One year on… the surprises, challenges, and progress!

Peridot Partners worked with The Institution of Structural Engineers in 2019 to recruit their first Head of Learning and Development. This was a transformational role for the organisation as it looked to evolve and have greater impact with its learning and development products.

One year on, Peridot’s Head of Membership & Development, James Hunt, caught up with Sunita Dhawan to discuss what attracted her to the role, how the first year has unfolded, and the challenges and opportunities during her first year.

What attracted you to this newly created Head of Learning and Development role?

Sunita is a highly experienced commercial Operations Director with a track record of income generation in membership bodies. With strong analytical skills, she is skilled in commercial operations, negotiation, strategy, business planning and delivery – and with excellent people and financial management capability. She is also a coach who takes pride in developing her team members.

“The role was a great fit for me. I had performed similar roles for several professional bodies. I liked the range of activity for which I’d be responsible, which includes commercial CPD, publishing, business development and venue hire,” Sunita explained.

A new position which had an early impact

The Head of Learning and Development was a newly created position, with the aim of bringing together a holistic and more impactful Learning and Development team during a period of organisational change.

The main challenge for Sunita was to support her team as part of a change process and develop new ways of doing things. Sunita expresses that she was lucky to have early adopters to her ideas and others who relished in taking ownership of marketing for their area.

“I felt none of the things that I wanted to implement were earth-shattering, but for the team and the organisation they simply hadn’t been tried before, such as webinars, advance sales of upcoming publications, or a Christmas sale in the online shop,” Sunita said.

Having the courage to try new ideas resulted in the department tripling revenue from book sales in December 2019 alone. This brought hope that the new department was making a quick impact.

“When trying to win people’s hearts and minds, it is essential to get some quick wins early on so that you can build momentum around all the change initiatives you plan to implement,” Sunita added.

Getting the ball rolling, even before joining

Sunita felt it was important to start familiarising herself with the organisation the month before she started. She had meetings with her new boss, briefings with the team and read lots of supporting documents. This meant that when she started, she could hit the ground running. This was important for her, as it was in the middle of the annual budget planning process and a business analysis project.

She went on to spend her first week getting to know the team and then followed that with induction meetings with people across the organisation. At the same time, she was reviewing processes and trying to make small and easy changes that would improve efficiency and communication.

Helping shape, translate and implement strategy into clearly defined operational delivery plans

Sunita was lucky that one of her first tasks was to research, scope and deliver a learning and development strategy within the first three months. That was followed by a fully detailed commercial strategy six months later.

“In developing the strategies, I performed lots of vital desk research on what members said they wanted and needed; consulting with a range of members and staff across the organisation; and benchmarked the member offer of other professional bodies,”  Sunita says.

“Given that I started at the beginning of the business planning cycle, it was easy to use that process to define what the team’s outputs should be and, of course, the revenue that would be generated. I am extremely output-focused and always use the annual performance development review process to ensure there is clarity across the team on what ‘good’ looks like.”

Bringing commercial instinct whilst balancing charitable objectives

With a background that was exclusively in the not-for-profit sector, Sunita is familiar with developing a balanced portfolio of products that are commercially successful. She sees the importance of clarifying the different product types and then benchmarking pricing across similar organisations. That way, she believes, she can be very clear with staff, committees, volunteers, and members on each of the options.

“It is key to not try and commercialise things that aren’t commercial. For example, thought leadership content is not really appropriate for commercialisation on its own. Having a matrix of product types, descriptions, and pricing helps ensure everyone is working from the same framework,” Sunita explained.

Covid-19’s impact on your team and the ability to deliver

Sunita explained that shifting to remote working has worked really well for her and the team.

“I never really used Microsoft Teams before, but I am now a total convert. Also, not having to spend three hours a day commuting is amazing!” Sunita exclaimed.

The Institution’s publishing business has gone on as usual, although, like many similar membership bodies, they lost some advertising sales. However, they did have a 100% increase in people submitting papers to the academic journal. By unfortunate coincidence, their commercial webinar programme launched the same week as lockdown.

“On the more positive side, the fact we had a platform that we could use to deliver content was critical. We also used the webinar platform provider to support us in delivering our big annual conference in a bespoke online environment which allowed us to keep all the sponsorship revenue and grow the paying delegate numbers by nearly 30%.

“All face-to-face training has now moved online and is being delivered via Zoom. We worked hard to retain most of the sponsorship money that had been secured by February, although half of it moved to 2021,” Sunita explains.

Looking to the immediate and longer-term future

Sunita knows it is going to be a challenge navigating the uncertain path ahead; so it is a big positive that she thrives off challenge. The Institution has some exciting things to look forward to, including growing its commercial conference portfolio, launching a partnership programme, and increasing its publishing outputs.

The biggest surprise coming into the role

“How truly lovely structural engineers are. They are some of the nicest and most engaged members I have worked with,” Sunita said with a smile.

What her senior leadership team have to say:

“Sunita’s ability to work across the organisation, generate energy and momentum to support the delivery of new products and ways of doing things has proven invaluable, especially given the upheaval of the last eight months.”

Simon Flanagan, COO, The Institution of Structural Engineers

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