New Voices in L&D – Russell Woods

Welcome to week 3 of the series in New Voices in L&D. Today’s piece is from Russell Woods, Organisational Learning Partner at Aster Group. Russell shares his insights of his time in a leadership role, his transition to an L&D role and what he’s learning about how to pay attention to the learning needs of the organisation.

I don’t edit or amend the pieces being written for me. I’m not an editor, and that’s not something that matters for the purposes of this series. Each piece is submitted in the author’s own writing style. I’m also not fact-checking, unless there’s something that needs to be fact-checked.

You can connect with Russell on LinkedIn.

From leading people to supporting leaders: My key takeaways from the transition

The average age that leaders get their first leadership role is 32 years old. When I heard this research on a recent leadership course, I could see how that would be correct. What I heard next was worrying; the average age leaders start getting professional development around leadership is 40.

When I think back to when I started my leadership journey at the age of 23, that research would have correlated with what I have seen and my experience. I was passionate about building an organisation but didn’t have much of a clue about leadership or the critical practices that would set me off on the right foot with my team. We were a small sports organisation, so the first time I went on a leadership course was probably eight years after becoming a leader. Luckily the chairman’s passion for self-development through books rubbed off on me big time.

During those 17 years of leading the organisation, I went through many highs and lows as we grew rapidly. It was a steep learning curve in how to lead an ever-growing team. Many mistakes were made, some easier than others to learn from. It was when I realised how important it was to work on myself, to give me a fighting chance of building a successful organisation.

I had reached a point in my career where I needed a new challenge, and everything told me L&D was the path to take. I’m now six months into my new role working at a forward-thinking social housing association called Aster Group, as an organisational learning partner. This career change into L&D has been the right choice, I’m a learning nerd and the fact I now get to do things like reading articles, watching videos, listening to podcasts as part of the research phase of designing support is amazing.

My transition from being a leader to supporting other leaders across the organisation from an L&D perspective has been a huge and exciting learning curve, with some of my insights and learnings being:

Resources, Experiences & Sessions must meet a need and be useful

Why are some L&D professionals designing support that potentially doesn’t even meet the needs of those they are serving? From discussions over virtual coffees with LinkedIn connections, I was gobsmacked to hear that this was happening in some parts of the industry. How do you know if the support is relevant to the challenges leaders and colleagues are facing? Will they be inspired to make the necessary behaviour changes if it’s not relevant? Will they even bother to access it? If you don’t know the answers to these then you are just pushing content at your colleagues and the chances of it being impactful drops dramatically.

Part of the process of supporting leaders and colleagues that I am enjoying, and in my mind is crucial, is talking to leaders and their team members to find out about the challenges they are facing. Delving deeper into these challenges gives me a better picture of what support should look like. Furthermore, how to design it so it creates an emotional connection with colleagues utilising it, helping them see how it will have a positive impact. This is where it’s crucial to ‘Be More Curious,’ as Michael Bungay Stainer would say, ask more questions, to gain more data and insights into my understanding of their challenges.

Preventing my bias from getting in the way when supporting leaders

I must remind myself to keep my unconscious and conscious bias in check when supporting leaders. Due to my experience of leading an organisation, it would be easy for me to hear a leader’s challenge and think of the same or similar challenge I faced as a leader. The temptation is then to go away and design support that would have worked for me. It’s human nature, right? Hear the problem, jump back to my personal experience and ‘hey presto’; give them the answer. Unfortunately, most of the time it’s the wrong solution. I must keep it front of mind that what worked for me may not work for them. It’s essential to explore potential other ways or better ways to support them.

The importance of belonging as a leader

What do leaders need to succeed? A growth mindset and to be passionate about developing themselves and those in their charge is key. They need to ensure that they and their team are prioritising the big rocks each day to allow them to have an impact whilst ensuring they are aligned to the wider organisation’s objectives. Leaders need to be clear on their strengths and bring individuals into the team who add additional strengths that the leader does not possess.

There are many more factors that come into play in building a successful team, but only till I stepped into my new role, one within a much larger organisation, that I realised the importance of community for leaders. Some leaders are actively building relationships across the business, but it feels there is so much more that can be done to build a community where leaders are sharing their learning and challenging each other to improve through conversations.

Recently I set up and facilitated an Action Learning Set for a group of leaders. The objective was for one leader to come with a leadership challenge they were facing, and the others to come with a question each to challenge their thinking and perception. It was brilliant to see these leaders from across the business, many of whom did not previously know each other, having inspired discussions and using great questions to make others think in different ways. The leader with the challenge came away with new insights and ideas of how best to approach their situation, and it was all through having discussions with other leaders, not a learning session. The power of communities! We need to create more experiences for leaders.

I’m still at the beginning of my L&D journey, and even after 17 years in leadership roles, I still feel there is so much to understand and learn to keep improving. For me that growth mindset is a key ingredient in making an L&D professional and a leader effective. However, the challenge is instilling that mindset across every level in organisations. To reach a point where people are sharing their learnings. To have people staying curious that little bit longer in conversations, before jumping into the advice giving if even required. I’m lucky I am surrounded by a great forward-thinking L&D team, and I’m up for the challenge and raring to go!

If we are connected on LinkedIn, you’ll know I always like to share learnings from books, podcasts, and videos. I have found it incredibly useful to reinforce my understanding and the conversations that follow, so here are a few that have helped my thinking and understanding of L&D and leadership recently.


How People Learn by Nick Shackleton-Jones

Turn The Ship Around – David Marquet

Podcast Episodes

The Learning & Development Podcast by David James:

The Mental Fitness Podcast with Anthony Taylor

Learning That Sticks Podcast by Mark Williams


Published by

Sukh Pabial

I'm an occupational psychologist by profession and am passionate about all things learning and development, creating holistic learning solutions and using positive psychology in the workforce.

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