Spotlight on…Nigel Paine

Nigel Paine, the gurus’ guru of L&D, tells us more about what matters most to him

Nigel Paine has worked in and around learning for most of his career. He started at a university extramural department and that began a lifelong enjoyment of working with adults.
He caught the technology wave in the 1980s and ran a learning technology company in Scotland which produce software, CD-ROMs and finally embraced the internet. The company had a piece of its software bundled by Apple, which was a British first at the time.

He continued in the technology vein, working for specialist schools in London and installing the first broadband networks into a number of pioneering secondary colleges. He moved on to run Science Year, that was designed to inspire young people to think about careers in science and technology and which led, in a slightly roundabout way, to his role as head of people development at the BBC.

Since leaving the BBC, he has run his own company, focusing on leadership, learning and technology and the links between them. This has taken him all around the world.

He is currently a writer, blogger, TV presenter, podcaster, workshop leader, adviser to companies large and small and thought leader in his sphere.

Why training and how did you start?

I really prefer the term learning rather than training. And it is adult learning. This has fascinated me my whole life. And I have worked in almost every facet of adult learning including: University extra mural lecturing, FE college teaching, adult education classes, as well as executive management development and corporate learning.

Along the way, I have run a learning technologies company, managed a government funded start-up and worked in large organisations.

Who or what inspires you?

The main answer to that question is people. I am still, all these years later, upset by the wasted human potential that I see everywhere in the workplace. Most companies simply don’t get it. They talk about their workforce being their greatest asset and yet make no effort to motivate them, reward them, inspire them or help them be their best. I know that engaged people work better, work harder and do great things. I also know that diverse teams who trust each other and are given autonomy can achieve miracles. But when you talk to people at work or go to visit them in their organisations, the picture they paint is anything but the creative environment that I know exists in the very best.

It is clear that the thread that joins all of this together is learning. If you’re learning, you’re engaging with new things, new ideas and new areas of competence and that always feels good. If you are left in a rut until you decide to leave, it always feels bad. So for me, learning at work is not just developing the basic skills do the job, but the main way of maintaining engagement, commitment and inspiration.

What has been your lowest moment, and what your noblest hour?

I think my lowest moment was the day that Greg Dyke resigned from the BBC. Ironically, that day I was being shadowed by a journalist for an article and Annie Garfoot – the journalist in question – and I are still good friends all these years later. At a time of intense emotion in the organisation, I was trying to remain focused on my work, and provide some kind of story for her, just as the whole of the BBC was descending in chaos all around me.

I can remember that day almost minute by minute. I also realised that as one of the senior members of staff in the BBC, I would have to step up and help the organisation through this deep trauma. The next six months was a challenge, but at the same time, incredibly stimulating as we got to grips with keeping the organisation on the road.

There are many best moments. Winning the Colin Corder award at the LPI Learning Awards in 2012 was utterly unexpected and very pleasing. And winning a European multimedia award (EMMA) was just wonderful for the team who had put that CD-ROM together in the 1990s.

I also cherish the moment during the launch of Science Year, of which I was director, when we achieved the Guinness World Record for the number of people simultaneously participating in a science experiment. We tried for one million and ended up with something over 900,000 verified participants during what we called ‘the giant jump’.

There was also a very satisfying moment in the BBC when we launched the ‘Editorial Policy’ learning programme online, and thousands of people clicked ‘play’ simultaneously. The network held up, the servers survived and we had changed the notion of what constituted e-learning in the BBC. Forever.

What and when was your career turning point?

There were lots of career turning points. Having, foolishly or not, turned down a role at the BBC when I was in my early 20s, to be given a second chance 25 years later was remarkable. I left after five years and it proved to be a massive learning curve and a tremendous experience. Working within such a huge and complex organisation and trying to change it for the better was an enormous challenge.

But I guess the turning point that I will always remember is actually being employed by someone in a real job for the first time. It was a huge relief that anyone would give me a job in which I was really interested – as an adult education tutor in Scotland.

Describe your best learning and development experience?

My whole life has really been an enormous learning and development experience. But winning a Thyne Scholarship in Scotland and being paid to visit Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the United States was not just learning, but life-changing.

What’s next in your career?

My book The Learning Challenge has been well received and I hope to be commissioned shortly to write a second one on leadership development. The idea of being a serious writer is a big career shift and one that I have enjoyed enormously, together with my work on Learning Now TV and my weekly From Scratch podcast with Martin Couzins.

I am really enjoying this transition and long may it continue.

Playing to win

I have lots of tips for success. Once you start me on this I never know when to stop, so….

1. Do what you do with integrity. I think that is the only way that you can live with yourself over the long-term. Some of the people I’ve had to work with over the years have been simply dreadful and I really have no idea how they can wake up in the morning and go to work! All the best people I know, all of the people I respect, demonstrate integrity every minute of every day.

2. Trust is one of my watchwords. I now simply will not work with people or organisations I do not trust. This has stood me in very good stead since I left the BBC at the end of 2006. High trust environments are far more productive than low trust environments and, generally, much better places to work. Trust is easy to destroy and hard to build, so therefore I value it highly. I would advise people to seek out people they can trust and working environments that respect trust.

3. Take risks, make mistakes and learn from both. I am not talking about massive risks or huge mistakes but measured risk and small mistakes. If you spend your career waiting to be told, or waiting to be invited, you will wait forever. If you get things done you will earn grudging respect. If you admit when things go wrong and accept your share of the blame, you will earn even more respect. All of my best learning came from bad judgment, error and things going wrong.

4. Find yourself a mentor. You will never get a mentor if you don’t ask. And you will be surprised how many people are prepared to do that because they enjoy it and they think it is the right thing to do. You should never feel that you entirely on your own, making terribly hard decisions with no backup or support. If you look at the biographies of very successful people, you will be surprised how many mention the debt of gratitude they owe to a mentor or two during their careers.

5. Take time to reflect. There is no one on this earth who cannot find a quiet 20 minutes to think about the day, a project or an issue. The mere process of running things through your mind gets you a long way to working out what to do. And if you can manage that regularly it is a fantastic habit to acquire, and the only way you will build your learning and your competence.


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