“Success has come as a result of the extraordinary talent we have invested in” — CEO Q&A with Ben Betts of Learning Pool

By Business & Finance
10 August 2022
Pictured: Ben Betts, CEO, Learning Pool.

Ben Betts is the CEO of Learning Pool, an organisation that creates content and technology solutions that engage learners around the world. They recently made their 5th acquisition of a New York-based company named ‘True Office Learning’ and now employs almost 500 people. 

What are your main priorities and goals in your role? 

Our unofficial motto/strategy has always been “double the business, don’t lose money.” I still think that’s a pretty sound goal! We’ve been lucky to have consistently achieved this goal over the years, and I’m keen to continue the trend. Personally, I’d want us to achieve that goal whilst being an ’employer of choice,’ a company that automatically attracts people toward it because we’re so well known for the benefits of working with us. And a significant part of achieving the ‘doubling’ will be done in North America, where we are bucking the trend of UK businesses being hoovered up by larger US competitors by going over there and being pretty acquisitive of both companies and customers.

What are your biggest challenges as CEO? 

Whilst our greatest asset is our employees, most of the conflicting challenges are always people related. 

“It can feel, on occasion, like you are trying to play 4D chess: you try to solve one critical problem but get stuck on the ramifications that may or may not happen further down the line.

Taking the implications of changes in personnel, organisational design or investment decisions is often exhausting, and it can be difficult not to get wound around the axle of a decision. I’m increasingly stopping trying to second guess too far down the line. 

How do you keep your team/ staff motivated? 

We’ve worked hard to define a vision and a mission that people can really get behind and believe in. In fact, we actually started with a ‘belief’: that the best investment a company can make is an investment in its people. With that in mind, we look to tell stories and remind people that the work we do every day is crucial to how our users can change their lives for the better. 

This year we’ve gone further than most private equity-backed companies I know by introducing an Employee Benefit Trust. This makes anyone who has been in the company more than a year a shareholder in the business, set to benefit from any future exit event. This brings real alignment to our work and conversations. When we talk about what will generate ‘shareholder value, that conversation is now relevant to everyone, instead of some anonymous group of people whom you will never know. That sense of shared ownership and working towards a common goal is very powerful. 

Of course, we also take care of the hygiene factors, ensuring fair pay, great benefits and a great working environment. Throughout the summer, we hold ‘TGI Fridays,’ and the whole company stops work at 3.30 pm in order to get into the weekend a little bit early. Learning Pool is a phenomenal place to work. 

What are the challenges facing the industry going forward? 

We work in corporate learning and development, which has typically been one of the areas a business seeks to save costs when a more difficult economic situation kicks in. As we are on the cusp of this right now, we might expect a bit of a downturn in growth. That said, I think this time is going to be different. With employment levels remaining high, the challenges that companies face in inflationary wage pressures can actually be somewhat mitigated by an investment in people. It tends to be cheaper and more conducive to producing great work to increase someone’s skill level than it is to give a one-off pay rise. And, of course, the individual benefits from increased employability as well. 

What new trends are emerging in your industry? 

The hot topic is the move towards a skills-based talent management programme. 

“It used to be that career path were quite defined. You’d be an associate product manager, then a product manager, then a senior, and so on. But with the pace of change in organisations, new job roles are being created constantly, often, jobs we’ve never seen before that we didn’t know we needed.

A skills-based approach to career development doesn’t follow defined career paths. Instead, it looks at a more granular level at the skills you currently have, the skills you are developing and how that might match any other position, regardless of traditional career paths. This has the potential to change how we work and progress significantly. Imagine your CV being replaced with a set of skill statements. Competency still matters. That’s the application of specific skills to a given role. Still, the more granular unit, the skill, is where we now focus when it comes to learning and development. 

Are there any major changes you would like to see in your sector? 

As an industry, we are still in need of professionalisation. There are a lot of snake-oil salespeople suggesting that particular methods or technologies are proven to make changes in human behaviour or to give great insight into how people learn. They mostly don’t. And, frankly, it’s embarrassing. We still seem to teach newly qualified teachers about outdated and debunked theories like ‘Learning Styles.’ It’s BS. But it’s persuasive. 

As an employer, are you finding any skill gaps in the market? 

Data specialists and specialist pre-sales consultants are the most difficult to fill roles. The interesting thing about these roles is that they require a combination of some specific skills, for example, using a Business Intelligence tool, with an ability to work with a wide range of technical and non-technical people. The ability to bridge that gap has always been tough to hire for, but the gulf seems to be widening.

How did your strategy develop in the context of the banking crisis and economic crisis? 

We’ve tightened discretionary spending, a new travel and expenses policy, for example, and we’ve cut our commitments to office space as we move to a sustained hybrid working model. But we are convinced that our sector will be robust over the coming period. We may need to change some focus, for example, shifting from putting resources behind retail to healthcare, but it’s a relatively easy change for us to make. 

How has Brexit affected you? 

We have staff who commute across the border in Ireland. This has presented a number of challenges to individuals, especially when it comes to decisions about working from home or working from an office location, due to tax implications. Another challenge is our strive to introduce health insurance as a benefit to our employees. Brexit now means those living in Ireland cannot be insured in our policy. This makes quoting for identical benefits difficult. But we’re working through each issue, one by one. 

How has the COVID-19 crisis affected your business/sector? 

COVID was a profound moment for our sector. Whilst many businesses suffered tremendously, many more stayed in business, and many grew. So the demand for corporate learning changed, but it didn’t leave. In fact, everything had to be done online, so we saw an uptick in baseline growth in our sector, something like 13% – 15%, up from 7% – 9% previously. And whilst we weren’t negatively affected by COVID, some of our customers did struggle, and we tried to offer support where possible. For example, Tearfund (a global humanitarian organisation) had challenges mobilising teams in Africa and training them around respiratory illness etc. Our team stepped up to redevelop content and administer their site when they didn’t have a budget. Seeing our ‘Do the right thing’ value shine through when our customers needed it most was great.

As a business, we were keen to support our customers, but we had to do so by working entirely remotely. Fortunately, as a tech company, this was pretty trivial. We actually took the decision to go ‘remote’ a week before the advice changed. We extended this continuity to our most impacted customers, where we simply suspended billing for a time to help them get beyond the unprecedented impact of furlough. 

The bigger challenge has been working out how to come back with any number of false starts and a lot of staff surveys, trying to work out how we would do it. Today we ask most staff to try and do two days a week from an office location, but we offer fully flexible work to anyone who needs it. I am a believer that the serendipity of working in an office location is something we’ve lost in the working from home situation. But serendipity only happens if we coordinate people back in. I’d be critical of businesses who say ‘work where you want. Whilst it might seem like a cool message (and is easy to execute), it misses the point. People only bump into other people if they arrive at the same location at the same time. That will happen more frequently if we take some responsibility for it. 

How do you define success and what drives you to succeed? 

I don’t dwell on what success is. I’m driven to be productive and to do good work. It seems like success has come as a result of the extraordinary talent we have invested in, and the benefits are reaped as we have a workforce who are invested in our vision and belief. 

What’s the best advice you’ve been given, or would give, in business? 

Two phrases I often hear: take care of the pennies and the pounds take care of themselves, and, penny-wise, pound foolish, spring to mind. At face value, I’d see this as the opposite advice, and it’s not uncommon to hear variations of both being doled out on any given day, which isn’t hugely helpful. 

“But, speaking from experience, I’ve been in a start-up that didn’t have any money. I’ve run that start-up. It’s no fun. Taking no salary, cutting everything, begging, borrowing and… not quite stealing, in order to survive. Losing focus on cash at your peril is all I’d say. I encourage everyone that works with me to ‘spend like a founder.’

That’s become even more relevant this year as we’ve made everyone who worked with Learning Pool for at least a year a member of our Employee Benefit Trust, so now everyone actually is a shareholder instead of just having to think like one. 

What have been your highlights in business over the past year? 

It’s been a pretty big year for Learning Pool. We were acquired by Marlin Equity Partners last summer in a transaction that’s been widely touted as the biggest transaction of a private E-learning company in UK history. We’ve acquired another business, True Office Learning, in the USA, which, alongside organic growth, has seen us increase our presence in the USA from just a handful of people three years ago to more than 120 people today. We were awarded Investors in People Platinum status. Only 1% – 2% of companies reach this level, and it’s been the culmination of nearly a decade’s work to achieve. And, along the way, we’ve grown revenues by 85%. A pretty good year! 

What’s next for your company? 

We’ve spent the last few months defining our five-year growth strategy, so now we get to execute that plan. We’ve never been this well prepared before. We know what we want to achieve and how we will do it. We will likely acquire again, but the bar has been set very high in terms of the quality of the businesses we’d look to bring into the group. A combination of internal innovation and great partnerships will help us realise our mission of becoming the number 1 integrated content plus technology platform for workplace learning. 

Where do you want your business/brand to be this time next year? 

This time next year, I intend that we’ve fully integrated recent acquisitions. That means a really well-integrated set of products we’re taking to markets, all pushing behind the Learning Pool brand name. I expect our presence to be felt more keenly in North America. We recently appointed a new CRO and a new CMO to help lead this charge. And I’m hoping that we’ve pushed forward in terms of our ESG agenda. We already have a number of industry-leading policies and processes, but we now want to bring these together under a recognised accreditation that makes it easy to tell our customers and our partners that we lead the industry when it comes to sustainability, equality and community.

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