Interview: Michael Walker

As the former Head of People & Operations at Mastered, and advisor to multiple start-ups, Michael Walker has a fascinating perspective on L&D. Mastered is itself a talent development business, focusing on the skills creative talent needs in the fashion industry, so they are always looking for ways to develop people in new and improved ways. Here are the main takeaways from our conversation:


Management training is an obvious place to start in an organisation, as the impact here will be felt throughout the organisation. You could start by creating an offering here with a series of themed workshops for managers of different experience levels. “Every business has a lot of knowledge internally. It’s just a case of sharing that knowledge in a way that will stick”. This approach has multiple benefits. First, it allows attendees to learn from each other directly. Second, it establishes a baseline for culture and gets everyone on the same page. Third it’s an opportunity to capture content and best practices for future training sessions.


Another approach, which Mastered uses in its own courses, is to interview thought leaders in a particular field and then edit these down to short videos. These are broadly characterised as either inspirational or technical, and form the backbone of Mastered's programme. Live events are another key component, with the centre piece being Mastered Live. Here students fly to a stunning global location such as Iceland, Croatia or Canada for a weekend of learning and creativity. This incorporates workshops, portfolio reviews and fashion shoots all running concurrently, creating an unforgettable experience.


Whilst every organisation has a lot of hidden expertise that can be unlocked, Michael likes to get inspiration from thought leaders externally as well. Sports coaches, athletes and experts are a rich seam of ideas and he keeps a close eye on the likes of Alex Ferguson, Clive Woodward, Martin Johnson and James Kerr (whose book “Legacy” comes particularly recommended!). All deal with world class performance under high pressure, whilst the Netflix culture deck has popularised the metaphor of a business as a sports team, rather than a family.


“All too often, assessment is based on whether someone has had training in a certain area, not whether they’ve actually picked up new skills”. Assignments and follow up actions give people the impetus to practice skills they’ve been trained on. This works best when it’s tied to something they would do anyway, and time-limited to prevent it getting pushed back indefinitely. One example might be to get attendees of a workshop on performance management to report back on a feedback conversation they’ve held within the next week. A small practical step to make sure they quickly put the things they have learnt into action to help turn this knowledge into experience.


At Mastered they value coaching and mentoring both internally and as a key component of the courses they run for creative talent. Whilst 1-2-1 sessions can feel inefficient in terms of time, Michael believes they more than make up for this with their increased impact - and the feedback from students certainly supports this. The key difference between the two is that mentoring is more directive, with experienced professionals giving guidance to students on what to do next. Coaching on the other hand involves asking students the right questions to unlock their potential and empower them on their development journey.


“Training and performance management should be focused on the same outcome” says Michael - both give people a ladder from where they are currently to where they/you want them to be. He’s also a fan of discussing people’s career plans outside the opportunities they have inside the company. Being realistic that an employee has a life after your company allows you to develop them in a way that they will find most engaging, and means they will likely spend more time at your company. Examples might be creating side projects for people that aren’t business critical, but make a big different to their engagement.


Michael works with scale ups to ensure their growth, providing talented individuals on a search basis, as well as advising on talent attraction, development, retention and employer branding. You can find out more here.

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