Holly A Sullenger is an acclaimed corporate trainer and adult education expert, a well-versed public speaker and academic facilitator providing lifetime learning experiences to adults and business professionals. Holly has a flair for innovative learning, and she employs this penchant for creating impactful programs and meaningful solutions for adults. Holly actively works to foster a global learning community for working professionals.
Currently working as the Assistant Director of Technology Training Solutions, a division at North Carolina State University, Holly delivers exceptional technology-related training and business solutions to individuals, influencers, leaders, and corporations. We had a thorough discussion on her career ambitions and how they surround continual learning and professional development, the details of which we share below.
So Holly, we know it all starts from a certain point in life. Being a proponent of adult education and a seasoned corporate trainer, how did it all begin for you? What’s the story or the experience that helped you develop this perspective and passion?
“It all began in my childhood. I was very fortunate to have a very loving and caring dad when growing up. My dad, though, had an experience that not a lot of people have. He had polio when he was 3, and it ended up impacting his right arm. It never grew and he was never able to use it. And so, he became left-handed so he could get things done on his own. Still, he never allowed anyone to call him handicapped or let his differences get in his way. And he instilled a “can-do, never-quit” attitude in my sister and me. From a very early age, he taught me a lot about education and how attitude impacts one’s life and personality. He also taught me early on that things that happen to us in life are mere challenges that we can overcome and get around, and one of the best ways to prepare to overcome difficulties in life is to have knowledge and education. When we are continually learning and constantly changing -- the things around us change for good.”
Holly considers herself fortunate to have found her primary source of inspiration at home – in the face of her dad. However, the community college she attended turned out to be crucial for her career and life. She was a little disappointed that she had to attend a community college initially, because she had planned on attending a university. However, since no college or university was offering a 4-year degree program in the vicinity, she had no choice but to seek admission in one of the 2-year programs the community college was offering. Sharing her insights on the experience she stated,
“When I began attending the community college, I had no idea that it was a unique community college. It had people of all ages and from different backgrounds enrolled as students. Studying together, I got the chance to make friends and acquaintances with a diverse group of people– some were grandparents, some were business people, and others were young college students . However, despite that, their passion and commitment towards education was remarkable. They were punctual, worked hard, were brilliant, and neither age nor station in life hindered their passion for learning. This made me realize at a very early age that there’s no ending point to learning and education. There’s no right age or right time for learning. It’s an ongoing, lifelong process. There’s so much that can be learned at every stage of life. I realized that all one needs is to have a passion for learning - that education and knowledge keep one moving in the right direction.”
At the community college, Holly got to experience diversity at its best. Aside from her father’s constant support and guidance and studying at the community college, she had some challenges that her dad identified just in time. He recognized her fear of public speaking and started taking her to a local Toastmasters’ group so she could get past the fear. She touts it as an interesting story for people who know her, and her passion for public speaking, well. She states,
“Back when I was going to school - all the way up through college - I was terrified of public speaking. I’d do anything to save myself from having to address groups of people, no matter how small or how well I knew them. One day, my dad overheard me talking to my sister about skipping a speech class. I was assigned to give a speech, and I was dreading it. Because I knew there would be a makeup class and there would almost be nobody there, I decided to skip giving the speech so I wouldn’t have to speak in front of the whole class. My dad overheard and he immediately started taking me with him to Toastmasters' meetings. This Toastmasters’ group was attended by business professionals - and then there was me, a college kid. I was terrified initially, but because of the kind members and the wonderful knowledge I picked up from the group, I learned how to speak, how to use relaxation techniques, how to focus on what I was saying, and how to connect with my audiences.”
A few months after I had been attending Toastmasters’, I was approached by my college professors who wanted me to come back and start teaching at the college. Prior to going to Toastmasters', I would have said absolutely “no,” but because I had new experience speaking to the group, and because I was trying to grow as a person, I decided to say “yes.” I was quite intimidated at first because the people taking the class were all high-level scientists who were coming to learn a software that I happened to be an expert in. I was terrified and talking way too fast in my first couple of classes, but then eventually I began to connect with the people in the classroom and saw their curiosity and their eagerness to learn. I noticed the positive way they responded to my lessons and my examples. This allowed me to get over the fear and instead focus on the idea of teaching and making sure that my participants were understanding what I was trying to convey.”
It is amazing how a simple experience can shape the trajectory of one’s life and career. What started as a mere teaching experience for Holly soon paved the way for her to become a professional corporate trainer. She started teaching many evening classes after realizing she had a passion for teaching. She began to experiment with techniques intended to engage her audience and make them excited about the idea of learning.
Her efforts were applauded by one group of students who threw her a party at the end of a class because they were so happy with the knowledge she had shared with them. This introduced her to a new perspective – that new knowledge and new information can be so important, even life-changing, that they can greatly alter the lives of class participants. Soon after that, she also became an advisor at the community college and helped to lead the new student orientation.
She continued with the community college role until she was hired by a training center as a teacher and coordinator. That turned out to be the start of her career as a corporate trainer. Corporate clients, including business professionals and organizations, would call and ask her to come into their business and teach their employees. She shares,
“I ended up switching from that training center to another bigger training center and continued with that until I finally ended up moving to North Carolina with my significant other. At that point, I began teaching at North Carolina State University as a contract instructor. I always get excited about the idea of corporate training for individuals who work – they have to work and they want to work - and they just need a little knowledge to make their job so much easier. They need a little bit of information so they can work smarter rather than harder.”
“I have found that in the corporate world, people from are very focused and eager to learn. They are very invested in new knowledge. It's a very pleasant group to work with because you get to see them take the information back and immediately put it into action. So, I steered my career towards corporate training and consulting. I also have my own business where I develop business systems for companies in our area, and I offer professional speaking services. But my primary area of responsibility is to run Technology Training Solutions, which is part of the Continuing and Professional Education division at North Carolina State University. We provide technology training to members of business and industry in our geographic region. We offer professional development and leadership training as well.”
So, how did she take those regular teaching and training centers to a massive scale – to the extent of leading the technology training organization at NC State University? She shares,
“When I started out training in the community college arena, the classes that we taught there were the typical semester or quarter-long classes, so a participant had to take a course spanning 12 to 16 weeks to learn a topic. Since most of the enrollees for those classes were corporate professionals, it was not feasible for them to attend a lengthy course. It was also frustrating to them to spend so much time to learn something they needed to have in order to get a project done quickly. For your teaching methodology to be effective, flexibility is the key. Even more, teaching business and corporate professionals is very different from teaching younger students. Young students are learning topics they may or may not ever use, and the concepts seem nebulous at times. Corporate class attendees know what they need to learn, and they use that knowledge immediately. They have a project to apply their knowledge to the very next day. This understanding of the specific learning needs of corporate professionals allowed me to scale up quickly.”
Adult education and corporate training industry experts know that you need to foster relationships with your competitors and turn them into collaborations. This is essential because no one person has the key to all knowledge – and there is enough education and training business to last an eternity! Holly, while emphasizing the need for collaboration in adult education and training, stated,
“I do joint projects with my fellow trainers. If I have a client that I am working with and they need knowledge that I don’t possess, I'll ask one of my trainer friends who specializes in that topic to deliver training on that particular topic. It is also good to have people in the class work together and brainstorm ideas and solutions – to work collaboratively. This way, the outcome of learning magnifies with different ideas, opinions, and solutions that help to broaden perspective – for not just the trainees but the trainer as well.”
The diverse culture at the community college and the Toastmasters’ meetings became the experiences that set a fertile ground for Holly Sullenger to pursue her passion of adult education and corporate training, culminating in her leadership of Technology Training Solutions at NC State University, which surprisingly is a not-for-profit entity – a self-sustaining part of the university. When asked about how she manifested her belief in lifelong learning with a not-for-profit education model, she expressed,
“There are very few places in our country like the one I'm working at. NC State University’s Division of Continuing and Professional Education consists solely of units that are not-for-profit, self-sustaining units. Which means we do not get any state or federal government grants or any private funding. Our units are solely reliant on the fees that we charge for our courses. Every year, we start with a zero-budget balance and end with a zero-budget balance. All of the money that we make in between goes into staff salaries, the room rental, the equipment, instructors, and other items we need for our programs.”
“It’s challenging to run a full-fledged adult education and training program with such limited resources, but that’s what I absolutely adore. It piques my passion. It liberates us from the stress of having to make profits, and that’s why we are more focused on creating unique programs that can help adults and professionals hone their skills. We focus solely on education. Whether it’s an individual or a corporation, we charge them a reasonable fee while never compromising the quality of training. Likewise, we do not compete with the other learning institutions in North Carolina; instead, we seek to collaborate with them to promote continuing development, education and learning and make it accessible for as many individuals as we can.”
In pursuit of their vision to promote adult education and lifelong learning, the NC State University not-for-profit organization is focused on professional development and other training through special programs tailored to meet the learning needs of professionals and adults. They have a professional development certificate program in place and a leadership development program that they are currently working on which will be launched by early next year.
Driven by their vision, they are proactively staying responsive to the ever-changing needs of corporate America, helping them stay abreast of the knowledge that will enable them to stay competitive in industry. They are dedicated to helping corporate America get ready, smart, make the right move, take the right step and stay successful in our global environment.
Divya Parekh is an international Executive Leadership Coach and #1 bestselling author. She is CEO of The DP Group, LLC a global coaching and consulting firm that provides leadership and team development services as well as corporate coaching. Having success in four major career paths, Divya has the expertise and knowledge of real world business backed by a proven record of success. Divya brings over 25 years of rich and extensive experience in academia, the biopharmaceutical industry, and as a global executive and leadership coach. In each of her many roles, she has empowered leaders with breakthrough insights, talent development strategies, and measurable business outcomes. During her biopharmaceutical journey, Divya led successful multi-million dollar projects from concept to completion in a fast-paced and competitive environment. Divya knows what it takes to initiate communication channels that cut across departments, improve cross-functional collaboration, and leverage scientific principles, technical skills, and Lean Six Sigma problem solving tools to measure, evaluate, and improve the productivity of leaders and teams. Divya has guided many seasoned executives, leaders, and management personnel into realizing their goals by creating a cohesive plan to reach their next level of accomplishment. She believes the key factor in leadership success is the partnerships we cultivate. She helps others to learn the exponential power in developing a thorough understanding of their business partners to build resonant relationships and a foundation of mutual trust and safety. Working with cross-functional groups, she inspires them to morph into high-performing, collaborative teams. Her technique utilizes measurable assessments, a supportive delivery method and a bit of pointed accountability that ensures the success of both leaders and professionals in the organization. Divya coaches leaders to cultivate interdependence between themselves and their internal and external stakeholders to achieve a combined mastery in connectivity and alignment through complex business and personal challenges. When people function in an environment of mutual trust, Return on Energy and Return on Investment flourish both in business and life. Divya is the recipient of Worldwide Branding VIP of the Year in 2013 as well as NAPW VIP Woman of the Year in 2014 for showing dedication, leadership, and excellence in leadership coaching. Additionally, Continental Who’s Who named her as a Pinnacle Professional in the field of coaching and consulting. As a Forbes Coaches Council Official Member, Divya is a regular contributor to Forbes. Divya is also the author of numerous leadership and entrepreneurial books. Her books include Stress Management, Mindfulness Mastery, Critical Thinking, Candid Critique, Appreciative Inquiry, Leadership and Influence, Emotional Intelligence, and her newest book, The Entrepreneur's Garden.