Spotlight on…Sarah Lindsell

Technology is at the core of what Sarah Lindsell is doing at PwC. Here she tells us about her journey.

From the moment, nearly 20 years ago, when Sarah Lindsell saw the possibility of using technology to change the way we learn, she has not stopped exploring the possibilities. She is now a recognised leader in the field of digital learning with a reputation for strategic and innovative thinking. Over the years, she has worked in all areas of learning technology – strategy, design, production and implementation – delivering high impact and highly practical solutions that have driven PwC’s exponential growth in digital learning and helped maximise performance.

As the Global & UK Director of Digital Learning and Learning Strategies at PwC, Lindsell is responsible for the global learning architecture, R&D and the transformation of learning and development through technology. Leading both a global and a UK team, she has a unique perspective on the challenges of bringing learning closer to work for the 200,000 employees at PwC. By establishing global processes and methodologies, she has driven the reduction of development time down by more than 40 per cent while keeping the focus firmly on quality and innovation. With the implementation of PwC’s mobile learning platform, she is addressing the changing desires of learners today and through the creation of the Digital Learning Academy at PwC, she is changing the skill sets of learning professionals so that they can design solutions that meet both the needs of the business and the expectations of learners today.

Over her career, she has been nominated for many awards for her work. She is especially proud of being shortlisted for an outstanding contribution to the training industry award in 2003, winning Gold at Brandon Hall in 2012 for best internal team and, in 2014, winning gold for Learning Team of the Year at the Learning Awards from the LPI.

Why training and how did you start?

Interesting question, it is not where I thought my career would go. I started working in a marketing department of a scientific and reference publisher and then applied for a job working in project management and administration for a firm of Chartered Accountants and from there my passion for all things learning really started. From organising events all over the UK I got interested in facilitation and designing training and started to learn my craft. I joined what was then Price Waterhouse as a project manager and soon got involved in designing learning. Then technology entered the picture and the rest is history.

Who or what inspires you?

I am inspired by many things. People inspire me. I’m drawn towards people who have a passion for what they are doing and love their work, whatever it may be and whatever they are doing. Also, my family and my friends. The sacrifices they have made for me along the way, their support and their love inspires me each day.

Places inspire me, being in a global role and getting to travel has really influenced me, it has enabled me to join the dots and make connections and friendships that I otherwise would not have had and that’s been invaluable.

Risk inspires me, being prepared to take one, starting something that I’m not sure how it will turn out, seeing people do extraordinary things or experimenting gets my creativity flowing.

Quiet time inspires me, some of my best ideas come to me in the shower, which may explain why there is never any hot water in my house, or in the middle of the night when I can’t sleep.

Conversation inspires me, taking time out to have a conversation or gathering people together to solve a problem and make a plan.

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

I think many people will have had the perfect storm on a project when it seems that just about everything that can go wrong has gone wrong but for me the lowest moment was taking a large team I’d had a strong hand in building and leading and have to downsize it to only five people. I found out a lot about myself during that time. The lessons I learnt about ‘why’ we ended up in that position guide some decisions I make even today. On reflection one of my biggest learning experiences.

My noblest hour, I would say was winning Best Learning Team on both sides of the Atlantic, from Brandon Hall in the USA and the Learning and Performance Institute in the UK. I have had the honour of working with some amazing people during my career at PwC and the team I have around me at the moment is truly outstanding. They each have unique qualities and talents and I have the privilege of leading them.

What and when was your career turning point?

The reason I’m here today is because I went to a managers meeting nearly 20 years ago when Paula Young, who was then the head of the Multimedia Unit and now is Global Head of Knowledge Services at PwC, presented a piece that she had developed for the UK Board. Something just clicked for me and I left that meeting with my mind spinning. I was designing a one-day course at the time and just thought this could be the ‘thing’ that I needed. I remember clearly pitching my idea to her and the pair of us presenting it to the partner. After a successful meeting I asked how quickly they could get it done. Then came the words: “well if you want to get it done you are going to need to do it yourself, there are only a few of us and we are all busy”. I thought, ok how hard can this stuff be? So young and naive! But I did it, learnt things that I never thought I’d learn, got to work with outstanding people and never left.

Describe your best learning and development experience?

[pullquote]I am a living example of learning on the job. All my best learning experiences have been in the 70 per cent[/pullquote]. The project that really shaped me was as the project manager on a programme called In$ider. It was back in the days of CD-ROMs and was, in fact, a blended solution before ‘blended’ as a term was even being used. It was four, four-hour games-based CDs, followed by a one-day academy and performance support that was built into the CDs as a reference post completion. We pushed the envelope on everything, games design for learning, interactivity, learning theory and storytelling. We had a story with a plot line that started at disc one and finished only when you completed the fourth disc. There were cliff-hangers at the end of each disc. 3D rendered scenes of the virtual world we built and you even got fired in the middle of it all!

To make sure I knew what I was talking about, and to build credibility as the project manager, I learnt how to use Macromedia Director which was the chosen authoring tool. We used a rapid development approach and developed the first and then the remaining three concurrently. It was where I honed my skills in software project management, risk management and learnt the power of being able to sell to the business and speak their language. I managed four separate teams, some in-house, some external, through good times and bad. I can honestly say it taught me there is not a problem you can’t solve given time, creative thinking and the odd slice of pizza at one in the morning.

What’s next in your career?

When I left school, jobs like mine did not exist so who knows what’s next. I’m grateful that I’ve found a profession that plays to all my strengths and that I’m passionate about. I love the mix of strategic thinking and creativity that my role affords and I enjoy leading a function and a team. In addition to my global and UK roles at the moment, I’m currently leading the technology side of a very large transformation project which is both exciting and challenging.

I’m never short of ideas, which I think my team would attest to. I know I’ve got an app in me somewhere for sure. I’ve always said I’d like to run a business and write a book. I’m also really interested in how technology can change the way that children learn in schools and also help children who face challenges such as dyslexia. One day, if I get through it all, I might go and do something totally different.

Playing to win

  • Give people in your team the permission to experiment, fail safely and try again, as a leader it’s your gift to give.
  • Don’t be afraid to hire people who don’t fit your corporate mould, a fresh perspective in this business can be invaluable.
  • Take time to learn about the people in your team, where possible develop from within and, however busy you are, try to make time for that coffee, lunch or drink.
  • Recognise what motivates the people in your team and be open to the fact that what motivates them might not motivate you.
  • Listen. Sometimes the best ideas come from those that you least expect them from. You don’t learn anything while talking.
  • Give yourself time to reflect and be creative. My team used to hate it when I travelled because as I found myself walking new streets and free from the normal day-to-day I’d be littering their email boxes with ideas and thoughts.
  • Don’t back away from the difficult decisions or the difficult discussions. Get your team involved in some of them. It shows trust and helps them develop.
  • Be curious, always be curious. Some of the best days have been where I’ve sat down to research something and gone down a completely different path, or had a conversation or tried something new.
  • Listen to the business, know when to step away. Just because you’re ready does not necessarily mean to say they are ready. Save the great idea for another day.
  • Learn how to speak to your business and use their language. Don’t slip into geek speak or L&D speak. Equally, learn the language of IT and be able to see it from their point of view.
  • When you are trying to sell the next great idea to the business or seeking funding, be able to clearly articulate what is in it for them. The easiest way I’ve found is to show them, mock something up, be visual and tell them the story.
  • Don’t get distracted – whatever you create has to do the job or fulfil the objective. Just because something has a wow factor does not mean it will land well with a learner or the business if it is not relevant and fit for purpose.
  • Always put yourself in the other person’s shoes.
  • Try to connect the dots and keep your eye on the bigger picture. I’ve found out it stops you getting bitten when you least expect it!
  • Be yourself and remember to try to have fun along the way.

My team say that I have a signature quote which is “nothing great was ever achieved without enthusiasm” and I’m truly thankful for the enthusiasm they show every day.


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