Over my 20 years as a learning & development manager at Scottish Social Services Council, I’ve built our digital learning function from an idea to a small, highly effective team that has won significant awards, including:

  • Guardian Public Service Award for Innovation in Skills development
  • Microsoft Prize for eLearning
  • Shortlisted for Technology Tools Innovation
  • European Social Service Network Awards 2021

Although we’ve been a small team, we’ve been successful in providing innovative and engaging digital learning experiences for our core target audience of 209,000 social service workers, and thousands more in neighboring sectors such as the NHS, Community Learning & Development, and Scotland’s Fire Service, making our resources and services freely available to 450,000+ informal caregivers and volunteers. Those contributions have included MyLearning service to assist learners to manage, record, and report on their CPD, AR apps to assist in the Safe Administration of Medication, and learning about Skin Breakdown along with many other courses.

Resources have always been tight and it took persistence and stamina to reach the point we have. In the face of this and skepticism from internal and external sources alike, we have had to play the long game and stick to our principles and what research told us until we could finally point to the positive results when our work came to fruition.

So how was our success built? The answer is easy, it was built by the team. I used to tell senior management that the team I had was like catching lightning in a bottle. It was my way of trying to get them to understand that we had something special here. But being involved in The Learning Guild’s Learning Leaders Alliance made me realize that perhaps my analogy was a bit off the mark. I realized that building my team had not been a result of random chance as I might have implied. In fact, I had worked hard to create a culture and an environment to support staff to excel in their work in order to be greater than the sum of the parts. I also realized that I had developed an approach that was easily replicated with a bit of care and attention—an approach that would make catching lightning in a bottle commonplace and not just a product of random chance.

So, what are the key ingredients in building an effective team? For me, they are:

1. Recruit staff with complimentary skills/backgrounds/experience. Recruiting staff who all share identical skill sets and have similar experience may enable you to do more of the same, but recruiting staff with complementary skills, backgrounds, and experience allows for synergy and innovation to continuously improve what you offer. This is definitely something I learned from my involvement in minor ice hockey: individuals may have great skills, but without the complementary attributes of others in the team, success is likely to be elusive. It’s my version of the whole being greater than the sum of the parts.

2. Build a shared vision. It’s important to have a clear, achievable, and evidence-informed vision for the work you’re engaged in—and then you need to create the conditions for the team to take ownership of it. Provide the bones or the foundation principles such as open access; making our materials available under Creative Commons licensing; learner control of the learning process etc. and encourage the team to amend, extend and improve on them. Encourage them to make it their own. If the whole team owns the vision, everyone is more likely to pull in the same direction.

3. Model and share your curiosity and enthusiasm. In my experience, if you want innovative, bold solutions, you need to encourage curiosity and passion. The best way to do that (beyond the obvious factors like permission and space) is to model it yourself. In all the years I’ve been in this field, I’ve never lost the enthusiasm for what I do and I can’t help sharing it with colleagues. I’ve seen this create an environment where we all feed off each other’s passions and start to build them into our individual work.

4. Use research to inform your team’s work. Apply research findings at the core of what you do. It’s tempting to be attracted to the latest technology, the latest “bright shiny thing,” but it’s important to keep a focus on the fact that our application of technology is to support or enhance learning, not doing stuff because “it’ll be cool.” Make sharing and discussing research part of your team’s conversations and use it to inform your work.

5. Support ownership and autonomy. Give everyone ownership of a significant area of the team’s work and support them as they run with it. Give them permission to set the path for the work; to make it as big or small as they want and encourage them to share what they’re doing with everyone else in the team. My aim has always been to encourage them to develop expertise in the work they do and to take leadership roles in their engagement with stakeholders.

6. Involve everyone in work planning and horizon scanning. I’m sure we’ve all had the “Can you turn this PDF/slide deck/book into a course by next month?” conversation. Try to keep as much of this type of reactive demand at bay as possible and encourage the team to shape what they will be doing year-on-year. The work plan should feel like a shared plan, not one which has been dealt to them. When we’re horizon scanning we work through four questions and repeat the exercise every couple of years:

  • Where will technology be in five years?
  • Where will the workforce be in five years?
  • What will this mean for our work?
  • What will this mean for the team re resources/personnel/skills?

7. Create space for staff to develop, experiment, grow and collaborate. I expect everyone to take at least a half day per week to focus on their own development. Give them the freedom to do whatever they want with the time. Great things can (and do) come from this.

8. Encourage everyone to create a professional network. One of the key contributors to my own development and professional growth has been the professional network I’ve built over the years. This network reaches way beyond the boundaries of sector and geography and it’s this diversity which brings so much to my work. So I encourage everyone in the team to build their own professional network, to learn from it and contribute to it as often as possible. Sometimes the best inspiration comes from someone working in a totally different professional area to your own.

9. Be a human first and the manager second. Your staff have families and lives outside of work. Be sensitive to that and acknowledge and support them as people, not just as employees. I also think it’s important to be honest and transparent as a leader. Confidence definitely has a big part to play in this—if you have innate confidence in your ability, it’s much easier to say, “I don’t know” or “Hey, I got it wrong”. Own your limitations and be open to learning from your team.

There you have it. It’s not a template or a formula to be followed slavishly. It’s just one way to achieve success (at least, how I define it). It enabled me to build a small team that punched way above its weight and who are, without a doubt, the most supportive, innovative and talented group of people I’ve ever had the pleasure to work with.