Building a learning culture for 45,000 salespeople: 7 key takeaways (Ep1)

We talked about What CLOs can learn from product designers? How can you show the value of L&D by linking it to business impact? How do you build a successful learning culture? In this episode of the Learning at Large podcast, I talk to Paul Goundry, Head of Learning at Utility Warehouse, who shares a number of resources and insights that have helped him develop his quite unique perspective on learning at scale. Read our 7 top takeaways below!

Paul Goundry learning culture

About Paul

Paul and his team support over 45,000 salespeople at Utility Warehouse with personal learning programs, adopting a strong design approach and a focus on tangible learning outcomes. His role focuses mainly on understanding those learners and finding ways to best support them, whether that be online or other forms of learning and development. 

Hear what Paul had to say about building a learning culture on the Learning at Large Podcast

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Our 7 key takeaways from the episode


1. Balance face-to-face training with “home training toolkits,” or digital learning that can be accessed anytime, anywhere.

Within our distribution network, people grow teams. But they might be a hairdresser during the day, and in the evening they’ve got a large team to run. Well, they’re not experienced leaders, they’re not experienced managers, they’re not experienced trainers. But for me, one of the most exciting projects I’m working on is how we use Elucidat, how we use our training platform to provide what we’re calling home training toolkits. For example, one of the projects we’re looking at is creating a board game—we’re actually working on this right now—and this includes a garden version with an inflatable dice. This person will facilitate a group activity where they roll the dice, they face challenges, they have to overcome those challenges—and it’s essentially taking some of the principles of scenario design into board game design, and then into creating a sort of framework that an inexperienced person can deliver as an actually quite sophisticated, facilitated training experience with their team.”

“It’s interesting—if you imagine one of our distributors, who might be anywhere in the country, we try to make our training as available as possible. We deliver training in about 60 venues across the country, we deliver about 100 training events a month, so we do make it available. But the truth is that people need access to learn at a time that is suitable to them, or to refresh their memory. So, there’s a real balance—I would almost say 50-50—between providing options to learn in training sessions as well as online. What we’re doing through these home training toolkits is being in someone’s lounge—we can’t actually be there in the room, and we can’t even be live on Skype or Zoom calls in everybody’s lounge—but we can bring them into our film studio, capture best practice, sequence and scenario designs, and then facilitate it through activities led by a team leader or manager. Then, we’re getting the best of both worlds.”  

2. Don’t let methodologies limit your learning training design. Rather, use employees’ actual experiences and feelings to help guide your strategy.

“I’m a big believer in performance consulting as a way of trying to understand business problems and trying to come up with interesting solutions for those problems. So, in a way, I’m not really a believer in having set training methodologies; but instead, to an extent, always starting with a blank canvas. Saying, “Do we actually understand the genuine problem?” and “Do we genuinely understand the system in which that problem exists?” and “Do we genuinely understand what it takes to bridge the gap to solve that problem?” And when you can answer “yes” to all of the above, the solutions actually fall out of it. I believe this does exist across other organizations that central training functions operate almost independently. You send your employees off to a training function, and then they come back to their desk and they get on with their job. In most cases, rather shockingly, their manager actually has no clue what they’ve been off learning and in no way supports that. To a large extent, it’s a completely redundant exercise. So, one of two things happens. One, either it’s not embedded into their actual role or into their actual skills because no one even knows what they’ve learned, or, worse—it’s completely contradicted because their managers have got their own ways of doing things, which the training isn’t supporting.”

“This idea, for me, has really fallen out of that recognition. That if learning happens—if we think of the 70/20 model, it suggests that, of course, most learning happens on the job—well, my realization through working with the teams at Utility Warehouse is that our job should surely be to better enable and equip managers to effectively support, lead, and develop their teams.”

3. Training developers should see themselves as product designers, fighting to solve problems and help others solve problems.

“I think our chief learning officers, people working in learning development, would really benefit from being able to see themselves as product designers, as people who are actually waking up in the morning to solve problems. A mistake that we sometimes make in learning and development is assuming that the problem we’re trying to resolve is a capability problem. We’re looking at knowledge and skills, and therefore the solution automatically is training. Yeah. Well actually, true problem solving is more intelligent than that. It actually says, well, there’s all sorts of things that affect performance and capability, and nice frameworks that I tend to use to help keep my mind open is an NLP  framework called logical levels. It encourages you to look right from, “What is this individual’s purpose if they don’t wake up in the morning wanting to do or believing they are the right person to do the role they’re in?” It doesn’t matter how many skills they’ve got. They’re never going to do it. And then it goes right down through their mindset and beliefs, but also then the environment. I mean, it’s amazing how many times we try to solve environmental problems through training and development.”

4. Never rush problem-solving and adding value – it is an iterative process.

“…What we all need to do is take one step at a time. Solving problems and adding value is an iterative process. So, another very useful principle is to learn from techie colleagues and the whole world of agile software development, that what we’re always doing is trying—to the best of our ability—to understand a problem, come up with a solution that we think is going to add value, and then get into testing that solution as quickly as possible. And be prepared to constantly receive data and information that tells you whether you’ve got it right or wrong.”

“Don’t try and solve the problem 100 percent. Try and understand enough of the problem to make one step forward, and then measure where you are, and then re-evaluate, and then take the next step. First of all, identify the high performers and say, “Who is it?” First of all, “What are we trying to achieve as a business?” And in my world, for example, a lot of that is sales performance and also casing who are our top salespeople. Do we understand what they’re doing, how they’re doing it, why they’re doing it, the environment in which they’re doing it?”

5. Use big-picture analytics to explore high-performers and develop training around them, but don’t neglect to be specific in your conclusions in order to demonstrate value.

“So, I will then usually convene or bring together typically anywhere between 12 and 18 of our high performers and run a one- or even sometimes two-day workshop to fully explore what it is they’re doing, and map out what is leading to their success. And again, as I mentioned before, using logical levels as the framework for that to really look at all aspects of what they’re doing—not just their knowledge and skills. Then, following performance consulting methodology, do a gap analysis to try and define what’s different about what they’re doing to the people that aren’t necessarily doing it, which will often then include doing workshops, interviews, etc. with people that aren’t performing quite so well to try and describe where they’re at.”

“Now, this might be quite controversial, and some people listening might think I’m completely barking mad—but I’m of the opinion… and I’m quite fortunate to work with an organization that is also of the opinion… that we shouldn’t try and kid ourselves about data and stats and what we can learn from that. There’s an interesting book by Daniel Kahneman called Thinking Fast and Slow, and in that book, he essentially distinguishes between our ability to make generalizations in life and in business versus really analyze, be genuinely analytical.”

“One of the things he advises us to be very careful of is to not believe that we’re being genuinely analytical—we’ve genuinely got data—when in truth, all we’re doing is making generalizations.”

“It’s really frustrating to me in organizations where the only match they’re interested in is how many days of training have been delivered. Because the assumption that the day’s training deliverable value in some way—no further discussion at all, no further investment in discussion. Really, what it suggests is that training and development is a separate entity; it delivers something. And we assume what it delivers is valuable. And then, I’ve seen in other organizations where actually—though these studies aren’t asking is training valuable—it’s not if we can see value in the training that we’re delivering, but instead prove training is valid.”

“So, be very selective over the data that you choose. It’s just literally pulling the wool over the business people’s eyes. There’s all sorts of really peculiar behavior going on, which isn’t good for business and it isn’t good for training and development. I genuinely believe the only way we solve this is no longer treating training and development as a separate organization within a business, but to be a partner, to be genuinely working with, consulting with, reflecting with, evolving with the business.”

6. Beyond learning styles, invest in understanding people’s personality types for the best chance of success.

“…it’s interesting with learning styles, because of course we need to understand how people learn. But I’ll say actually it’s often necessary and valuable to challenge people’s learning styles—to challenge people’s personality types—because often people will default to something that they believe is their preference and believe is their comfort zone. That isn’t necessarily helpful for that performance, in that we see a far greater shift in someone’s capability—because what ultimately happens is they learn they are actually more resilient, more capable, than they thought they were. And they’re able to stretch into new behaviors that otherwise they’ve held themselves back from trying.”

7. Encourage your business to see the value in training and look deeper than meeting surface-level objectives.

“Partly, it’s in the hands of the learning and development professionals to recognize that your organization is at risk of becoming completely redundant if you’re not genuinely adding value, and the only way you can be genuinely adding value is if you’ve got the right contract with your organization. But also, it’s on the wider organization to see that when you’ve put a load of training development professionals in a room and they’re there and they’re good at solving problems, then actually they’re an incredibly valuable asset.”

“I’m kind of passionate about this—that if a learning development team has essentially just delivered training… and often they’re delivering training because someone in the operation has thrown a requirement over the fence, they’ve picked up, they’ve delivered it, they’ve moved on to the next. And there’s very little dialogue—there’s very little actual problem-solving knowledge—just delivering stuff and moving on. Then, why would the business see them as a genuinely valuable asset in driving business performance and solving problems?”

“In … compliance training, what we’re talking about is behavior—exactly the same principles apply. It’s how much do we understand about the behaviors that are actually taking place in our organization, because in order to be compliant, we want people to behave in the right way. And we often assume that—really, all we’re actually doing with compliance training is trying to cover our backs against some kind of regulator. At some point, they might step in and say there’s evidence for the wrong behaviors that have been demonstrated by your employees, and therefore you’re in trouble. And businesses think they can roll out a spreadsheet proving how people sat through some compliance training and that is an acceptable level of effort on their part, and that they’ll get away with it.”

“And I think there are precedents now in court where that isn’t acceptable. It’s not seen as a reasonable effort by businesses, simply to put people through training and assume they’ve done what they need to do. So, I think it’s risky—the old mentality of just rolling out training self-compliance. But it also doesn’t help if you’ve still got in your organization behaviors that you don’t fully understand, and what’s motivating and driving those behaviors. Therefore, you’re not really doing anything to resolve them.”

Paul’s book recommendations:

Thinking Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman

“He essentially distinguishes between our ability to make generalizations in life and in business versus really analyze, be genuinely analytical.”

Join the conversation!

We’d love to hear your thoughts on today’s podcast, so feel free to get in touch on Twitter @learningatlarge with any questions or queries. You can also email me at As always, don’t forget to subscribe to Learning at Large in your favorite podcast app and leave us a 5-star rating if you enjoyed it. Thank you for joining us, and see you next time.

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