs and meet everybody there and find out how I can help on the ground and on the floor.

Luke: That's great. Beyond the learning function, how else are you trying to influence talent development and the culture at the D&H?

Megan: Well, a couple of things I would say. As part of the COVID-19 work-from-home lockdown, I was actually given the title of Work-from-home Captain and Communications Captain. I had a team of people that, for the better part of the last few months, our job was to come up with ways that we can engage people, how we can engage teams, so giving managers something to do with their teams, whether it is a team-building exercise they can do virtually or some other fun activity. We would send notes out with instructions, there would be winners, things of that nature. So we could kind of engage people like that, hosting happy hours.

There's a lot of communications that I've done around health and wellness. They were weekly for a while. Now we're doing once a month, where we talk about things like mental health and we talk about ergonomics. We talk about proper eating and diet, how to cook quick meals. We talk about how to have your kids helping you in the kitchen, all different types of things. We know people are working from home and their kids might be sitting at a desk right beside them being homeschooled.

There's so much going on that we really were trying to engage people at all different levels so that they can be fully healthy in every aspect of their life and not be too stressed out with the work on top of everything else going on. We want them to know that we're here and we understand what they're going through because we're all going through it.

Susan: You had also mentioned when we chatted a couple of days ago about your work with diversity, equity, and inclusion at D&H. Is that another way you're helping to impact your team?

Megan: Yes, I was going to mention that. That was one of the things I had talked about with Dana Michael, with our owners early on, when I came in that I really thought that implementing a deliberate diversity and inclusion efforts and education plan here would be really wise. They were 100% for it and that was even before a lot of these things that have happened in recent months occurred. I actually had started going through my certification process.

I just got certified from Executive Education back in February. I began rolling out an education plan. That's the first pillars around education. We're doing small groups of training with people starting with leadership and then cascading down. When we get to the leader's direct reports, the leader is on that call, kicking off the call. We're going to cover a variety of topics. Everything from general workplace harassment, micro-inequities, unconscious bias, so we have a large range of topics that we're going to cover. Probably, honestly, going to take us a year to get through all of them with everyone, with me delivering, but we're doing them virtually in a classroom environment like this. Then we also have a whole communications plan.

One of the things that I brought to the table and, of course, the leadership team was incredibly supportive, was instead of just communicating the normal events and holidays that we would, Christmas and Thanksgiving, I said, "Why don't we discuss and communicate other things that are celebrated? Why don't we communicate Rosh Hashanah? Why don't we tell people at least once a month at the beginning of the month, say these are all the holidays that colleagues of yours could be celebrating over the course of this month? Here's a little bit about them." Just to raise the awareness around other things going on.

The onus for that was my first week here, or maybe it was my second week, there was an event happening in our arena area and there was all of these people dressed in these beautiful brightly-colored clothing with wrap skirts and just lovely. I said to Todd, I said, "What's happening in here?" They're like, "Oh, it's the Festival of Lights and Diwali." I said, "Oh, my gosh, that's so cool." So we were talking and I'm like, "Why isn't this something we're all just invited to come in? There's all this beautiful food laid out." This is something that everybody should understand, what are they celebrating? It's just such a neat thing, an opportunity for people to learn.

We decided that we were going to just start communicating. Then once we are back together in this building, we'll be able to open it up and have more events that celebrate different types of whatever type of celebration. Whether it's a cultural celebration, whether it's a national celebration, whatever that might be.

Luke: Yes, that's really exciting. It sounds like they already had a great culture and now what you're doing with learning and development can really integrate into that, help foster it even more, and really grow the whole organization, so congratulations. Was there anything else that you wanted to share with us today, Megan?

Megan: I would just say, no matter what type of organization you're going into, just be open to their ideas because they've come to me with things that I hadn't actually thought of, coming from a big corporation is a little bit different than coming into a smaller company. I'm able to actually do things here that I couldn't have done there. Be open to all the ideas that they have and the suggestions that they have of ways that you can impact the people, because it may be something you hadn't thought of.

Luke: Yes, excellent. Well, it's really great talking to you and thanks so much for joining us today.

Megan: Thanks, Luke. Thanks, Susan.

Susan: Thank you, Megan, take care.

Megan: Thanks you too.

Susan: Boy Luke, it was great to talk with Megan, again. She had some really good takeaways. What do you think were some of the most important points that she made related to starting a new learning function in a corporation?

Luke: Yes, well, it's probably unique anytime you are in a situation like that. In her experience, I think there are some things to learn from her experience, for sure. First off, they threw her right in, asking for a three to five-year strategic plan within the first month that she was there. At the same time, she was fortunate enough to have an anchor project in developing the leadership training, so having a key project while you're also starting to think about strategy and also getting to know the organization.

Two things she did that really helped her get to know the organization. One was she had discussions with all the directors and up in the organization and really asked them questions about what they were looking for from the learning and development function. She also found out that they really wanted one. They were really excited to have one and excited to have her be part of the team. The other thing she did that she was setting up competency teams, which reached out farther in the organization to start to develop the competencies for different kinds of positions. That's also a great way to learn about the organization and what the needs are and establish that longer-term strategy.

Of course, she gets to go on the journey of selecting an LMS, which sounds like she's already done that, and then prepare to implement an LMS, which is going to be a really important tool. It sounds like it's much bigger than just the learning management system, but also really, more a broader vision from a talent, everything from recruitment, to development, to delivering learning through the LMS.

We asked her some advice to somebody else in a similar situation and she said, "Be honest to yourself and be honest to everyone else, making sure that you don't over-promise because you're going to need time." You can't deliver everything in a month or two months, so to give everybody realistic expectations in regard to that. Lastly, when you get the opportunity to look to do something new to really make a business case for it, look for performance metrics to tie what you're proposing to.

Susan: I'd love to have Megan back in a year or two and see all that she's accomplished and learned, what she's been able to do with her new program.

Luke: That's a great idea, let's do that.

Susan: All right. Cool, thanks, Luke. Many thanks to Megan Garrett from D&H Distributing for joining us today. If you have any questions about what we talked about today, you can reach out to us on d'Vinci social channels through our website or by emailing us at

Announcer 2: Powered by Learning is brought to you by d'Vinci Interactive. For more than 25 years, d'Vinci has provided custom learning solutions to government agencies, corporations, medical education and certification organizations, and educational content providers. We collaborate with our clients to bring order and clarity to content and technology. Learn more at

Luke Kempski

By Luke Kempski, CEO

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