L&D career focus: ‘Most people who have spent time training are doing a bit of acting already’

Jeff Wren, head of learning and development for Essex Cares Limited (ECL), shares his secret desire for performing and why he would like to give those that think the L&D profession is ‘easy’ a stern talking to

Did you deliberately choose L&D as a career or did you fall into it?

Like many people in our profession, I started somewhere quite different. My first roles were all in finance (insurance and banking) before working in the tax department of Coutts & Co. From there I moved to a big five accountancy firm and did my tax qualification. While there I became engaged in training new joiners in the wild and wacky world of taxation, filling in tax returns, calculating liabilities, appeals etc. I found I enjoyed training others more than doing the job myself and asked to do more of it. They felt they couldn’t spare me from my day job, so I moved to another firm just so that I could train staff full time. Still in tax though! Things were a little more planned in my L&D career from there, moving into management and leadership development within the same firm before taking global roles in investment banking and consultancy then roles in local government and now care. These last moves were driven by two needs; one was to work more for the benefit of our communities and the other was to spend more time with my family.

What’s been the biggest surprise about the profession?

I’ve been in it for so long that I haven’t been surprised for a while, but it still astonishes me how many people who have never been actively involved in the profession believe that it is really simple and easy, something anyone can do. Oh, and e-learning is the answer – doesn’t matter what the question is. This is pushed by managers wanting to save staff time, finance wanting to save money and suppliers with products to push. Training isn’t always the answer to a problem and e-learning is even less so.

What is one piece of learning that you have picked up that stays with you?

There are no right answers. Too many people make a living out of telling you what the right answer is. Work with your customers, the people who will ultimately be learning, not just the person paying you or commissioning the work. Find out what they need (and want), what works for them and involve them in getting to the nub of any issues and finding the best solutions for them. If you’ve ever been involved in providing remote learning to mobile staff whose only access is a mobile phone, you’ll understand why you need to know how they work and not roll out some standard approach.

What is your regular go-to resource to stay on top of the latest learning news?

Definitely my network. People I have connected with around the world, some in person, but many virtually, with Twitter being key to that. Although it is becoming more difficult due to changes in the platform leading to people leaving and dispersing more. Make sure that you are hearing a variety of views, echo chambers are easy to fall into.

What’s the most interesting thing about you and what do people not know about you?

Interesting is in the eye of the beholder, but I guess when I was teaching tax and being filmed for a day giving tax advice to staff at Unilever in Wigan for money – one of the first programmes broadcast on Channel 4 when it went live – might qualify. That whole day ended up as about 10 seconds on screen.

If you could do any other job or profession, what would you do?

When I was young I always wanted to be a professional sportsman. Now, I’d love to try my hand at acting in a film. I have a feeling that most people who have spent a fair amount of time training or presenting are doing a bit of acting already.

What’s your favourite film and can you tell us three things on your bucket list?

Groundhog Day. A film I can watch over and over, which is probably the opposite of ironic. When it comes to a bucket list; I’ve travelled pretty extensively over the years but there are still so many places I’d love to visit including extended road trips in RVs/camper vans across Europe and North America (USA and Canada). I’ve already mentioned acting and appearing in a film and seeing myself on a big screen would be fun. Finally, becoming a grandad and looking after grandchildren, spoiling them in a way their parents wouldn’t want and sharing all the naughty things that their mum or dad got up to when they were little. That’s what grandads are for, right?

What’s been your worst day at work and how did you overcome it?

Difficult question. I can think of several. Being made redundant from Arthur Andersen was pretty bad because I felt that I was really making a difference and doing good work and it failed because of a small number of people doing illegal things in another country, which was completely out of my control. But if I had to choose just one it would be a Saturday working on a global project for a major consultancy company where I left work around 5:00pm to meet my wife for our wedding anniversary and went back to work all night afterwards. I don’t think I realised before that night the effect that the demands being placed on me were having on myself and my family, but I knew that evening that I needed to make big changes to my life.

What’s the biggest piece of advice you would give to someone entering the profession?

Be yourself, everyone else is already taken. Don’t try to be something because other people expect it of you. Know your principles, set boundaries and hold to them, if you let them slip they are no longer principles.