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How Pepper Built and Nurtured a Culture of Learning

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We spoke with Sian Musial at Pepper UK whose Learning at Work Week activities caught our attention. Musial helped engage every level of her organization in silo-breaking networking events centred around learning, helped discover and develop subject-matter experts, all while introducing the company to new learning technologies. Learn about how she is working to develop a learning culture in a company that has grown from 49 staff members to 320 in just six years.

When and why did you realize that a culture of learning is critical to organizational success? What benefits does a culture of learning yield to a company?

The Pepper learning culture has been a vital part of the organization since the doors opened.  An early decision was made by our Executive Committee to move away from online training in favor of face to face interventions and workouts in as many scenarios as possible. This was a commitment not just in terms of the time and resource to deliver the learning experience, but also in terms of the commitment to release people from their day jobs to receive it.  The rationale was that active learning (as opposed to clicking through an online module) was an investment in people and would help to grow a talented workforce, which aligned with both business and employee developmental objectives.  For this reason, Pepper has heavily invested in classroom training tailored to the needs of the business and individual learning styles in order to become a true learning organization.  Classroom training not only allowed us to tailor our delivery, it also provided a forum for feedback on how policy and procedure fit the business.  

What does a healthy professional learning culture look like to you?

‘Growing our own talent’ is what Pepper is all about.  We seek to attract talented individuals and offer them opportunities to grow with the business.  We seek wherever possible to promote from within.  This is why we were ahead of the curve with apprenticeships – we were early adopters and implementers of a program that allows us to bring exceptionally talented young people seeking a different pathway into the Pepper business and  intensively train them over a period of up to two years to take on specialist roles and responsibilities.  A mixture of inclusive and exclusive strategies can create a very effective L&D culture.  Our ‘exclusive’ programmes create real drive and motivate employees to demonstrate certain behaviours and criteria. Our broader suite of learning ensures that there are ‘inclusive’ learning opportunities for everyone which can be used across the entire organization enabling networking and breaking down silos of knowledge.

How have you engaged employees in learning?

It is very important to us to understand how our employees learn. We all have different learning styles and we have focused on creating an L&D environment that is inclusive at every stage offering maximum learning opportunities to be exploited.

Training delivery needs to be practiced, relevant and real. Learners recognise the bigger picture on the benefits of expanding their knowledge and experience, and this is often beyond purely the business agenda. An example of this would be when we recently rolled out our Vulnerability training.  This intervention didn’t just take into consideration our regulatory obligation regarding vulnerable customers, but it also looked at how we could help learners to understand and empathise with the very real challenges some of our customers face so that they can recognise opportunities to sign post for assistance.  More than this though, we considered what the individual learners might find in their own experience, and how they could deploy coping mechanisms in their own lives as well.

It’s also about understanding the learner’s career aspirations. Our organizational culture is open and honest; it aligns very much to engaging employees to learning beyond the training room. One of the ways we practice this is by having an ‘open door’ policy at our work place, in fact we have no doors or separate offices! This encourages questions, innovation and ideas sharing across and between all levels of the business, which helps us to evolve and develop our organization and those that contribute to it.  

What advice do you have for L&D professionals trying to foster a culture of learning?

Culture needs to be led from the top down, you need to have investment from your CEO and Executives to support the culture. More than that though, we all need to be invested in the positive culture of the business, and to contribute to it.  Every single one of us has a part to play in contributing to the shared values and beliefs that Pepper has.  We ensure that as a training function we anchor back at every opportunity to the company values which set the tone for how we operate at Pepper: Can-Do, Balanced and Real.

What role do you think technology plays in building or expanding learning cultures?

Technology is vital!  But, don’t make it your sole resource and don’t get complacent.  Technology has enabled us to evolve, increase knowledge sharing and collaboration, while still maintaining our more personalised ‘inclusive’ offering, but we remain committed to bringing people into a room to experience training in group settings where the status quo can be challenged and productive discussion can drive the change and improvement agenda.  We describe a lot of our training as “close the loop”.  Technology is vital for identifying exceptions, for scheduling and for complex transactional items.  Thrashing it out in person harnesses engagement, closes the loop on issues and identifies where we might have missed an opportunity.

How do you measure the impact a learning culture has on an organization?

We look at progress and improvement.  We identify improvements in quality assurance monitoring, findings from our Risk and Audit teams, feedback from staff both formally and informally and individual performance trends. Tangible measures can include attrition figures, internal progression, promotion and movement, and brand and cultural awareness – all contributing factors to being an ‘employer of choice’.  We survey our staff annually, and we act on the output of that survey with focus groups and interventions. We actively solicit feedback so that we can ensure we continue to deliver best in class service to our people.

What's next in your L&D strategy to further develop the learning culture in your organization?

We have a number of exciting initiatives in next year’s plan. These initiatives will offer a new evolution of learning for our organization which is very exciting. We will continue conducting learning needs analyses for both our employees and organization, ensuring that we continue to have a cohesive culture. 

A key part of our strategy in the next 12 months will be building on the success of our apprenticeship program.  A year in we have the opportunity to hone our offering and make improvements to the learning journey.  We are also looking at opportunities to work with learning institutions, as well as a focus on succession planning and the development requirements we can fulfil for the next emerging leaders of the Pepper business.

We always keep time free on our annual plan for emerging issues.  It may seem like a luxury, but in a fast moving entrepreneurial business, we always use that time, whether it is in response to a change in the regulatory landscape, upskilling our people or recognising and developing the potential of future leaders in the business.

As a team we are ‘practicing what we preach’, with several of our L&D members undertaking further studying for further or higher qualifications.

About Pepper UK

Pepper UK, part of the Pepper Group, is a specialist in Lending, Advisory and Asset Servicing across the residential and commercial property sectors.

We’re a leading third party servicer of loans. With our own processes and expertise, we manage loan books on behalf of other banks and financial institutions when they don’t have the capacity.

In our rapidly growing lending business we support borrowers who fall outside the credit criteria of the major banks by providing flexible loan solutions based on individual credit assessment.

Sian Musial

About Sian Musial

I have 13 years experience in Financial Services during which time I have moved from operational roles into coaching and then training and Learning and Development roles.  This journey has shown me that I am passionate about helping people to succeed. I am PTLLS (Preparing To Teach in the Lifelong Learning Sector), qualified,  and I have been Learning and Development Specialist with the Pepper UK team for over two years, which has been the most exciting move of my career.

Since I have been at Pepper I have two achievements that I am especially proud of.  The first is the “Pepper Steps” program.  Pepper Steps is an intervention that offers emerging talent at Pepper a clear path for success to take the next steps in their development journey.  The modular format means that talented individuals can select menu style to fit their particular development needs at any time.  In addition to developing our people, this initiative sets a cultural tone, a commitment to our people, that we always look to develop and retain our talent. 

At the beginning of this year all Pepper people across the globe were invited to take part in an innovation challenge, and I was very excited to be an ambassador for this in the UK business, as well as a participant in my own right.  The brief was wide and everybody was encouraged to come up with their most creative ideas to be built out as a proposal to be voted upon by everyone in the Pepper Group, shortlisted and then selected as a project to go forwards and be developed.  As an engagement tool this was fantastic for Pepper, and we saw huge enthusiasm in the UK and in our fellow businesses all over the world.  My team’s entry which focused very much on an innovative customer service USP, was not only shortlisted, but was then selected as the Global Innovation Challenge Winner to be taken forward and invested in for the benefit of innovation across all of the Pepper businesses globally. Its top secret but I can’t wait for it to be launched! Today, I am studying for a Diploma in Learning & Development, and I have already seen the benefits of this as I contribute to helping others to grow within the organization.  I feel that I have an exciting future at Pepper, and the opportunity to share that with others in the business is a great motivator.

This interview is part of the U.S. L&D Report 2018.

Download the full report below:

L&D report

What's included?

  • The employee training budgets, training topics, and training methods of organizations in 2018.

  • Practical advice from L&D leaders to help you adopt new technologies, nurture a learning culture, and measure and promote the value of workplace learning.

  • How learning professionals rate the executive engagement in learning, assess the impact of training and more!

U.S. L&D Report: 2018
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Last updated: 01 Mar 2019

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