Our Reimagined Learning interview series shines a light on thought leaders, innovators and role-models in the Learning & Development and Human Resources fields.

At Dee is for Digital we’re always in search of the next big idea. We want to bring you new ways to learn, and help your own learning curve by connecting with others who are doing amazing things. This week we have a man that is making waves as Head of Learning & Development for Inception Group based in England- Jonathan Napier!

A passionate and driven learning professional Jonathan generously gives us a glimpse of the people challenges faced in the hospitality industry over the past 12 months and the most impactful lessons gleaned from his inspiring career. You can check watch my interview with Jonathan below (34 mins), read a summary of the interview below (10 mins) or download the audio version HERE - whichever floats your boat.

Get to Know Jonathan

What was your very first job?

If you don't count my paper-round that I did on Sundays - it was working for McDonalds.

When you're not working how do you like to spend your time?

I'm a busy father of four so I don't have a lot of free time but in the time I do have I am involved with the Scouts Movement and spending time revising for my CIPD 7 exams.

What's one thing you're excited about that's coming up in 2021?

Well I am going on holiday next week (a staycation in Cornwall) and from a work perspective I am excited that all our teams have now returned to work.

What was your favourite subject in school?


What's the first career you dreamed of having as a kid?

A motorbike paramedic.

What's one thing about you that surprises people?

I always get a similar reaction when I say I have four children i.e. 'are you mad'?

If you could instantly become an expert in something, what would it be?

I've always liked the idea of being able to make things more than know things. I'd love to know how to be a blacksmith or a glassblower overnight and not have to spend years learning.

What's the best piece of advice you've ever been given?

Don't email angry.

What is your biggest professional pet peeve?

Again email related i.e. the use of 'reply all'.

If you had to choose only 3 adjectives to describe yourself which would you choose?

Fun, easy-going and honest.

Our Reimagined Learning Questions

What has been the most impactful learning experience you have had in your career to date?

I think the most impactful learning experience was my progression to management within the hospitality industry. So I've been through three career paths, this is the most recent one, the one I'm still on, thankfully.  I started out as a supervisor in a bar, and I was adopted onto a management training program with a company called Inventive Leisure who operate Vodka Revolution. They've got a chain of vodka bars up and down the United Kingdom. The level of investment that was applied into young hospitality professionals was incredible. At the time, and still now, the industry is looked at as a low skilled industry, something I'm incredibly passionate about dispelling and disparaging. But they sent me on residential courses around planning and the Seven Habits of Highly Effective People which is still one of the most powerful learning programs I've done. It was incredibly impactful. And the general managers I worked under sent me to various sites, to experience different customer models in different business locations. I was just amazed, it was such a well-structured program that took anything from 6 to 18 months to complete. Importantly, there was no pressure, you didn't feel you were stupid if it took longer to complete. The whole goal for them was to develop great well-rounded managers that they could send anywhere. So it was definitely a win-win for both parties.

Who is the person who has had the most positive impact on your career from a learning perspective and why?

It was an organisational leader that really helped me understand how people learn and how you can help people learn. His name is Adam, he was a general manager I worked with for many years, and he would never just tell you the answer to a question. He would never take what you were asking him and just complete it for you. He'd always ask the question, "How far have you gotten with it?" Which would sort of stump me sometimes, and I'd say, "Well, I haven't done anything because I'm waiting for you to help me." He would respond to that with "Get to the point where you're stuck and then come back to me". And if you did that he would give you unlimited time and resources, but you would have to get to that point first, otherwise, it was just, "No, go away you haven't tried hard enough". So he was incredibly inspiring. We're still friends now, I'm very pleased to say. But, yeah, he was great, he showed me what a great leader can do with their people.

If you could go back in time, what is the one piece of advice you would want to tell your younger self in hopes that it would positively affect your career? 

There's always this element of you should have no regrets and that idea that I am where I am now and who I am now is because of everything that's happened, so should I change any of it? I do often look back at my younger self and think, "I wish I'd spent more time on myself, developing myself." But, yeah, I think the main piece of advice would be, get more sleep.  In the hospitality industry it's tough - the late nights and things that are par for the course. I think understanding the importance of your physical and mental state is essential. Thankfully it is being spoken about so much more now and hopefully we'll continue to do so. But certainly 10, 15 years ago, it was a case of, "Just get on with it," and I think having more focus on the mental state of people especially in the hospitality sector, with the things that are available to you night and day, would have been a massive help.

What key lesson did you take from the more challenging times during your career?

Well the last year has been incredibly challenging and it maybe a bit of a cliche at this point given everyone has been through the same thing. That said, I think there's something in that though, that we've all had to get through it in some way. The most challenging element for me was what to do when there's nothing to do. We all crave time off or can't wait for a holiday, things like that, but certainly I spent almost an entire year on furlough, and it wasn't a holiday at all, it was a challenging mental roller coaster of, "what do you do to keep yourself sane?" So I made the decision at the very start of the pandemic, thankfully, to start investing in myself, and I began studying for my CIPD Level 7. That was a huge help. Without that as a focus, it would have been very easy to get lost. I know friends who started drinking more, who developed health problems, all sorts. So yeah, the absence of anything else was incredibly difficult to feel and overcome.

Tell us a little bit about why you chose to do CIPD 7 and what you hope to get from it?

Okay, so there's sort of two separate answers to that. One is a personal element, which is having dropped out of college and not gone to university- I've been one of these people who is determined to demonstrate that academia isn't the only route to success. I have an amazing job. I'm very proud of where I am. I work with incredible people, and I'm lucky enough to learn all the time, and get to talk to people about my experiences. So there's an element of personal pride, wanting to prove something.

But the other side of it is that so much of what we do is now a hybrid workplace between HR and operations. You make decisions on a daily basis that affect, depending on the size of the organisation, hundreds or thousands of people, and there's a huge responsibility that comes with that. I think it was important for me to be able to back up my own decisions, my own thought processes, and it's good to validate that you are on the right track.

I think when you are the head of an organisation or a department, or a senior person within that team, you get a lot less feedback, you get a lot less people challenging your decisions because you're expected to make the right ones all the time. So I think it is challenging but I also think it's a fantastic way of making sure you're on the right track, and making sure you're using the right models, or the right thought processes. I would say to anyone thinking to do the CIPD Level 7 - it's tough. I definitely jumped in at the deep end but luckily I'm a strong swimmer. However, whatever level you start at, I think the biggest benefit I find is the community you join. There are tens of thousands of people in the CIPD community, and they all just want to help. So it's an amazing community to be part of. If you have any questions, there's no one making you feel bad. If you don't know the answer, you can say,"Sorry, this is happening, can anyone give me some advice?" that's fantastic.

And I think, so the obvious question after this would be, four children, a full-time job, and CIPD 7 - how do you organise  time to study?

Well, there's a huge benefit to being able to organise my own time, that's definitely something. I wouldn't be able to do this, if I was being told what time to come to the office. That being said, I'm much more operational these days due to the pandemic taking away a number of personnel. So the short answer is I work mostly nights. I do the school run in the morning, and then with the bit in between, I study when I can. So it's kind of just eat, sleep, study, work repeat.

What is the most important skill or behaviour you have learned that has been essential in getting you where you are today?

Patience. II was terrible, and still am, for just opening my mouth and saying, and doing without thinking first. I like action, but I think stopping and listening to other people and taking time before you respond, or just asking, "Do you mind if I come back to you tomorrow? Do you mind if I think about that?" that's something I think we all should try and do more. We're always under pressure to come up with an answer now, or to agree to something, or get it done, or sign it off right away. But it's okay to say, "Do you mind if I come back to you later on that?" or, "When do you need to know this by?" or, "Can I have 10 minutes?" even. Patience in everything.

What are the biggest challenges facing employees today when it comes to their professional development? 

The very honest answer to this is I think our company culture has suffered massively during the pandemic. When it came to reopening the venues, we weren't able to get the green light from the government and then just go back to normal overnight. The impact of the pandemic meant , like many companies, that costs were tighter than they were before. So it wasn't just a case of, "Okay, you can open again " and everything will be as it was before. Teams were smaller, things like training were focused on the most necessary topics like Compliance. We had to focus on the must-haves rather than the nice-to-haves. So the culture of the company has been hugely affected, it's been forced to run on a very lean basis.

I know that has had a huge impact on the way our teams are returning to work, it's not the company they were furloughed from. Yet in some respects, there's been some great learning points and opportunities to take from that experience. Hard decisions that we would never have made if we weren't faced with these kind of dire circumstances. And hopefully we'll take some of those forward, things like decentralised decision-making, and distributing more responsibilities to our unit managers, those things are hugely positive changes that we've had great feedback from already. But I think the greatest change or the greatest challenge for our teams coming back is, I guess, rediscovering what our company is, who it is. It doesn't need to be completely different, but I think it would be sort of disingenuous to say it's the good-old sort of Inception Group of old, it definitely needs to be Inception 2.0.

How do you see your profession changing as technology advances or changes over time? 

Technology advancements around L&D have been massive throughout my own career, going from folders and textbooks, to the digitisation of learning and the increase in accessibility. A huge part for us at Inception Group was handling learning in foreign languages and the need for content to be translated. Two thirds of our workforce were from the EU so supporting our non-English speaking staff, or those for whom English is not their first language, digital platforms allowed us to translate training materials very, very quickly. This then enabled us to share information with the whole team and it really equalises things. I remember when I was a bartender, if you couldn't speak English you were only offered a job as a bar-back It' was incredibly difficult for anyone from another country to make it in that sector. Now you look around, and there are bartenders from all over the world, and they're fantastic. They bring  experience, knowledge and their cultures into our menus. I think a lot of that has been made possible by the advancements in technology in learning and development.

What do you think is one of the most innovative ways for people to learn from one another? 

In our context you learn a lot through doing and we've always applied and benefited from the idea of a buddy system. From day one, you're always attached to one of the leaders, bar supervisors, or head bartender. You spend your first month with that person, you essentially become their shadow. For our newly recruited managers shadowing an experienced manager also gives then visibility of how, when and why decisions are made. Plus, in the hospitality world jobs are very physical - they are not typically desk jobs - so the best learning experiences are through watching others do and getting a chance to do it yourself.

Is the mentor program that you have designed part of the shadowing program?

Yes, with a bit of a mix. You are placed with a mentor, typically your unit manager or one of the managers on the site. There are also other people you can spend time with, myself, as head of the Learning and Development Department, or  experts we have at our fingertips. There are group bars managers of the most highly sought after venues in the world, making incredible menus - it's a real privilege to have access to that kind of expertise and knowledge. And not forgetting our brand partners, the people we work with in the drinks industry.

There are also academic components because we want people to be able to understand the financial information they're reading. It's not enough to receive a P&L and be able to read it. I believe it's important to understand how margins are reached and why decisions affect your business financially. The financial elements of the program tend to be taught in the classroom.

Essentially we tend to amalgamate a number of different learning styles. I think that's important because certainly having worked in finance and  retail before that, in the hospitality industry I've encountered the largest diversity of learning styles. So whilst at times it can be easy to default to a sending people on courses, you can't always default to that, you've got to make the learning as accessible as possible.

What are some of your favourite topics that you would like companies to include (or see more of) in their L&D programs?

We ran an incredible Sleep Workshop which also covered aspects of nutrition. It was great for the team to realise the importance of sleep and what it does to your brain,  how it affects your mood and your mental ability, and therefore your physical ability. It was incredibly insightful, and our teams  really got behind it and very much enjoyed it. Because sometimes there is that sort of element of pride in saying "Oh, I only got four hours sleep" or "I worked 90 hours." As much as that thinking is old fashioned now, and thankfully the younger generations don't think working those kinds of hours are as cool as we did. The sleep workshop was incredible.  I think that it's something that translates to every industry. Where I work in the city, we're constantly overhearing conversations of traders and legal teams working more hours than we do, and being expected to. So I certainly think that a focus on employee health and wellbeing would be something I'd like to see much more of.

What are your thoughts on the future of learning in your field/industry? 

I think that the future of L&D, certainly in my field, will involve an amalgamation of Operations and L&D, or Operations and HR.  I've always found it ironic that the people profession has only more recently been adopted into hospitality, which is at its heart a people profession. It seems crazy that those two things have avoided each other for so long. And I think that's maybe more to do with the more traditional ideals around what HR used to do and what the hospitality industry does. It's a massively positive amalgamation of professions, and you've only got to look at the most successful groups out there, and you'll see that they have either a strong HR presence on their board of directors or a people division within them. I think that that would bode a hugely positive future for our industry, if the operations and people side amalgamated, so that employees AND the businesses benefit from both sides of the coin.

And last but not least what's next for you career-wise?

I've still got a way to go but I would very much like to reach a senior level in this field. So at some point in the future, I'd like to be responsible for all people within an organisation. I've spent the last 10 years working for smaller organisations and I'd like to maybe go back to the larger ones to see if I can have a similar impact. That's definitely a question I'd like to investigate and find out. I started out working for McDonald's and then went to work for Lloyd's TSB at the time, Lloyd's bank, both huge companies, before then going to work for a relatively small hospitality chain, my own single venue, and then most recently Inception Group, which has 11. So at some point in the future I'd like to move back into a larger organisation and have overall responsibility for the people within that.

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