Learning means business!

The shift from hours-based CPD to competence to practise presents an important opportunity for firms to reassess their learning strategy and ensure it contributes to their business needs. 

This article is based on a feature first published in Managing for Success, the magazine of the Law Society’s Law Management Section

In November 2017 all solicitors had a new experience; they applied for their practising certificate on the basis of a declaration of “competence to practise”.  This is because the concept of a “cpd hour” is now long gone from a regulatory perspective. The Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) moved to a competency-based model the year before.    Despite this seismic change in the way professional development is regulated, few in the profession are aware of the potential benefit to business which the new approach to learning & development makes possible.

Removing the comfort blanket of CPD hours brings firms up hard against the cold reality of the business purpose of learning. Some have dropped it like a stone, glad of an excuse to cut costs. Others see it an opportunity to take a new approach to learning at work and to ensure that professional development serves their business needs.

The rationale for change

Any learning provider will tell you that learning is not something that can be measured in hours.  Best practice in professional development now is all about delivering learning close to the work activity.  Learning at work is, after all, intended to change behaviour.  Everyone reading this article will know of the phenomenon of individuals turning up for irrelevant training sessions, just to get the hours.  Whilst the old system gave people who needed it a cast-iron reason to spend time on learning, it did nothing to address the quality of learning or the importance transferring skills into practice.

The competency-based approach

The SRA has provided a “Competency Statement” outlining four areas in which a solicitor may need to demonstrate “competence”.  It is important to note that the SRA’s version of competencies is NOT mandatory.  Indeed, it is not great!  I say that, because it is not commercially focused and the competencies are not especially well expressed.  Many firms have adopted the SRA version, but those firms are not the ones who have thought about what their businesses really need in terms of competencies, or what works for individuals; not everyone has to be able to demonstrate all the competencies.

Also worth noting is the fact that the SRA will only look into how an individual meets the competencies if there is an allegation of incompetence.  Were that to happen, both the firm and the individual solicitor would be required to produce evidence of competence, including what learning needs were identified, what learning was undertaken and how the learning was transferred into the work-place.  This reactive regulatory approach puts continuous learning at the bottom of the compliance priorities list.

In my view, however, learning is much too important to be a matter for compliance alone.  Getting people engaged and equipped to rise to the challenges of immense change is far more important.

The business case for change

It made be difficult to believe, but the SRA has done a good thing by freeing up the learning agenda.  We do not need to rely on pedagogical arguments to defend a competency-based approach.  The change brings very real business benefits for firms.

First, sustainable growth can only come from a strong internal base of well-managed, highly performing individuals; otherwise, there is an ever-present risk of failure to deliver consistently, or at all.

Second, market pressures and the ever accelerating pace of technological development make the ability to change an imperative. Adaptable people working in agile organisations will be more likely to survive and thrive.

Finally, law firms of the future will need to be creative about the way they deliver services. An organisation which values people who are willing to be creative must embrace the attendant risks and be able to manage and mitigate failure. That can only be achieved in an atmosphere of openness, dialogue and commitment to constant improvement. Creating that kind of culture requires a genuine commitment to skills-training as well as technical expertise.

Being released from the need to clock up CPD hours in order to comply with regulations enables firms to use professional development to rise to these challenges.

Managing the new regime also has the potential to bring positive change. Building an understanding of the purpose of learning ensures it is relevant to the strategy of your business and contributes to business need. Using a competency-based approach provides an excellent mechanism to make performance management genuinely meaningful and significantly increases the possibility of enhancing day-to-day performance.

Bringing a competency-based approach alive

Below are some tips for firms wanting to improve the quality and impact of learning, for their people and their business.


Take a strategic view

A good learning strategy defines the purpose of learning for the business; it is, by definition, ‘outcomes-focused’. Developing or reviewing learning strategy will provide evidence of a proactive approach to ensuring competence at an organisational level. It is also the first step in working out how to plan and prioritise training and measure return on investment for any learning initiative.


Use competencies

 Competencies are widely used across business and commerce. Put simply, they describe ‘what good looks like’. For example, it might be thought desirable for a lawyer to possess intellectual flexibility and technical knowledge. A competency-based approach would put some detail behind that statement to describe the desired behaviours, such as;

  • demonstrates intellectual curiosity in a variety of ways;
  • shares relevant information with colleagues across departments;
  • quickly and accurately grasps key issues in any legal problem; and
  • reflects and develops own thinking including discussion and debate with colleagues.

For some law firms, this kind of approach is well established. For others, however, it opens a Pandora’s Box of issues, including accountability for behaviour as well as financial output, ruffling the feathers of established expertise by shifting the focus to performance management.

Mark Briegal, partner at solicitors Aaron & Partners, ran a highly successful learning and development business before moving into the law; he describes the competency-based approach as a “no-brainer” in the legal sector, since “performance is not just about legal knowledge; it’s about competencies as well”. He describes competencies as fundamental to the performance management process: “If you cannot describe the behaviour you want to encourage, how can you begin to assess development needs?”

Providing evidence of competence throws a spotlight on the performance management process. Many lawyers who are required to manage appraisals are too busy or lack the skills to make them really effective. Yet giving individuals the opportunity to think purposefully about their development needs is an important starting point in the process of determining “competence”. Setting people up for success means getting to grips with performance management and making it work well.


 Capture learning in the workplace

 People learn most when they are doing their jobs, day-to-day. Arguably, lawyers do this more than most, as the law changes constantly and the work gets progressively more complex. But often, little is invested in maximising the opportunities to capture learning at work:

CILEx moved to an outcomes-based approach to CPD long before the SRA.  They require their members to capture a wide range of learning activities. Barbara Hamilton-Bruce, Head of Client at Slater & Gordon (UK) and a former council member at CILEx, says found the experience of recording learning outcomes to be a good one, “It made me think about my learning and, probably more importantly, about where I was unconsciously learning through the tasks that I was completing.”

The SRA’s approach to learning allows lawyers to utilise work-based learning (WBL) principles. Instead of losing the learning value of work activities in the noise and pressure of daily life, WBL takes a structured approach:

  1. identifying learning opportunities, such as making a presentation to a client or senior partners;
  2. recording the challenges faced and what it is hoped will be learned from the experience (this is a way for the learner to set their own learning outcomes); and
  3. once the task is completed, recording reflections on what was learned and identifying ways to build on the experience to further improve knowledge and skills.

There is significant scope for producing evidence of the application of professional ethics in this way – for example, by using WBL principles to learn from a forthcoming negotiation, transaction or proposal.


 Harness technology

 Learning technology is now key in learning delivery, offering both innovative learning opportunities and tools for tracking and evidencing learning.

It may come as a surprise to find that the number one online learning tool for personal & professional learning, and for work-place learning, in 2017 was YouTube (see Jane Hart’s survey at www.c4lpt.co.uk), because it provides a way to tap into a huge range of expertise in an immediate and engaging way. All kinds of online learning can be translated into recognisable units of activity, and captured through platforms such as the Learning Locker (www.learninglocker.net ).

Lawyers evidence their learning, for example, by using a training record. There is no reason in principle why that record should not be in pen and ink, or individuals can use an online record such as the one provided by the Law Society’s CPD Centre (www.lawsociety.org.uk/cpdcentre). The opportunities for capturing a range of learning activity, as well as the benefits of having a centralised way of tracking learning in the firm, will also make a centralised, and also potentially online, recording system attractive.


Focus on quality

The SRA no longer accredits CPD providers and it now recognises all sorts of learning activities. This throws the onus onto firms to be discerning about investing in training which delivers real impact.  Here are three things to look out for;

  1. Use purely didactic learning judiciously – many lawyers are comfortable being lectured, but that approach does not lend itself to transformational learning which changes behaviour
  2. Look for how much experiential learning is on offer, e. learning by doing, not listening – learning is an activity; it is not passive
  3. Always use providers who identify learning outcomes and, ideally, provide opportunities to consolidate learning after a face-to-face events with coaching or online resources

Firms with a clear understanding of the learning process will be able to provide the motivation, resources and support for individuals to progress their own professional development in a wide range of ways. The competency-based approach is intended to move away from rigid measures of learning, and towards a focus on the quality of learning and the potential to change behaviour as a result of training.

The wider context

There are excellent business reasons why a robust approach to individual and organisational performance should involve more than just metrics, whether those are learning hours or monthly budgets. If the move to an outcome-focused approach to CPD brings that prospect into focus, then I for one count it as a blessing.

Implementing learning strategy

  1. Make sure learning strategy is aligned with business goals
  2. Assess learning needs – what knowledge, skills and attitudes do you need in place to deliver on your strategy?
  3. Communicate the learning strategy
  4. Check there are no other organisational issues which will prevent people from using their new knowledge and skills –such as an unclear line management structure
  5. Prioritise learning activities in the light of business need
  6. Make a business case for learning activity – learning should always be more than “a good idea”
  7. Identify desired learning outcomes – these should accord with business need
  8. Consider a “blended learning” approach using different learning activities over time to establish and embed ideas and promote the transfer of learning to work
  9. Decide how and when to measure the impact of learning activities
  10. Measure the impact of learning activities in terms of hard and soft outcomes
  11. Generate evidence of success and use it to support the business case for future learning
  12. promote and support the integration of new knowledge and skills into day-to-day work to embed learning and create evidence of competence

Athena Professional is an award-winning consultancy which can help you to get the best value from your investment in learning.  Do get in touch if you would like to have a chat about your organisation’s needs.

Stand-out moments from the LawNet Conference 2017

Yet again Jane Armytage and I had loads of fun exhibiting with Athena Professional at the brilliant LawNet conference which ran last Friday, 10th November 2017.  The calibre of the speakers was outstanding.  I felt it was a day that raised awareness; there is a burning platform and the its starting to get warm under foot!

Many excellent things were said.  Twice I practically jumping out of my seat and cheering and once I was just fascinated to watch the audience open up and engage.  Here are my three stand-out moments:


Keith Coats made it plain that CONTINUOUS LEARNING is where it’s at.  Oh Yes! Music to my ears!   I was inwardly jumping up and down.  Why?  Because, there is a huge opportunity to leap-frog over the sheep-dip training mentality and jump straight into equipping people to embrace change, to drive it, because they are permitted to think, to be creative and try out new ways of working.

Coats’ rationale was compelling; exponential change is only just getting under-way.  In other words if you think the world is complex and fast-moving now, you ain’t nothin’ yet!  The pace of change will become so ferocious that the ability to respond, to be adaptable and nimble, is going to be more important than robust strategic thinking and detailed planning, “You cannot plan your way into exponential change – plans give the illusion of control”.  Ouch!  That’s a powerful message for a room full of people who are used to being in complete control.

Coats prayed in aid the case of Netflix who sold billions of DVDs in the 1990s before recruiting a couple of former Amazon execs who told them the future was streaming film.  The business turned on a sixpence.  Within months they stopped making DVDs and began streaming.  It just so happens that Netflix was the topic of conversation in my house recently.  At one point both my teenagers chimed, “Mum! Everybody’s got a Netflix account!”

Surely the idea of ditching a brilliant business model must have seemed ridiculous to Netflix at first. However, Keith Coats related the words of Jim Dator, “Any useful idea about the future should appear to be ridiculous”, although the rider to that is, “not all ridiculous ideas are useful”!! That idea was captured in the cartoon record of the day created by Chris Shipton..

Are we willing to learn, to take risks and engage with ideas which might seem ridiculous?


To my absolute joy, THE RULE OF LAW got a mention from Sophie Adams-Bhatti.  She asked the audience to raise their hands if they thought it was important.  Most did.  Earlier in the day Keith Coats had concluded by suggesting that people need hope and the world needs a shared sense of a higher purpose.  Well, well!  The legal sector does not need to look very far for its higher purpose.  As Adams-Bhatti observed, the Rule of Law is a crucial pillar of a democratic society.  Amen to that.


Dr Brian Marien drew us into the subject of “Emotional Literacy” in the afternoon.  It was fascinating to see this room of senior lawyers given permission to think about their feelings and behaviours.  It has been my repeated experience that established professional people feel deeply concerned, vulnerable, even ashamed, about revealing that they do not know everything, that there are some skills they have not mastered, or that they or their colleagues demonstrate some behaviours of which they are not proud.  And yet I am certain that acknowledging the truth of that sort of sentiment is the starting point for so much that is so necessary to the profession.

If you would like to see the Twitter feed of the day go to #LNConf for lots of quotes and observations.

It is worth saying that the event is beautifully run by Helen Hamilton-Shaw and her team.  The venue, Heythrop Park in Oxfordshire is magnificent.  The whole day has such friendly, good vibe, its real pleasure to be there.  This was our fourth year of exhibiting.  I think we’ve worked with about a dozen LawNet firms now, so there are lots of people it is good to see and to catch up with, and plenty more to get to know.

I should also thank Chris Marston for giving Athena Professional a name-check during his introduction for our experiential approach to learning about performance management.  It is one aspect of continuous learning which is important and there is so much opportunity for more!


Forget the Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe…..

How about the Wand the Whip and the Carrot?

How do you manage performance in your organisation?

Option 1 the Wand – Using your magic wand to sprinkle a little pixie dust over the people in your organisation; make them all feel good for a while. Lovely!

Option 2 – the Whip – Using a whip or a big stick to threaten and scare people to work harder. It’s always worked in the past hasn’t it?

Option 3 – the Carrot – Encouraging the right behaviours and discouraging unhelpful behaviours.

All of these approaches have an impact on performance, but only the carrot creates a sustainable change in behaviour.

Performance management is a bad thing though isn’t it?

Very often the mere words, performance management, instil dread; a sense that something bad is going to happen to someone (hopefully not you!!).

It doesn’t have to be like that.

Defining what ‘good’ looks like, enables you to acknowledge good performance, encouraging desired behaviours to be replicated by others.

“Thank you” for a job well done is welcome, but doesn’t help the person understand specifically what it was that they did which was particularly helpful, or made a difference.

“Thank you” on its own is pixie dust. It has an immediate feel good factor, but does not always translate into continuing performance.

How do you manage performance?

Define Performance Starting with the end in mind.  Defining the   outcomes you are looking for, or what ‘good’ looks like. Performance definition, on its own, is not always enough, however, It does not clarify the expected observable behaviours.
Set up for Success Defining   what ‘good’ looks like.E.g. A professional who continually over-delivers, constantly agreeing to extra work.  As their manager you be pleased, but the impact on the organisation and the individual may not so positive.If  good performance is defined as ‘to deliver xxxx outcomes’, this could lead to a the individual feeling that they need to deliver no matter what the personal impact on them is.  However, if performance is further explained by….- deliver the outcomes in a way that does not impact other commitments

– ensuring that any obstacles or issues are dealt with in a timely way, and

– keeping your manager informed at all times

The professional can then understand how they  achieve the performance required.

Monitor & Review performance For improved performance you need to monitor performance and provide clear, structured feedback that enables the other person to stop, start or continue the behaviours or activities observed.If the behaviours expected have been clearly defined, it is much easier to give meaningful feedback at review stage. The individual can then take responsibility for their actions and adapt their behaviour.
Respond Engendering sustainable change by the over-deliverer stopping, starting or continuing the   desired activities or behaviours


Whether you use the wand the whip or the carrot, there will be no change unless you are clear about your expectations, not just the ‘WHAT’, also the ‘HOW’.

For help and support to introduce a positive performance management culture in your organisation contact:

Jane               07977 932551          jane@athenaprofessional.co.uk, Nicola             07799 237479          nicola@athenaprofessional.co.uk


The horizon and the here & now

In recent months I have been reading, thinking and speaking about the future of work, more specifically, the future of learning at work.  At the same time, I work with professional people on basic skills, like the ability to have a structured conversation, to listen, and to allow a colleague to explore their ideas for themselves.  In other words, how to get to grips with the messy and difficult bits of working with people.

Horizon-scanning and working with people on practical skills form two strands of my work activity which are challenging in different ways.  Some of the time I am diving in, searching out ideas, identifying what matters and trying to create some understanding, for example, what does Artificial Intelligence mean for learning?  Are jobs for “newbies” going to exist in the future?  If not, how will people gain experience and practise skills?  These issues are intriguing.  Being informed about them allows me to present a rounded view to clients.

All the time, I’m doing my day job as a Learning & Development consultant too; talking with people about learning strategy, designing learning activities (online and experiential) and delivering face-to-face learning.  I also coach individuals, so I come close to what makes a fellow human-being tick, what troubles them and what makes them laugh.

Each day and each week I move back and forth from horizon-scanning, through to thinking about the particulars of a client organisation, to group dynamics, and individual, immediate human needs.  I try to help people make sense of one aspect or another as I go.

I read, see and hear a lot of things about how people work within organisations and how organisations view people.  I have a lot of ideas about the flow between the two.  I have been educated to think that I ought to come up with something original and brilliant to say before I publish my thoughts, but here and now I am going to just offer what I’m thinking, rather than some perfectly expressed solution.

What is emerging for me at the moment is the idea that our notion of “managers” is probably unhelpful.  Among professional people, informed self-management is eminently possible.  Note please the word “informed”.  I need to write about that more on another occasion, for now let me say I think that begins with first understanding yourself and your impact on others, as well as having clarity about your purpose at work.

Another thought that I am living with just now is that everything depends on context.  Our current world context is remarkable; I am writing at the time of a General Election, just after a major terrorist attack in Manchester, and as war and famine rage in North Africa, the Middle East and elsewhere.  My life spans the certainties of the Cold War and the current time, when old social and political fractures have opened up, and new ones created by the digital age have emerged to generate a cocktail of expectation and possibility hither-to unknown to humanity.

In a challenging and often frightening world we look for people who make sense of things for us, and this brings me back to the two strands of my working life.

As I stand at the front of the training room, Heads of Department, architects, solicitors and sales managers look to me and seem to say, “Make this easier for me!”  I share with them my enthusiasm and knowledge and help them to learn about their own abilities by getting them doing things which are slightly outside their comfort-zone.  That’s what I do; I try and make sense of some things for them and I set them going on a task which will help them realise that they are already capable of helping others to work effectively in many ways.

I want those people to know that they often don’t have to try as hard as they think they do.  Offering guidance and support, or even holding a colleague to account, is perhaps easier than they imagine.  They do not need to learn to be “other” or different.  In fact, they probably need to be more themselves.  A manager is not someone who makes other people do things; they are the person who makes it possible for other people to do things.  By thinking of the manager’s role as being a facilitator or enabler, the idea becomes less onerous.  It requires skill and that’s ok, because we are all more capable than we think and we can all learn.

Can we become facilitators and enablers now?  I think it would be a good time to try.  Just around the corner is a world of data analytics which will enable us all to see at a glance how colleagues are performing; how much time they spent on a project, or working in a team activity or communicating with a customer or client.  Perhaps you have that information already.  If not, it won’t be too long before we are all informed by more metrics than we can shake a stick at.  But there is more to working with people than that; now would be a good time to make sure we can still all be human too.



Behaviour the theme at the LPM Conference 2015

150603 NJ & Shaun @LPM conf

Nicola and Shaun Jardine behaving!

Behaviour the theme at the LPM Conference 2015

What made the LPM Practice Management a hit for us?  Turned out it was all about behaviours!  Spot on our big message; use learning & development to get people to behave differently at work in ways that serve your business need.  All day, in every session I attended, from market trends, to risk and compliance, to succession and recruitment, the way people behave at work was the theme.

The chair, Simon Slater, Chief Executive at Thomson Snell Passmore, set the tone at the outset by reminding us that Darwin’s theory of evolution was not that the fittest survive, but those most adaptable to change.  Hurray!

Jez Hopkins, former head of operations at Riverview Law, gave the first presentation of the day, making loads of brilliant observations (see Twitter #LPMConf2015 for more), including the  suggestion that firms need to recalibrate profitability in order to make themselves future proof in the long term.  I challenged him on that (first question of the day!) by observing that a lot of firms want to have their cake and eat it, hoping theirs will magically be the firm to survive.  Jez was unmoved; there is no choice in his view.  People have to be prepared to invest in to doing things differently.

Jez also observed that those with the skills needed to develop legal practices are often not given the decision-making power they need to really make a difference.  This was picked up later by Shaun Jardine, CEO at Brethertons, who made plain his pride in having an executive board with a diverse range of professional backgrounds.  Shaun’s message; you wouldn’t expect the shareholders of M&S to run the business, why expect it to work in a law firm?

Shaun made my day by showing the audience his notebook, the front page of which lists his key goals.  Amongst them are the powerful questions we rehearsed when I delivered some coaching training for the senior team at Brethertons.  Good learning and a great advert for Athena Professional Shaun!  Thank you.

My question to Shaun (I asked a lot of questions) was whether he felt it was worth investing in developing the skills of senior lawyers.  It was almost a rhetorical question, because I knew he would agree that investment is valuable, but again he made the point; there is no choice if you want to survive.

During the session on risk and compliance I was after some confirmation that changing behaviour might have some impact on a firm’s risk profile.  Colin Taylor from Willis Group concurred, he thought that evidence of a learning culture might well be seen in a positive light by insurers.  That, in my opinion, needs to be front and centre in the business case for investment in development.

With a significant number of smaller firms represented, it was interesting to hear a significant level of ambivalence about performance management in the session with Mark Briegal and others on succession planning.  This time I did not ask a question, I made an observation from the floor that all firms, no matter how small, need to know what “good” looks like in their business.

I was intrigued to see that in a show of hands only about half of the 70 or so people in the session said they were conducting appraisals.  So I asked, of them, how many train their staff in performance management?  May be half a dozen people raised their hands.  I asked Mark to comment and he made no bones about it, “Managing people is really difficult”.  The message again; you have to equip people to be able to do it well.

Sara Duxbury and Ed Fletcher from Fletchers Solicitors gave us a masterclass in staff engagement and development.  Sara, an HR professional with a background in retail, came to the firm a year ago and has clearly been a using her new broom to great effect, supported by Ed’s drive to do things in new and creative ways.  He spoke of the value of having great people strategy informed at every level by the firm’s values.  In response to my question (yes, another one!) Sara told us that they have technical and behavioural, competency-based, descriptors for all the roles in the business.  For her it was plain that encouraging the right behaviours forms a huge part of a successful approach to delivering business goals.

Chris Allen and I had already connected over Twitter, but we spoke in person for the first time during his panel session on aligning business to client need.  Chris has now moved on to Periscope – a sort of video version of Twitter – so I am challenged to get into that now.  Chris told us that its time to stop being conservative and cross-sell.  Now there’s an example of the need for attitude and behaviour to align with business need, if ever there was one.

150603 Mark & others at LPM Conf

Old friends and new in conversation

By now, I was on a roll with my questions from the floor.  The pressure was on in the last session of the day.  I have to admit it was a challenge to think of something to ask about cloud computing and disaster recovery, until someone mentioned using collaborative platforms to project-manage tasks.  That was all I needed and I was able to ask a question, because we use Basecamp and Slack to work with clients and partner organisations.  And I got a round of applause for getting a full house on the question front!

We did have a great day; fascinating content which was right up our street, old friends and new, and a well-run event.  Hats off to the LPM team.

Nicola Jones