Q&A with Arlene Egan

Reading time: approx 11 minutes

As part of Learnovate’s Meet the Patrons series, we speak to Dr Arlene Egan, the Chief Executive Officer at Roffey Park Institute, a company that provides distance, digital, blended, and face-to-face education and  development and consultancy for individuals, teams, and organisations. 

Roffey Park Institute was founded in 1946 and now employs 82 people in Ireland and the UK, with another 140 associates around the world. The organisation delivers programmes in leadership, management, HR and organisational development, and executive coaching, , either in-person or via its bespoke online learning platform. The Roffey Park Academy, meanwhile, offers a master’s degree in People and Organisational Development and postgraduate diplomas in Change Leadership, Culture and Sustainability, and Organisational Learning. 

Arlene studied psychology in UCD, earning degrees at undergraduate and post-graduate level before going on to complete her PhD in Cognitive Psychology. She began her professional career as a Project Officer with her alma mater in 2006. Later, she would combine roles as, first, the Director of Research at the Irish Institute of Counselling and Psychotherapy Studies at Turning Point and, second, a Learning and Development Lecturer at the National College of Ireland’s Centre for Research and Innovation in Learning and Teaching, with a 10-year career as a consultant providing private training courses to individuals and teams in business and sport. She also worked as Head of Learning and Development with the Irish-owned international animation company Brown Bag Films. 

Arlene joined Roffey Park Institute as Head of Faculty for Europe before progressing through the ranks to Director of Learning and Thought Leadership and COO. She was appointed to the role of CEO in September 2022. 

What are the biggest lessons you’ve learned in your career? 

When you’re at the top of an organisation, you think that you’re supposed to have all the answers. I learned during Covid that I don’t have to know everything. The pandemic was a great leveller in the sense that it led to a very interesting re-balancing of power. Workers had this realisation, like, ‘Oh, the higher-ups don’t know how to respond to the pandemic. Well, we have some ideas…’ Suddenly, organisations that never previously listened to staff were entering into dialogue with them. The thing about leadership is that there’s accountability at the top but it doesn’t necessarily mean the best leadership skills for all situations are there. The pandemic gave businesses in every industry a chance to see where leadership really resided. 

Some more of my big lessons: I’m going to make mistakes, change is constant, and think about the team around you. The team piece is particularly important because the more involved your staff are in the organisation, the further it will go. We’ve got tight resources in Roffey Park Institute but people are still taking on voluntary projects within the organisation because they’re interested in helping the business to develop. When people feel they belong, amazing things can happen in organisations. 

What was the best advice you ever received?

A big piece of advice I’ve received is, ‘Do something to keep moving forward. Don’t do nothing.’ But someone told me when I took on a senior leadership role: ‘You’re going to make many, many, many mistakes, and you have to be alright with that.’ It was great to get that permission to make mistakes in a role. Another was from a contact on LinkedIn who wrote to me around the same time and told me: ‘Arlene this is great role, but remember, some days you’re the statue and some days you’re the pigeon.’ Some days I can really understand which role I’m playing in terms of those two pieces. 

How would you define your work style and how has this changed over your career?

I don’t stress about the things that I would have previously. I used to panic and lose sleep over work but, because I’m now facing those pressures by a factor of 100, I’ve had to learn objectivity. I take my time to think about things and process them. I ask questions of people I trust inside and outside the organisation. I have the confidence to say, ‘I think this is right, but have I missed anything?’ Lots of leaders are siloed and worried that people might find out they don’t know everything. That’s not me.

I’ve also learnt that I can’t lead if I’m stressed and unhealthy. If I’m feeling stressed, those around me will feel stressed. It’s my job to keep things cool. The work-life balance piece is so important, especially if you’re in a senior leadership role. You must model good behaviour because if you’re not, you’re going to cause stress and panic, which is unfair on a workforce that’s already stretched. 

What have you learned about managing teams and individuals?

Managing teams is what we model  at Roffey Park. I often say that I want people to come to Roffey Park on safari because they will see it done well. For me, open communications and trust is key to managing teams. There are moments where a leader might say, ‘Oh, I’ll just do this task myself because it will be done quicker, and it will be done right’. But that’s not how you create a culture of belonging and openness. People should be able to tell you, ‘I don’t think this is right’, or, ‘I like the way we do this’. If I can’t hear the voices of 80 people in the organisation, there’s something wrong with my leadership. If a leader is being shielded from bad news, there’s something wrong with that culture. 

How has AI impacted your organisation/industry?

One of the big disrupters in our marketplace is bite-sized learning. It has its place, for sure, but it doesn’t reflect the ethos of Roffey Park Institute. We believe in the social learning process and in the value of having good conversations with people. Human interaction is very important in the workplace.. Indeed, the growth of bite-sized learning has pushed us to become more selective in terms of the time we spend time on our development programmes. In some cases, it gives us more time to go deeper with the participants we work with by adding curated content around the programmes we offer. 

We have embraced AI technology around our business processes and making them more streamlined, so that we ultimately have better data for better decision making. We’re starting to look at how AI can help us onboard and offboard staff and associates and how AI can create a more positive experience. We also have a new learning experience platform to uplift our participants’ experience. It’s great to have all these enablers around AI but we’re really focused on the cybersecurity threat. Making sure that we operate as safely and securely as possible is always front of mind for us. 

Why is R&D important in your industry?

We believe R&D is critical to meeting the changing needs of customer, providing return on investment, measuring impact, and providing a good employee experience. 

We’re going to need AI to help with measuring impact around learning because we hear what other organisations are doing on that and no-one has cracked the nut just yet. 

For our employees, we have a flexible working model with employees in different jurisdictions, so how do we create a workforce experience that’s suitable for all people? Our stakeholders are not just our clients, they’re many and varied and include our employees. For us, R&D is about how technology can enable us to do our best work and delight our customers. Some business processes we engage in are cumbersome, so we want to know we can make them leaner, more agile and increase engagement across our stakeholder groups. That’s why R&D is so important. 

How should we prepare for the future of work? Does AI have a role to play in this? 

We’ve been talking forever about how critical thinking should be taught in schools and universities – but so should other aspects. I go back to health and wellbeing. We know that organisations with healthy staff and cultures perform better, so how can technology give us good metrics around the physiology and mental wellbeing  of people? How can we use technology to make sure that leaders are in the right space in terms of the activities they engage in and the example they are setting? If you spend a lot of time somewhere, it should be a rewarding place to be. Let’s start thinking about organisations in a different way and let AI help us to get proper measurement of those metrics to make better decisions around where we choose to work and how we choose to work and which organisations we should back in support. I really think there’s a great role for AI in that space. 

What are the biggest skills challenges to your business or sector?

We got away from contract work for a long time because we felt it wasn’t good for us. However, now there’s research to say that people in the future will be working more and more on projects and contracts because that will suit their lifestyle. Part of forward thinking is to understand how quickly we’re moving into different worlds around habits at work, and also to understand what’s important to us for a business. Obviously financial performance is important but what else, what’s next? The green skills movement is a hot topic now. Along with things like sustainability and big agenda pieces like ESG, there will be a growing trend towards green skills. People will begin working in ways that will benefit things greater than their organisation. I’m excited for the challenges that presents in the sense that I think people will find it interesting to upskill to meet environmental challenges. Those organisations that can afford to upskill, they’re already thinking about this. It’s more challenging for smaller organisations with not a lot of working capital to understand how to begin this process and what to prioritise. 

How can third level address the skills gaps/challenges you are facing? 

Very few universities even try to teach critical thinking. If people are leaving universities without the ability to think critically, they’ve done something wrong. Universities have an opportunity to innovate, to look at their programmes and figure out how to update them for the future so that people are coming into the workplace with well-developed idea of what’s required to succeed. I understand how tough it is for universities to change. They’re very bureaucratic. That’s the way they are but there’s potential to build closer links between third level and businesses, so graduates are ready for work. 

What book would you recommend on learning, technology, business or understanding people?

On Purpose: What Are You Really Here To Do? by Steve Chamberlain. 

I like this because it concentrates on the fact that what got it us into leadership is not the driver. It’s this idea of being in constant evolution. I like books that challenge me, as in there’s exercises to complete and think about rather than just consuming information. I’m an avid reader in terms of leadership but this one is captivating me. 

What are your favourite tools and resources in work?

I’m committed to using what I’ve got well as opposed to using lots of things. I’m really looking at LinkedIn now and thinking about how I can capitalise on it 100%. What I’m really trying to understand is that I’ve got my own goals around what I need to do to be successful in my role but LinkedIn is one of those very simple tools that can help me with that. 

Are you using any AI tools in your business at the moment? If so, which ones would you recommend?

I do use ChatGPT for quick trend analysis, just to be able to collate ideas together at speed. I’ll ask it something like, ‘Give me an example of future work trends from 2027-2035’, and it will produce a report on that after a fast scour of the internet. It will bring you back to those high-level ideas of the research that’s out there. It will sometimes even produce ideas that I never even thought of. I use it to open more discussion. As AI tools go, just for my own day-to-day work, I really can see the potential in that.

Any interesting podcasts or other media do you consume that you would recommend on learning, technology or business?

The Joy of Work Podcast. It’s really insightful and it comes from work, looks at workplace trends from multiple perspectives. I also love the CEO Diaries. The great thing about it is that it’s all about the biggest failures they have had. Imagine if we could all tell those stories more. Learning happens out of stretch. 

Why is membership of Learnovate important to your company? What does Learnovate do well?

We’re excited by Learnovate on a number of levels. The Thought Leaders Ciricle, for example, provides us the opportunity to network and hear directly from thought leaders. More than that, what excites us is that we’re not in a room full of competitors. Roffey Park is in many networks where everyone is competitor. It means people are more guarded. With Learnovate, the value for us is in the impressive mix of people and their different perspectives. 

It’s great to be able to participate in the conferences and the events, great to hear what other people are interested in and panicked about. There’s also the ability to talk to Learnovate and say, ‘I’m thinking about doing this, can you help me?’ What an amazing outlet that is, an amazing opportunity to talk to an organisation like Learnovate about a potential research piece. That’s massively valuable.

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