Delberth Hemley – My life with action learning

“To be honest, action learning was a magnificent revelation, I have used it in many settings and I’m sure people I’ve worked with have benefited hugely too. My questioning and listening techniques are miles sharper than they used to be and I know for sure it’s a major tool in my coaching armoury.”

I made this statement recently to Jane Garnham, who ran the action learning sets that I was part of almost 13 years ago! Jane and I were newly in touch again and it brought back vivid memories of the time I spent taking part in action learning sets. I found the process phenomenal, and here’s why.

I was working at London and Quadrant, a large housing association at the time. My work involved being part of a collaboration with 15 housing associations, piloting a new financial literacy initiative in London. The team was called ‘Change’.

Expertly facilitated by Jane Garnham, our action learning sets brought representatives from our housing association together, to discuss challenges and share thoughts around our work with housing tenants in debt. Hearing from others in a structured environment and learning about their approaches to similar situations was hugely valuable.

What made the experience profound were the protocols we were asked to follow – to stop, listen and wait, giving others the opportunity to talk. We learned what type of questions were helpful (and what were not) and when was an appropriate time to ask those questions (and when it was not).

As a self-confessed ‘fixer’, I had to restrain myself from jumping in to offer solutions. It was hard at first, but by the second session, once I’d had the time to pause and reflect, I could see the value of this disciplined approach to discussions.

It was what I now refer to as ‘sticky training’, i.e. it’s training that has stayed with me ever since, when lots of other training I’ve been involved in over the years has kind of faded away. Now when I take part in discussions, I am conscious that they go wrong when people don’t listen, they don’t wait, they butt in with their own thoughts before others have finished. If only we were all blessed with action learning training when we were born!

Action learning shaping my career

I have no doubt that my understanding and use of action learning has stood me in good stead in the 13 years since I was introduced to it. I see it as a fast track learning system, a ‘hack’ if you like – giving me access to people and deeper insights into their issues and those of an organisation in a fraction of the time it would take otherwise.

In fact, I’m sure that some of the knowledge I’ve gained would not have come my way had it not been for action learning.

I moved on from working for the housing association to work with Quaker Social Action, a charity focused on financial literacy. Here I worked as a trainer, and had the confidence to facilitate, and to listen better during my training sessions. I was conscious that I wanted to ‘equalise’ the room, to ensure the scene was set for everyone to participate.

The skills I used in this role engendered respect for me as a person, and as a trainer. It certainly helped to create a space where others felt it was safe to talk and share things with others. I heard things and learned stuff I doubt I’d have heard otherwise.

It was when I was at Quaker Social Action that I spoke to my board about action learning, as I wanted to introduce it to my teams. To my surprise they told me the board were already using it, and gave me the go ahead. I was delighted.

It was a success – using action learning allowed my teams to see how others work, what they did, and to understand different parts of the business. Teams bonded and worked more collaboratively. Personally, I gained confidence in my role, finding a voice to speak clearly about the wider brand of our organisation.

Trauma, Trivia, Joy

Jane Garnham shared an exercise called Trauma*, Trivia, Joy. It was used as an ice breaker for our new action learning set 13 years ago. It’s been a fantastic tool for me ever since – thanks Jane!

Working with the Black Father’s Support Group in Lewisham, I used this exercise to help everyone offload, connect and let go of some of their burdening thoughts and issues. It was transformational for the group, and hugely rewarding for me to see the difference it made to everyone.

Today I work as a coach for the DWP helping young people seeking employment. The culture here is different to when I was working in the third sector, and though presenting new challenges, is a place where my action learning experience is once again proving invaluable. In particular I use open questioning techniques to help youths open up, talk more freely, and explore their options with more confidence.

I’d love to develop further training with action learning and use it for this group.

It’s fair to say that on reflection, action learning has not only been useful in my career, I’d say it’s also shaped the direction of work and the roles that I have taken on. It’s been used for the good of those that I have worked with, and I’m proud of the results I’ve seen along the way.

If you were thinking of taking part in action learning sets, or training to be an action learning facilitator, I’d say please do – go ahead – the sooner the better, as it will be useful to you in many more ways than you may realise right now.

Invest in you – invest in action learning!

* This is an exercise from a useful book, Ian McGill and Liz Beaty, Action Learning a guide for professional, management and educational development. Over the years Jane has adapted the exercise to be Challenge, Trivia, Joy


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