Alfonz Ruth grew up in poverty in Baton Rouge, La. — well below the lowest line of what the United States sees as the median income, he said. But his family always made education seem like the ticket to a better life.
Ruth was adopted by his pastor and his pastor’s wife at age 9, and while his birth mother always stressed the importance of education, his adoptive family’s commitment to his schooling gave him confidence he’d never experienced before.
“They would always tell me that if I studied and tried hard enough in school, I could be the next president of the United States,” he said. “And I believed them.”
Ruth’s neighbor while he was growing up was a member of Phi Beta Sigma, and after high school he connected him with a scholarship through the fraternity to attend Grambling State University. Ruth majored in biology, but the closer he got to his degree, the less passionate he became about the subject.
“I was tired of sitting in labs and messing with dead cats,” he said. “I knew I had to finish the degree, but I started taking courses in psychology on the side, fell in love with it and felt I found my niche.”
After graduating from Grambling State, he earned a master’s in industrial and organizational psychology from Louisiana Tech University and later a doctorate in educational psychology and social policy from Howard University.
Ruth didn’t become the president, but education did change him. He said he realized the power it can bring people when they have tools at hand to become a master of their craft. “I look at the joy it gave me when I first got my degree and the joy it gave my family, and I just can’t help but be excited that I have the opportunity to give other people that same type of fulfillment.”
A Career in Learning
After receiving his doctorate, Ruth began his professional career as an education adviser for the U.S. Department of the Navy in Washington, D.C. There he analyzed and evaluated on a quantitative and qualitative basis how effective tuition operations were in meeting Navy goals and objectives. He authorized and provided academic advisement for 2,300 military personnel, who took more than 6,000 classes during his nearly two years there. He also organized, designed and implemented the first Naval District of Washington graduation ceremony and became comfortable sharing his personal history.
“I used to be ashamed of my past and wanted people to believe that life for me had been a bunch of crystal stairs,” he said. “But as I shared my story, it became empowering to those who heard it, and I knew I had to share it for them to understand the value of education.”
Over time, as his passion for learning and creating career plans grew, word spread, and he was asked to provide annual educational briefs for sailors and Marines at the White House, Pentagon and National Maritime Intelligence Center.
Then Ruth was invited to be a Defense Department fellow for the Industrial College of the Armed Forces, where he worked on joint professional military education projects. He made recommendations on national security policy and helped to enhance understanding of the security challenges facing Defense Department officials and U.S. government policy-makers.
He also planned and developed surveys for senior military officers to determine attitudes and reactions to joint professional military education. The fellowship was followed by a three-month stint with the National Defense University, where he developed national security gaming exercises for senior leaders in the intelligence community based on experiential learning principles.
In October 2007, Ruth joined the District of Columbia Department of Transportation, or DDOT, to head up organizational development efforts as an organizational development program analyst. There he monitored and oversaw organization-wide performance management programs and conducted department-wide training needs assessments.
“This operations role was a blessing in disguise,” he said. “I got to see firsthand the true nuts and bolts of every operating unit in this agency, how they work together and do the great things that happen in Washington, D.C. I got the opportunity to share and learn from employees who are out there every day in the public eye making it happen — they are the face, eyes, ears and voice that represent all of us. It was then that I developed a true love for my agency.”
Four years later, in August 2011, Ruth was called into what he calls the “principal’s office,” also known as the office of the director of the District of Columbia Department of Transportation. The director, Terry Bellamy, asked him to serve as the agency’s first chief learning officer and head of DDOT University.
“I appointed Dr. Ruth into this position because I saw a workforce development challenge facing not only my agency, but state departments of transportation across the nation,” Bellamy said. “With his Ph.D. and knowledge of agency operations, I was confident he could take the ball and run with it.”
Starting From Scratch
Since he became CLO, Ruth has designed, built and implemented a new DDOT University, which helps develop the agency’s approximately 1,000 full-time employees. Before taking this on, the corporate university was simply a training office that provided ad hoc, in-person classes to small groups of employees when necessary.
“It wasn’t aligned to the agency’s strategic direction,” Ruth said. “It was an afterthought, a quick fix to a problem that had already occurred. I had to build the infrastructure from scratch, and we have a long road ahead of us. I have to constantly remind myself that Rome wasn’t built overnight.”
Fred Lang, president of Golden Pines Associates, a human capital consulting firm, and former CLO for the U.S. Commerce Department, said it’s not uncommon for government agencies to lag behind the business sector when it comes to learning.
“For one thing, the procurement process is much slower since government agencies are in a kind of bubble and must ensure that what they do is transparent to the public and fair to all vendors bidding on work,” he said.
Ruth’s role isn’t an easy one, but he has taken the position by storm. In 2012, shortly after Ruth assumed the CLO position, Bellamy told his staff: “This agency cannot move like a dinosaur in today’s modern world where technology connects us at lightning speed and gives us better tools and people expect immediate results.”
With these marching orders, Ruth began optimizing education resources to meet these demands and provide DDOT leaders with a highly trained, educated workforce. He created a learning strategy that is modular, scalable and operationally focused.
He also created five leadership development programs for a range of employees and positions; a process for members of the company’s training department to work with division heads and create annual human capital performance plans for their employees; a tuition assistance and certification program, which allows employees to be reimbursed 100 percent for completing degrees or certification courses with an accredited university program; an LMS, which offers nearly 1,000 online courses and webinars; and a policy and resource management infrastructure, which holds his department accountable for spending and ensures the agency is in compliance with all federal regulations.
“The main thing I wanted to do was make sure we were not doing business as usual,” he said. “It wasn’t working before, and we needed to get everybody on board to ensure our future development goals would be met.”
Ruth meets with each of the heads of the agency’s six administrations regularly to understand their problems. He also assigned a training officer to each administration and implemented a monthly brown bag program to give senior leaders an opportunity to address topics that directly support the agency’s strategic direction.
“Our senior leaders know our goal is to become better partners and coaches for managers, to help them develop their employees, thereby promoting retention and helping their operations to run smoothly,” he said.
Every learning initiative implemented is mapped against a competency model Ruth put in place (Figure 1), which covers the agency’s 200 positions.
“Our employees are responsible for maintaining more than $44 billion in infrastructure, including 1,100 miles of streets, 7,700 intersections and 241 bridges in the incubator of the world — Washington, D.C.,” he said. “We had more than 18 million visitors last year, and we have about 700,000 residents. Our agency has an important job, and it’s my job to make sure the people in it are prepared to keep this city moving.”
Getting the Grades
To gauge the effectiveness of these recent additions, Ruth’s team employs Kirkpatrick levels one and two and uses a series of internally created summative evaluations. It also meets regularly with supervisors to receive feedback on employees who have undergone a recent learning initiative.
Further, in 2012, newBrandAnalytics, the social intelligence expert for government, retail and hospitality organizations, partnered with the District of Columbia and Mayor Vincent C. Gray to create the Grade.DC.Gov program, which is an online system to rate, analyze and evaluate government services using citizens’ social media feedback. The platform uses social intelligence software to capture feedback that constituents share online about their experiences with district agencies, and provides city leaders with insights to help them improve municipal operations and citizen services. Since Ruth implemented his multifaceted learning strategy, DDOT has moved from a grade C to an A+.
“This is an evaluation of our services, satisfaction of customers, timeliness of response,” he said. “I always say that a learned person is a happy person, and research has shown that employees who are more competent in their ability to perform their job do much better than those who are not. Learning helps employees, but it’s bigger than that. It impacts so much more.”
After years of education and work with the U.S. government, Ruth said his greatest success is offering this type of learning and seeing its impact.
“Every employee that receives a college degree, certification, continuing education credit, completes a course through one of our programs … that’s a success story to me,” he said. “Every employee that is able to go out and perform their job competently to ensure the mission and vision of this agency as a result of education … that’s what started my success, and passing it on is what fulfills me.”
Alfonz Ruth says he is the first college graduate in his family. “I can say without a shadow of doubt that having a college degree has paid off in ways you wouldn’t believe,” he said. “Not only for me, but for my entire family. It has taken me, us, to places we couldn’t have imagined growing up.”
Ruth’s formal academic achievements include:
Concentration: Strategic Management
DEPARTMENT OF DEFENSE
The Industrial College of the Armed Forces/Institute for National Strategic Studies
National Defense University
DOCTOR OF PHILOSOPHY
Concentration: Educational Psychology;
Subspecialty: Social Policy
MASTER OF ARTS
Concentration: Industrial and Organizational Psychology
Louisiana Tech University
BACHELOR OF SCIENCE
Grambling State University