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Spotlight: We Shine the Light this Week on Graham O’Connell


Graham O’ConnellGraham O'Connell is the first member of the training community to step into the Spotlight, a regular feature which we'll be running in the Insider Wire. Read on and be inspired by his words of wisdom.

Name: Graham O’Connell

Age: 53

Job title: Head of organisational learning & standards at the National School of Government, which is one of the world's leading public sector business schools.

My role is to promote excellence in L&D. Within the National School that involves many things including running CPD events, acting as a dating agency for ideas and people, and using quality assurance to help us learn and continuously improve. Externally, I run forum events and masterclasses on the strategic aspects of L&D, I write and speak at conferences, and I am always busy working as a consultant.

1. Why did you start doing the job that you do?

I started as a trainer teaching law and facilitating management development events in what is now the Department of Work and Pensions. Looking back I think I fell into the role by chance, but I soon realised that helping people learn and helping organisations to improve was a vocation, not just another job. That was 26 years ago...

2. What do you love best about your job?

Many things, but especially the variety. I love helping people to blossom and achieve their potential. And I love getting stuck into the melee of strategic and operational challenges.

3. What do you find most challenging?

Personally, it is saying no. I tend to get involved with a myriad of things and then struggle to juggle all my commitments. In my role, the biggest challenge is getting under the skin of really good L&D strategy and practices, and then getting that message out to others in ways that make a difference (a phrase like ‘making a difference’ can sound like a platitude, but in my case it is genuinely heart-felt).

4. What's the best advice that you would give to someone new to your field?

Talk to and watch people who are excellent at what they do; read avidly; experiment; don’t ‘follow the rules’ blindly, work out why they exist and follow the principle; and get feedback from a variety of sources. If you are not continuously learning and pursuing excellence, what right have you got to expect that from others?

5. What's the best advice that's been given to you that has helped you in your career?

Pull don’t push. Whether facilitating a team awayday or managing relationships with your most senior stakeholders, elicit, listen and reflect back. When you do offer ideas, do so generously. This took a while to sink in – in fact, I’m still learning it – but when I have done it, it has always served me well.

6. How do you see L&D developing?

I hope there will be stronger emphasis on professionalism and building depth of expertise in L&D. I think there will be more learning through and with networks. I’m confident that the range of learning interventions will continue to grow and become more eclectic – from large group interventions to google learning, we will need to be skilled at piecing together a rich mix of methodologies into coherent and effective programmes. And I suspect that we will see more synergy between L&D and organisational development, knowledge management and organisational learning.

7. What's the best career help book that you've ever read?

'The Personal Management Handbook' by John Mulligan. Sadly it is now out of print.

8. What's the best event within the training community that you've ever attended?

I have been lucky to work with many leaders in the field, so it is hard to pick just one. Probably the early trainer training and facilitation events I attended had the most impact.

9. Who do you think is the most inspirational member of the training community and have you ever met them?

The person who inspired me most was a colleague, Peter Wilson, now retired. He was not a guru, but he was a natural. He inspired me to be myself.

10. What else would you like to share with our readers?

It is an oldie, but still a goldie: ‘If you think training is expensive, try the alternative’.


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