Our Reimagined Learning interview series shines alight 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 another insightful interview, this time with the Head of Learning, Leadership and Performance for The Very Group - Mr. Rob Peacock. I could have kept talking to Rob all day! I love everything about his approach to learning (his own and others), his career story (from Tesco, to Virgin Media, to Samsung Electronics and now the Very group) and his obvious passion for ensuring the employees in his care have the best possible learning experiences in an evermore challenging work environment.

You can check out my interview with Rob (42 mins), read a summary of the interview below (10 mins) or download the audio version HERE.

Our Reimagined Learning Questions

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

Well I’d love to be able to say that it was a leadership course or an influencing skills course that I attended way back when and that I learned loads and came out of it transformed. Wouldn’t it be great if I could say that because our lives as L&D professionals would be so much easier if that were the case. But sadly, if I was to name the top twenty learning experiences I have had over the course of my career to date then ‘traditional’ training courses wouldn’t make that list.

That’s not to say I haven’t learned a lot through attending courses because I have but I have found the most impactful learning experiences to be when I am outside my comfort zone – specifically in the ‘stretch zone’.  You know those moments where you have sweaty palms and question ‘can I actually do this?’ I would say that I have spent the past six years firmly at the outer limits of my stretch zone and it has been a tremendous learning curve for me. It has meant I have had to learn and adapt with each role I have held. Consistently challenging myself to believe that I can rise to any occasion and get the job done.  I believe that by putting yourself in uncomfortable positions is the ultimate way to learn, grow and discover what you are truly capable of.

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

Certainly my parents have had a major influence on me in terms of my career. My mother instilled a strong belief that it is always possible for you to improve yourself. And then of course there is my father who left the army in his early forties and proceeded to build a brand new career for himself. I remember him throwing himself into building a network, he got a career coach and had a professional look at his CV. He threw himself into opportunities, and was such an inspiration at the time. He built a very successful career for himself, between the ages of 43 and 65.  I know that I am very fortunate to have had the upbringing I had. I've always felt that I've had that support and those inspiring role models, which in turn has enabled me to be brave and to take risks in my own career.

I must also mention my current boss, Vicky Ferrier. She's a great person, inspirational, warm, and from a learning perspective she's insatiably curious, always reading, always learning. She really is a true lifelong learner. She's always got, not just a view on things, but a contact, or a resource, or a model to share. Until I met Vicky I hadn't quite realised the impact of what it's like to have a boss that has that insatiable curiosity, that always wants to learn. And because of her the last six months have been one of the richest learning experiences of my career.

And, if I can mention one more person it would be Hayley Kingdom, who is now HR director at Burton's Biscuits. Hayley attended a leadership training course I was delivering when I worked at Tesco as a HR Manager.   After that training she asked me "What are you doing as an HR manager?" and then told me, "You've got real skills and talent in doing this, and I can see you're passionate about it. Why don't you do this?" Within two weeks I moved into a Learning & Development role and I haven’t looked back since. Hayley was a key influence in terms of the impact of a really strong manager spotting potential in me.

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? 

I'd have to say I was a bit of a slow starter to be honest with you. And I would've been oblivious to advice at the time, so I'd say there's no point in giving my younger self advice. But to honour the integrity of the question I do look back at times and think to myself what was I doing with all the free time I had in my twenties? When I look at everything I pack into a day now - being a father of three kids, full-time job, playing an active part in my community and making time to stay fit. I would say to my younger self “just spend an hour a day learning something that you're passionate about. Don't make it a chore. - focus on what interests you most. Make use of the free time that you have because it won’t always be like that .”

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

There is one lesson that stands out and that is sometimes you will go through times in your career when everything is just brilliant. I'm going through that right now, in terms of the company I’m working for, my boss and the way that we're making progress with our agenda at the Very Group. We've had a phenomenal year through lockdown and experienced incredible growth. Everything is fantastic. I also recognise this isn't a continual forward trajectory.

There isn't a single role I've done where, at some point, I have felt like I've been failing. So just the ability to be grateful for your highs and graceful with your lows because neither lasts. So if you are reading this and going through a tough time at work just know that it’s a temporary situation – it will pass and there is a new high waiting for you just around the corner.

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

I can answer this without hesitation and it’s that I have built my career on my strengths. I like the analogy of a sail boat. If you've got a hole in the boat, the boat's going to sink. If you plug the hole, the boat won't sink, but it's not going to move forward either. What drives the boat forward are the sails and in this analogy the sails are your strengths and the hole in the boat are your weaknesses.

You absolutely might need to fill the odd hole because nobody wants to sink, right? But the sails are what will really propel you forward.This is a mindset that has really stayed with me. I know what my strengths are, I know what I'm really good at, and I capitalise on those. I bring my strengths into play every single day, and I continue to get better at them.

At the risk of embarrassing you, because you've talked about your strengths. I'd love to know, what do you think are the strengths that you really stand out for?

I think I've got great creative ability; I can build a really compelling vision and inspire people to follow me on that vision. I am also able to generate excitement around the journey that we're going on as a business. It helps that I understand people really well and part of that is because relationships are important to me. Although I'm naturally quite shy (I describe myself as a shy extrovert) I have always had a genuine interest in people; I like to take time to get to know them and understand their point of view.  When you mix those strengths together it makes for a powerful combination so in summary I would say my creative ability, creating a compelling vision and understanding people.

What do you think are the biggest challenges facing employees today, particularly when it comes to their professional development?

I would love to give you a different answer, and I could talk on this topic all day, but I'm going to say “time”. I've been in and around big businesses now for over ten years. I've seen companies increasingly downsize and streamline to the point where they couldn’t possibly get any leaner but they continue to demand more and more from their people. So the biggest challenge facing employees today when it comes to their professional development is most definitely time.

I'm a big fan of the work the Energy Project do. They are an American company that look at wellbeing but from the perspective of corporations in the world today and they're very realistic. They talk about the current situation where we're being increasingly asked to do more for less. And, for me, this is where our skill as learning and development professionals comes in. Because if learning is seen as something that people should get to “when there's time”, they will never ever get to it.

We just don’t want to be in the space of chasing people, knocking them over the head (metaphorically of course) saying "Come and look at our LMS, there's some great content, come on this course. Let's do a league table etc. etc. etc.” That approach basically means L&D are too far removed from the realities of the business when instead we need to be front and centre of where our people are facing problems and be part of the solution.

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

I absolutely love technology. I remember, going back to my Virgin Media days, where there was this obsession with virtual reality and online learning -  there was all this wonderful, clever stuff. I had a lot of fun with all of it. I thought it was absolutely brilliant. But then you stop and ask yourself the question - “People are having fun doing this but is anyone learning anything?”

I think where we're getting a lot better as an industry in parking the clever stuff for the sake of it being clever, and focusing on what really matters. So to give you an example, I spoke to a bot company a couple of weeks ago and I believe this technology has the capability to take learning to the heart of the workplace.

So in terms of technology and the future of learning, I absolutely believe that there's an opportunity to develop technology that supports people in the moment they need help. And one of the pillars of the Very Groups learning strategy is called 'This very moment'. We’re looking to do exactly that, bring people learning experiences at the moment they need them. And the purpose of that is not to grow our learning stats, the purpose is to free up people's time so that they can think more clearly and  feel better. So they can live better lives and spend more time with families and less time at work.

I think that's where we are with Learning & Development and, technology has got a key part to play. Essentially bringing learning into the very moment it's needed,  into the heart of the workplace because it improves people's lives and their work experiences.

What you think is the most innovative way for people to learn from one another?

I think when it comes to learning from others that we haven’t yet cracked the simple, brilliant basics. I also think there's a real mindset shift required for employees to understand how and when they are learning i.e. you don’t have to attend a course to be learning and that we are all learning all the time. That if you don't know how to do something, and you find a way, that's also learning.

When you connect people to that fact, they then start to automatically realise that learning is really important and that then opens them up to think, "Well, how do I get to know what I don't know. Wow, I've got all these colleagues sat around me in virtual space, I want to connect to and learn from them”.

I have a recent personal example of this. I've been very lucky at Very in that I was given the space by Vicky, and Sarah Willett, our Chief People Officer, to really take the time to get to know the business. I spent that time with people in the business, understanding it, asking questions, and really getting a feel for the company.

But I also spent time reaching out to other heads of L&D and L&D professionals. I had some brilliant conversations with some absolutely amazing people, and I learned so much from each and everyone one of them. And that's a very simple idea that whatever profession you're in, have a look at other competitors, other companies, people in different areas. Reach out to them because every single person I reached out to said, "I'd love to talk to you." And actually, in every conversation  there was a flow of information being exchanged.

So to come back to your question I don't think innovation is what is needed here. I think it's connecting people to the fact they're always learning, and encouraging employees to reach out and connect to other people.

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

What I've seen consistently for years now is a slight disconnect between learning topics and the daily realities of the business. To be truly useful to an individual, any learning has to be directly applicable in the workplace. Everyone in Learning & Development knows that, but sometimes that's slightly misconstrued.

Let’s look at a simple example of a learning need like presentation skills. Any solution for presentation skills needs to be absolutely built from within, beginning within. Considering what templates do we use internally, who are our audiences in terms of who you present to? What's the preferred way of presenting at the Very group, or Samsung, or Virgin Media, or whatever company you're working for? And once you've got all of that, then you can start to think about solutions. Whereas what I've seen is  businesses starting from the skill of presenting and then they tag a few things on. It has to be an inside out approach for it to really work.

Another great example around this relates to well-being and productivity. I've led and built multiple wellbeing and productivity initiatives. I've been doing it for years. However, if I'm being honest, I now look back and think, "Well, a lot of those were not very impactful." And the reason they weren't impactful is because people go away and learn tools & techniques, and have a good time attending the training. Everyone is really happy, and heads back to the workplace. But the system in which they operate hasn't changed, doesn’t enable the wellbeing or the productivity.

To address the Very Group actively invests in having a systemic approach where we first consider - what is it about wellness that stops and inhibits productivity in our business?  Then we get under the skin of the challenge of that so we have consistency of approach. And then when we've got that, we start to think about the learning tools that we can build on top.

At the end of the day I don't think we need more topics, I think there's probably enough. In my opinion it's more about needing to think about how we effectively land these existing key topics in our businesses.

And last but not least what are your professional goals and aspirations?

Well the first thing is I'm very well connected to what I'm here to do at Very Group right now and  my role excites me every single day. I don't yet have all the knowledge that I need to land everything I need to do here and that future learning journey is really exciting for me too. I've arrived in a business where from the minute I got here I felt at home - in terms of the people, the business and the culture. So, it's quite difficult for me to see beyond this right now, but what I do know is that I'm really passionate about personal growth and there will obviously come a point where I'll be looking to do something else.

But I've always taken the approach that I'm guided by wisdom “in the moment”. So rather than having a 5, 10, 15 or 20 year career plan, I prefer to take the approach to stretch myself in the moment whilst also remaining open to opportunities that come my way and luckily there are loads of opportunities for me at Very.

I also like to be mindful of my direction of travel. So for me it's like I have a compass, but I don't have a map. I can't say exactly what I'm going to do, but I can tell you with confidence the direction I’m heading.

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