Staff Development

Balloons, Eggs, Floaty Sticks and Post-Its

I’ve always been interested in learning and development, whether that’s my own development or helping others to grow and develop. The first job I had in development was many moons ago and focused on PhD researcher development. Some of the happiest memories of my working life so far are from experiential learning activities, where newly-formed teams of PhD students would work together to save the World from imminent ‘nuclear disaster’ (using ropes and buckets); build parachutes for eggs, or stand blindfolded in a field whilst one of their team tried to move them from A to B using just a whistle. I’m not entirely sure that last one would get through health and safety these days though…..


GUEST BLOG by Dr Odette Dewhurst
Senior Research Development Manager (Life Sciences, Health, Medicine) at Lancaster University

‘I know Kung Fu’ Neo


Sadly, unlike the crew of the Nebuchadnezzar in the Matrix, we can’t simply plug ourselves into training programmes and download the content directly into our brains. It would be quite nice if we could, but we can’t. At least not yet…..


Why is staff development important? What do we mean by it? 

‘They say a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, but it's not one half so bad as a lot of ignorance’ Terry Pratchet

Over the years, I’ve read countless fellowships/career development grant applications where the applicant has something along the lines of: ‘I will develop my leadership skills by attending my University’s leadership and management courses’ as if development works like osmosis and simply by being physically in a room where training is happening, we automatically learn new skills.

Formal training sessions, courses etc. are very useful and important, but development is much more than this. To learn and develop, we have to practice what we have heard and talked about in a workshop or training programme. Last year, I undertook training to become an ILM5 coach. There were around 20 of on the course and although the programme was several months in duration, intensive and had significant assignments to complete, we all agreed that it was a bit like learning to drive. We learn the skills needed to pass the test, but it’s only once we pass/qualify and start actually doing it for real, on our own, that we truly learn how to do it and develop. 

It is important for any organisation to engage with and invest in, the development its staff. It helps people do their jobs more effectively, helps them to develop as individuals and progress in their careers. I think it also makes us feel more valued by our organisation if it encourages and supports us to take time away from ‘the day job’ to learn something new or develop a new skill.
The words ‘training’ and ‘development’ are sometimes used interchangeably but there are differences. Generally speaking, ‘training’ focuses more on the present, on an individual learning how to do something specific. It might take the form of training that is required for an individual/organisation to comply with specific regulation, such as health and safety or GDPR. It might be training in how to use a piece of software. It’s how to ‘do’, rather than how to ‘be.’

As training focuses on the role, ‘development’ is more likely to focus on the individual and looks to prepare that individual for the future, not just for their current role. As with the coaching programme, we were taught about the underpinning theory and models but putting those into practice, feeling comfortable with active listening and knowing how and when to put forward questions, they are skills that can only be developed over time and with practice. Each time I meet a coachee and with each new coachee I work with, I feel more comfortable in the role. I learn, tweak things and gain in confidence – whilst knowing that I still have much to learn.

Comfort, Stretch – Panic!

We often hear about Karl Rohnke’s model of ‘comfort, stretch, panic’ in discussions around training and development. If you’ve not heard of it, the idea is that when we’re in our comfort zone, we aren’t learning or progressing. We’re just ticking along, on auto-pilot and not really having to think much. It’s easy. It’s a safe place but one that can become boring and offers little opportunity for innovation and creativity. When we’re pushed out of our warm and fluffy ball of comfort and into a position of stretch, that’s when we learn. We might pop into the stretch zone and then pop back into our ball of comfort, but that’s fine – we reflect, we learn, we ponder. Then we go back into stretch and push ourselves, try new things and learn. That’s where creativity and innovation are mostly found. When we step too far out of our comfort zone though, that’s when panic hits. It’s hard to learn when we’re so far out of our comfort zone. A recent example of this was when some friends and colleagues attended what they expected to be a preparatory discussion ahead of a stand-up comedy event for academics. The friends who were at the session weren’t there to do stand-up, they were there to listen and find out more about the event. To most of their horror, they were asked to stand up and be funny for a minute. For at least one of them, that was fully in ‘panic!’ and she reflected afterwards that it was worse than childbirth and absolutely hated it and felt stressed by it. We’re all humans and we’re all different, which means that our boundaries between comfort, stretch and panic are all different.


One of the challenges, particularly in leadership courses and programmes is to manage the expectations of what opportunities are available following the training. For those of us in professional services, where career progression opportunities are limited – particularly the higher up the salary scales we get – not everyone who participates in a flagship leadership programme will have the opportunity to implement what they’ve learned. How then do we manage that expectation? It may well be that often, organisations effectively train people to leave – to move role, but as Henry Ford is reputed to have said “The only thing worse than training your employees and having them leave is not training them and having them stay.”  Some universities manage expectation and utilise the skills and expertise of those who’ve undergone leadership development, by inviting them to take on voluntary roles/secondments, through which staff can stretch themselves by trying something new. By doing this, staff gain vital experience of leading on specific projects and continuing to develop their leadership skills, without formally changing role.



Over the years, I have developed, delivered and evaluated a myriad of training and development sessions – different universities, different career stages, different topics. One thing I learned early on is that you can’t please everyone all of the time. Reading feedback forms, I’m always struck by the fact that any given session might be simultaneously too long and too short. Some might find the interactive bits brilliant, whilst others hated them. Whilst much of the feedback can be helpful, and plays a key role in developing future iterations of a course/workshop, some – can just leave a facilitator scratching their head in bewilderment. Having said that, if the only thing someone didn’t like about a workshop is the biscuits or curtains in the room (the offending curtains were, to fair – ripped and rather grubby) then the content and format of the session must have been fine. Or, at least better than the curtains and biscuits. 

Speaking of food, for me that’s one of the worst parts of attending training or development courses/programmes. Sometimes the food has been amazing, but often it’s the standard ‘sandwiches with slightly random and often unidentifiable fillings and a random bit of fruit’ offering. Served alongside some strange brown liquid which may or may not be coffee.  However, catering is expensive and very often staff development sessions (particularly in-house offerings) are done within tight budget constraints. 


In a world where budgets are being squeezed and we all have to justify expenditure more and more, staff development can be one of the first things to be cut. It can be challenging, if not impossible to be able to state definitively that by spending a certain amount on an employee to go and attend a conference or take part on a development programme, it will result in a saving or return of £X and is therefore financially worth it.


It’s not just about courses and programmes

We don’t always need to go on formal programmes and courses to develop. Sometimes it’s about volunteering to do something different – sit on a new working group, chair a committee, write a blog, mentor people, embrace the dreaded networking thing at conferences and talk to new people, give presentations, read about something new and different. Push ourselves out of ‘comfort’ and into ‘stretch’ and see what happens.


Tank, I need a pilot program for a V-212 helicopter…


GUEST BLOG POST by Dr Odette Dewhurst
Senior Research Development Manager (Life Sciences, Health, Medicine) at Lancaster University