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Training to save lives


LIFEBOATFor Geraldine Grainger, training people to deal with choppy waters is all in a day's work as she takes the helm as college principal at the RNLI headquarters in Poole, Dorset. The former head of L&D at John Lewis talks about about her transition from commercial to charity sector.

Geraldine's departure from the John Lewis Partnership in January as head of learning and development was not something she had really planned to do.
"I certainly wasn't intending to leave John Lewis at that stage. It was only when I heard about the role and I looked into it that I was totally inspired by what inspires most people about the RNLI, which is the volunteer ethos; the fact that the vast majority of the people who go out at sea to save lives are volunteers. I find that remarkable and I wanted to be part of it."

Being a part of things and making a difference is what really makes Geraldine tick, as she explains what led her to start a career in learning and development and continue to where she is today: "I was fortunate enough to have experienced fantastic personal development when I was at John Lewis and saw it as a really significant way to make a difference.

Photo of GERALDINE GRAINGER"I was totally inspired by what inspires most people about the RNLI, which is the volunteer ethos"

"I continued to be inspired and motivated by learning and development and by the power of training, both for myself and others. Personally I have benefitted, but also by watching people grow as a result. You never stop learning in L&D about what is available to you. Every book I read I am inspired further."

In particular, Geraldine cites David Whittaker of Performance Consultants as someone who has had a big effect on her career: "We worked with him at John Lewis many years ago on performance coaching – he had previously been the coach of the England men's hockey team, so he had been there and done it. He taught us the power of using questions to help develop performance or overcome problems. This made a dramatic difference to the way we worked and the organisation. It is certainly a process that I continue to use."

A matter of life or death

Geraldine is responsible for the training received by RNLI lifeboat volunteers and staff, and additionally for leading a team of six people, responsible for the day-to-day running and funding of The Lifeboat College, a purpose-built training facility for RNLI lifeboat crews.

To say that making the best use of the training budget is a matter of life or death is no exaggeration and no one is more aware of this than Geraldine: "Every penny we raise here goes towards training people to save lives at sea, so I feel I have a critical responsibility for generating income."

So if saving lives is the biggest training objective at the RNLI, what does Geraldine see as the main differences in L&D challenges between the charity and commercial sectors?
"Training operates here at the RNLI very similarly to the best corporate organisations in that we aim for excellence. For us of course, it is absolutely critical that we achieve excellence."

"Not only do we need to engage the [volunteers] and make it enjoyable and stimulating, but also it is not their day job so we have to be more flexible in the way that we train."

"The main difference for us is that as a charity where we are training volunteers, not only do we need to engage the people and make it enjoyable and stimulating, but also it is not their day job so we have to be more flexible in the way that we train. For example, a lot of our training is not just done here at the college, but also out at the lifeboat stations, in the evenings."

Geraldine does not think there is any difference in the commitment of delegates in the corporate or charity sector, but points out that for the RNLI, the very fact that people are voluntarily giving up their own time to train speaks for itself: "Certainly for people to come here to train as a volunteer, means they have taken time off work, or from family commitments. It will have affected the way those volunteers lead their lives, for a certain period of time."

In terms of budgetary restrictions, Geraldine sees the same pressure on budgets in the charity sector as the corporate sector, but explains that as the RNLI gets no government funding at all and is entirely voluntary supported, it must, she says, "ensure the funding is used very wisely because it would be entirely negligent not to do so."
Critically, Geraldine continues, "Whereas some organisations may say 'let's cut out training for a year', we of course simply can't do that! Otherwise we can't fulfil our core purpose which is saving lives at sea."

So with the challenges of delivering training excellence within a tight budget on one hand and on the other using the facilities at the RNLI lifeboat college to generate funds, how does she see her experience to date as having an impact on her new role? "I carried out a very similar role in John Lewis, so certainly the commercial background that I have will help me run a really efficient commercial college."

From speaking to Geraldine, it is instantly apparent that it is not only her commercial ability that will help her to meet the training challenges of the RNLI, but also her sheer determination and inspirational energy.


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