Sharing some of the experiences that helped shape my personal philosophy around learning and discuss how a focus on measurement and effective upskilling is helping us further our culture of creative excellence at Foster + Partners.
One of my earliest roles was as a manager at the Wembley branch of a high-street sports store. Funnily enough, Wembley Stadium has been redesigned by Foster + Partners since its days as my old stomping ground, but at the time the area was pretty rough and ready - and so was the store itself. There were plenty of good people there, but they weren’t empowered to make their own decisions, which was having a knock-on effect on the store’s overall profitability. With my brand of structure and discipline, I brought everyone together to make changes as a team – and it worked. I was moved from store to store in various unpleasant areas of London to help them perform at the expected level. Then,one day the CEO came down from Manchester to pay us a visit. Impressed at the tight ship we were running, he asked me where I wanted to be in the business. I said that I’d heard there was a vacancy in the training team, got a call three days later, and the rest, as they say, is history.
I started out training people in how to use electronic point-of-sale systems, but soon started to feel that we could be doing more. I asked, “Shouldn’t we be training supervisors and managers on how to manage people more effectively?”. To my surprise, I was met with disinterest and pushback. And so, I decided to take charge of my own education. I went and got my Certificate of Training Practice (CTP), then became Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) qualified - all off my own back.
I often think back to this moment as a sacred, pivotal step in my journey. I was hungry to learn, and to empower others to do the same - but I was told “We don’t have time for that”. Many would have been discouraged. But this objection forced me to think about what I could do to ensure my own development. It lit a fire in me that would come to define my personal philosophy around learning and development, something I’m still refining to this day. My belief in the power of upskilling started right there.
"Life drawing, while therapeutic, facilitates the creative process and helps our architects hone their drawing skills in an unfamiliar setting."
But what does it mean to upskill people effectively? Since those early days in retail training, through a rewarding period spent making an impact through behavioural training at a major news network, looking for the answer to this question has been my mission and purpose – and at Foster + Partners, I think I may have finally found it.
A new challenge
When I was brought in by Charlotte Sword, our Global HR director, there was no formalised training. Setting up our L&D department was like being given a blank sheet of paper.
How things have changed in seven short years. Charlotte and I have a wonderful partnership; our shared vision and values have contributed to a significant shift in culture and organisational development. We are now a six-strong L&D team (22 overall in HR), responsible for championing our own formal education programme, the development of behavioural skills and some exceptional technical training. With support from some phenomenal external providers, we have hundreds of learning touchpoints available to our people.
In the UK, registered architects are required to complete 35 hours of continuous professional development each year. In some ways, this makes my job easier, in that I don’t have to ‘push’ learning as such. But it is also a welcome challenge. Like many professional services, architecture can be intense with deadlines and working across multiple time zones means we need to provide relevant, bespoke, and focused content to our people. The work my team does has to be relevant and performance-focused: delivering outcomes and facilitating an outlook on learning appropriate to Foster + Partners.
What learning looks like for us
Foster + Partners is a world-leading design Practice with a culture of excellence. This has an impact on the kind of learning that matters to us. In terms of learning, our people want to be highly educated and technically brilliant with well-sharpened behavioural skills. Seeking this wonderful combination has led to us taking a three-pronged approach to learning.With our core curriculum, we’re formally qualifying our architects internally – which is quite rare in the industry. We’re training them on bespoke technical skills to be more efficient with the tools in their role and underpinning everything with the behavioural focus needed to really grow in their role.
Anyone studying L&D will know the four phases to delivering effective learning: analysis, design, delivery, and evaluation. I like to think of this as it applies not just to programmes, but to individuals. In recent years, my conversations with external providers have revolved around how best to accurately measure people’s skills.I believe that the answer lies in assessing people effectively, on specific skills, then redirect existing content towards the individual where they need it. Again, this isn’t a conversation many tech companies are having yet.
"Foster + Partners is built on a culture of excellence and pushing the boundaries design and innovation. This mindset is also evident in our approach to learning"
LinkedIn have a self-assessment tool people can use on their platform. To me, this is the missing piece of the puzzle. We take it a bit further, and assign people tests and quizzes to help us benchmark their technical skills, always ensuring that they understand why we are pushing for development in certain areas. If expert-level knowledge of Excel is an important part of a person’s role at Foster + Partners and they are currently sat at 67% proficiency, we won’t make them go on a generic one-day Excel course. Instead, we will serve them six three-minute videos that teach them exactly what they need to know. We can then introduce further assessment steps, whatever the person needs to get them to 100%. I can’t overstate what an evolution this is in the world of L&D. Innovation provides the solution – plus, it’s largely self-sufficient. This technology is currently being developed within LinkedIn Learning – I can’t wait.
Along with the more obvious behavioural skills, we offer a range of classes from languages to life drawing to origami.There is a deep consideration to this approach. Life drawing, while therapeutic, facilitates the creative process and helps our architects hone their drawing skills in an unfamiliar setting. Language classes help them perform better in a global market. We also offer terrarium building classes – in fact, I have one on my desk! Again, while therapeutic, these classes are about enhancing design and creativity; an increasingly important facet of who we are as a business. This doesn’t just apply to our architect colleagues - there are transferable skills that work for everyone. And, on a particularly good day, we might even uncover some hidden talents.
A culture of excellence
Foster + Partners is built on a culture of excellence and pushing the boundaries design and innovation.This mindset is also evident in our approach to learning. We don’t just bring external providers in and let them loose on our people; we set trial runs with myself and my team. If they are amazing, we bring them in – often as a partner for life.
Our people are incredibly ambitious: hungry to learn, develop and remain the best in their field. This hunger, in some ways, makes my job a bit easier. Sometimes my challenge is simply meeting demand!Ultimately, my role is to facilitate effective, well-rounded learning by any means necessary. I sometimes get asked for incredibly weird things - someone once asked me to get them into a conference in dentistry! It turns out that in dentistry they had created 3D printing software that uses resin to create intricate 3D models, perfect for our business. I may have questions, but rarely say “No”. Why would you block learning?
I often think back to those early experiences in retail some twenty years ago.I had the drive to learn and develop, but I needed someone to say “Yes” and give me the skills, ability, knowledge and bandwidth to help me get there. As L&D professionals, I think we all have a responsibility to be that champion for our people.