L&D career focus: ‘Nothing in the world will take the place of persistence’

Steve Dickson, senior learning and development manager for Seasalt Cornwall, explains how a positive outlook, a police background and an adventurous bucket list have helped him carve out his L&D career

Steve Dickson

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

Looking back, I would say I stumbled into L&D. I started at NatWest bank and after seven years, decided that it wasn’t for me. My next venture was working as a civilian in the police as part of the Criminal Justice Unit. I and others around me noticed that I had a knack for teaching and mentoring new team members. Then an opportunity to join the police training team arose and the rest is history.

In the early days, I really enjoyed the challenge of having to teach new subjects, which meant spending a lot of my own time studying the material to deliver convincing lessons. I’ll let you in on a little secret: I used to say to the police recruits: “You’ve worked really hard this morning, why don’t you have an extra 10 minutes on your coffee break?” But the truth was, I was frantically revising for my next session. At the end of the day, when I finally got back to the office, I used to say to my boss: “Every day’s like a job interview”, and that became our catchphrase. Several roles later, I’m now at Seasalt Cornwall, where I oversee all training and development for more than 1,300 employees.

 What’s been the biggest surprise about the profession?

I know it sounds like a cliché, but I am still learning new approaches every day. At the end of the day, we need to recognise that L&D is a support function, but a very important one. We develop people and by doing so we underpin the essential knowledge, skills and behaviour of a business. I genuinely believe that without L&D professionals, businesses would struggle to advance and be successful. However, as a profession we must ensure we adapt to meet the needs of the business and Covid helped us to recognise this. Performance support has become a large part of the L&D ecosystem. We need to embrace these new approaches and look for opportunities where L&D can actually move the dial.

As a profession we need to get better at measuring ROI to earn our seat at the boardroom table. I am a huge fan of the work by Nick Shackleton-Jones as part of the SOLVD group who have developed the 5Di approach. If you are an L&D professional who is struggling to know where you can have an impact, then this is a good place to start. His methodologies really help the L&D world explore new approaches to development. Don’t just be an order-taker for e-learning and one-day events; pave the way by really identifying where the issues lie and I guarantee you’ll soon be invited to more meetings where your views will be crucial to the outcome.

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

‘There’s always a way’. I’m not saying you should waste your time on trivial matters until you get your own way but if you truly believe in something or a certain approach, then keep pursuing it until you find the right way. You’ll be amazed by what lessons you learn on these journeys and how much you grow as a person. Sometimes, you may face obstacles or challenges that seem insurmountable, but don’t give up. Instead, look for creative solutions or alternative paths that can help you achieve your goal. You may discover new opportunities or perspectives that you never thought of before. By being persistent and resilient, you’ll be able to overcome any difficulties and make your vision a reality. Nothing in this world will take the place of persistence.

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

I subscribe to various broadcasts and newsletters via email and the CIPD update is a valuable source of HR-related information. However, sometimes I find it hard to absorb, process information and be creative during the busy hours of the day. That’s why I prefer podcasts and audiobooks. I spend at least two hours commuting every day and I want to make the most of that time. I find that listening to the opinions of other thought leaders in the sector really stimulates my creativity.

Inspired by others, I can combine and adapt many of the ideas to suit the needs of the business and help the team and I take a more progressive approach to our daily work. A great example of this is applying the ‘Learning in the Flow of Work’ methodologies by Bob Mosher’s ‘5 Moments of Need’.

At Seasalt Cornwall, we have had some fantastic results with the ‘Learn Retail’ programme, underpinning knowledge and skills for our store teams across the UK and supporting international growth. The focus of the programme is ensuring learning resources are available to our teams within two clicks, 10 seconds in the ‘moment of need’ and all this was inspired by listening to a podcast.

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

This is a tricky one to answer. I’m not sure if I’m the best person to tell you what the most interesting thing about me is. As I am the one writing this then I guess I would have to say that I have a lust for life. I get out of bed in the morning, put on my clothes and after that everything else I consider a bonus.

With regards to what people don’t know about me, unless you’re close to me then you won’t know that I am type 1 diabetic. Living with diabetes is not easy, but it is not impossible either. The best way I can describe living with diabetes is like doing everything in your daily life while keeping a balloon in the air. Sometimes, the balloon flies smoothly and steadily, and I feel in control and confident. Other times, the balloon wobbles and drifts, which can be overwhelming. But I never let diabetes control me and what I want to achieve from life.

Will you stay in L&D or try a new industry/profession?

Witnessing people develop and learn new knowledge and skills excites me. At a more senior and strategic level you can witness these same changes globally across a business. There aren’t many professions that can claim to have the same level of impact and that’s why my heart will always be in the L&D profession.

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

I could easily tell you my top 10 films, but choosing one of those to be my favourite film is far more challenging. It really depends on which day you ask me and how I’m feeling. Back to the Future has always been a go-to feel-good film, but my response today is going to be The Secret Life of Walter Mitty with Ben Stiller and Kristen Wiig. This is a story about a person who is at a crossroads in their life but finds peace and contentment by letting destiny take them on a journey, overcoming fears and facing challenges head on. This is a great remake of the original film from 1947.

My bucket list:

  • Walk the entire Cornish coastal path

  • Go on the Glacier Express through the Swiss Alps

  • Take a road trip through the South of France and Italy

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

During my tenure as head of a health and social care training academy, my team and I spearheaded the professional growth of employees in the social care sector. Like many educational institutions across the nation, our academy was heavily dependent on government subsidies to foster education within the sector. The funded initiative required us to elevate the skills of 50 per cent of care workers to a minimum of NVQ Level 2. Our high-quality programme not only served as a significant source of revenue but also contributed to the achievement of this national target.

However, the abrupt withdrawal of funding upon reaching the target posed a considerable challenge, as our academy was largely reliant on this financial support. This sudden shift left us in a precarious situation. Nevertheless, we bounced back to devise a new strategic plan. This plan broadened our horizons by identifying novel opportunities and diversifying our income sources, thereby fortifying our financial stability.

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

‘A little bit of luxury is better than a lot of mediocrity.’ This is a quote from Kevin McCloud, the host of Grand Designs. But don’t you agree? This quote can apply to many aspects of life. It means that it is better to have something of high quality and value, than to have a lot of something that is average or inferior. It also implies that quality is more important than quantity, and that we should not settle for less than what we deserve or aspire to.

Let’s think about this in a work setting – do things well and give the project the time it deserves. Don’t focus on quantity and settle for second rate because your best work will always have the biggest impact. For example, if you are an L&D professional, it is better to teach one lesson that inspires employees and sparks their curiosity, than to teach 10 lessons that dull their minds and discourage their learning.

By following this principle, you will not only produce better results, but also enjoy more satisfaction and fulfilment in your work. You will also earn more respect and recognition from your peers, clients and superiors. As well as developing a reputation for excellence and professionalism, this will open up more opportunities and possibilities for you.