Transforming L&D at Shelter

Katharine Nice joined Shelter in 2007 as the Training and Development Coordinator on a temporary eight month contract. Three days after she joined her boss left, handed her a folder and said ‘good luck’. Twelve years later and she has led a total transformation of the learning culture at the housing campaigning charity. She explains how she has transformed from training order-taker to leading an L&D team focused on real business needs.


“What I’ve learned over the years about being a member of the Charity Learning Consortium is that it’s great to be able to network, chat, discover and problem solve together – I think we can really relish the challenges that we’re all facing when we work together.” Katharine Nice

In 2007, when Katharine Nice started working in the training department at Shelter, Gordon Brown was prime minister, the first iPhone had recently been launched and the ban on smoking indoors was just coming into force: “Although it was only just over a decade ago, it really was a different world,” she says.

Like many others at the time, she and a colleague focused on training courses: “People would call us up and ask for a course and we would say, yes of course we can help you with that. On a really good day, we would pull some of their learning needs together. But that was a really good day.”

“We were quite absorbed by getting courses out to the organisation but not too worried about the development bit. We were very process focused, and that’s a tough one to get away from. I guess you could say we were order takers. We had very little curiosity about what was going on in the organisation and we were in a bit of a bubble in head office. We were two people in a team of about 15 HR professionals and we didn’t exist as L&D. We were like two tumbleweeds floating about, trying to make sense of it all.”

Skip forward 12 years to today, and Katharine is one of an eight strong L&D team which is part of a wider people directorate. How have they transformed from two people with a book of training courses to being at the heart of delivering real business needs? 

It started with a lot of baby steps. The team grew slowly but steadily, they got some admin support and started running generic management courses. In 2008 Shelter joined the Charity Learning Consortium, to access its suite of eLearning as well as it’s supportive community. Launching eLearning didn’t happen overnight though: “There was a good two, three year struggle for people to cotton onto the fact that they could learn online – and I was probably one of the biggest critics of all,” says Katharine. 

The small team continued to grow and started to create eLearning inhouse, facilitate face to face courses and have more inquisitive conversations. They started to think more about the organisation’s needs.


The lightbulb moment
The massive shift in thinking came about almost by chance in 2014. Katharine became the L&D Manager and her mentor showed her an article on business partnering, which described working in a consultative way to identify business needs and solutions: “It was my ‘ta-da’ moment,” she says.

“I was a little bit embarrassed. Why didn’t I know about this already? We were trying to work like this anyway, but the penny dropped. I knew that business partnering was what we should be doing,” she says.

Like any new manager trying to make a good impression, she kept it quiet, and wondered how to make a start. She approached the organisation in Scotland, as they were smaller and hopefully more receptive. Without spelling out exactly what she was doing, she learned about their business needs, what they were trying to achieve and where there were gaps where they needed help. “I didn’t just ask about their learning needs, this was across all of their needs,” she explains. 

Armed with this information, the L&D team were able to involve themselves in management conversations. “We sounded more like business partners rather than just L&D coming up and putting on training courses for them.”  The organisation in Scotland loved this new approach so much that she was able to make a business case to hire a business partner, and there are now three business partners working in the L&D team today. Working in this way, to identify business needs and appropriate solutions, has transformed L&D at Shelter.

Katharine highlights some of the results from this new way of working, from putting business and learner needs first.

A new approach to leadership development
Leadership development isn’t new, but what changed was the approach that Katharine and her team took. She had a conversation with a senior leader who explained that managers heading the charity’s 11 hubs had different needs to others Basically, hub managers lead the teams who work directly with Shelter’s clients.  They have to wear many hats, including budget holder, operations management, recruiter and line manager, as well as partner with their local authority. They are local champions, reinforcing the front line of Shelter’s services, working to protect the rights of those at the sharp end of the housing crisis. As you might imagine, the role of hub manager for Shelter comes with enormous and varied challenges. As a result, L&D put together an 11 month program for them, which included face to face training, mentoring, support and action learning sets to continue the work. Assessments were all work based and delegates received ILM accreditation at the end.

“By working with the senior leaders and with the hub leaders themselves, we were able to analyse their needs. The result was that we were able to put on a program that wasn’t just ‘put everyone on a course and give them a nice lunch’.” says Katharine.

At the end of the programme the first cohort presented back to Shelter’s CEO Polly Neate. “Our CEO came along and endorsed this, and was there at the last action learning set. I think that really set a precedent, for how we now do leadership development from that moment on.”


Learning pathways
In 2016 the Charity Learning Consortium upgraded its eLearning platform to RoadMap, with new features and functions which meant that learning pathways could be created. Katharine was one of the first Consortium members to take advantage of this, creating pathways for key groups and people in specific teams. Legal administrators, for example, have very specific needs. 

Adopting this approach, putting learners’ needs at the centre, the L&D team have transformed Shelter’s eLearning platform into a ‘one stop shop’. All learning resources can now be accessed easily from the platform, including links to relevant YouTube videos, downloadable PDFs, as well as eLearning and learning pathways. 

“This has been amazing,” said Katharine. “Our staff can’t get enough of it. In the past we were guilty of just chucking a few resources online – especially the mandatory stuff – and seeing who accessed it. This new approach has been a revelation.”

Working collaboratively
Shelter as an organisation is very geographically dispersed. But change happens fast, and in the past that has meant everyone quickly doing their own thing, building lots of resources for their own use.

Turning the eLearning platform into a one stop shop has created a space where everyone can come together and pool their resources, avoiding duplication of time and effort.

“It’s allowed us to collaborate properly. And I know that sounds really simple, having one shared space everyone can use isn’t maverick at all, it’s really straightforward. But it’s become a forum for key collaborators to use and come together,” she explained. 

Transforming performance management
Between 2007 and 2014 the L&D team tried to launch an online performance management form twice – and failed. Eventually they were successful, and the return rate for a new appraisal form soared from 21% to 99% in the space of a year. The team were justifiably proud of their efforts. But the needs of any organisation constantly change and evolve, and the focus at Shelter now is very much on people first, rather than the process. 

“Suddenly performance in Shelter became about the form and people were using it to hide behind,” said Katharine. “Something had to change.”

After brainstorming, they decided to rebrand and get rid of most of the paperwork. The new form is deliberately minimal, putting managers in the driving seat: “We sat there looking at a blank piece of paper. Well that’s the form, isn’t it! Let managers have a bit of autonomy here. But we couldn’t launch a blank form as much as we wanted to, so we put a few boxes on it that just expand. That’s as technical as our performance management documents get in Shelter now – a piece of Word document paper, and it’s very much up to the manager and staff to do with it what they need to.”

The L&D team also surveyed staff and discovered that performance related pay (PRP) was roundly disliked. They fed this back to the Board and PRP was scrapped “to the delight of the organisation,” says Katherine. 

The decision is a real sign of the esteem in which L&D is now held: “We didn’t have a replacement so it was quite a bold thing to do to take away PRP and not replace it with anything. But the organisation trusted us enough to go away and look at a new strategy.”


What next?
It’s a really exciting time for Shelter, with a new strategy to take them through to 2022, to ensure the organisation is fit for purpose, creating a clear, positive impact on the lives of those it helps and protects.  The new strategy is comprised of many activities and changes, all unified by ensuring its effort and resources go towards fighting for clients, combating the housing crisis with newfound courageousness, and doing this with shared purpose. There’s still a need for courses – both eLearning and face to face – alongside development. But the focus is firmly on putting people first, rather than being absorbed by the training process. 

 “We know that engaged staff are more productive, more motivated and they’re just happy to be there, and that’s really important to us,” explains Katharine. 

In order to support the organisation moving forward, Katharine also recognises the need for L&D practitioners to continue learning themselves: “We need to continuously think about our own development to become better, and the events that the Charity Learning Consortium organise have really helped us with that,” she says

“Ultimately, we just need to have the curiosity, bravery and confidence to probe and ask questions, so we don’t just stick to being training order takers.”


Katharine Nice shares the lessons she has learned from 12 years working in L&D at Shelter:


  • Be curious: More than anything else I’d say be curious, ask questions, and keep asking why you are doing what you are doing.
  • Keep listening: Change happens fast, so keep listening to the needs of your organisation, your staff, your workforce. Listening is a real skill, and what people say can at times be uncomfortable to hear but it’s a vital part of continuing to transform in L&D.
  • Collaborate: Learning from one another is vital, and for me, the Charity Learning Consortium is central to that. For example, I got the idea of Ted Talk Tuesdays from a speaker at a Consortium event. Together we can achieve so much more than on our own.
  • Find your centres of excellence: Where is the great work taking place in your organisation and what can you learn from it? 
  • Take baby steps: Rather than rolling out a big new initiative, with great fanfare, a pilot gives you the chance to test and refine what you’re doing. 
  • Small changes, big difference: When I look back at the changes that have happened in L&D over the last 12 years in Shelter the transformation has been accumulative. It’s lots of little things that have eventually made a big difference.
  • Fail fast and move on: You’re not going to get everything right straight away, so embrace the ethos of build, test and learn. 


About Katharine

Katharine Nice is the Head of Learning and Organisation Development at Shelter

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