With the finalists for the 2022 Culture Pioneer Awards now revealed, we dive deeper into the achievements of the learning category finalists and why they made the shortlist.

The competition was strong this year, but these seven finalists showed real impact with their efforts to build a learning culture. Beyond onboarding and formal training, these learning pioneers empowered employees to hone skills, crafted inclusive internal mobility pathways, and made coaching or mentoring accessible for all.


Wholegrain Digital

As a digital agency providing services to positive businesses and charities, Wholegrain Digital has created a thriving learning culture to meet the fast-paced demands and overwhelming workload common to agency life.

For Founder and MD Tom Greenwood and Cultural Architect and Team Coach Chris Hardy, it has been crucial to shape Wholegrain’s L&D journey in a way that conquered these issues.



At Wholegrain Digital, regular employee discussions and surveys are deployed to help identify gaps in business critical skills and capabilities. Areas covered so far include ‘Deep Work’, self-management, challenging conversations and handling complexity. 

As part of the deep learning process, Hardy works as a part-time coach to help individuals fulfil their potential and upskill in a complex working environment. This support runs in tandem with whole team training sessions, plus small facilitated group work that encourages peer-to-peer support. 

Monthly ‘system seeing’ conversations are held to help employees take a step back and see the system within which they operate. These sessions, alongside a ‘Growth Culture’ Slack channel, help foster open, curious and developmentally oriented conversations.

The whole company was also invited to contribute to creating Wholegrain Digital’s ‘Cultural Manifesto’, which acts as a ‘North Star’ both for individual behaviours and strategic decisions within the business. 

As a result of these culture change efforts across the past year, two team members have been promoted into two new roles. The agency has also seen profits increase by more than 20% per year alongside rising levels of customer loyalty. Significant improvements in operational proficiency and greater cross-discipline collaboration have also been achieved.

Judge's feedback

“This is an exemplary story that illustrates the nature of learning culture pioneers. I loved the wide variety of interventions coordinated via a coach – looking to drive local ownership, systems thinking and bringing people on board with both the vision AND how to get there.”

Laura Overton – Culture Pioneers judge and award-winning industry analyst.



BT Consumer Group

Building a learning culture within any business is hard work. But for a large telecommunications company like BT Consumer Group, with over 19,000 employees across three different brands, it is almost impossible without first creating a culture of learning within the L&D team itself.

This is exactly what Anna Phipps, Consumer Learning Director, and Paula Hughes, Learning Solutions Professional of BT Consumer Group, did.


It all started with Hughes reading research by L&D experts Jane Daly and Dr Hannah Gore on SuperCharge for Change (S4C). This unique approach is all about a change of mindset that enables skills development alongside protection from burnout. What began as Paula’s own development journey evolved into full participation from the 150-strong L&D team, and the birth of the ‘Super:Squad’.

Through the S:4C experience, the L&D team now feels more empowered to deliver L&D in more innovative ways and has greater confidence to present ideas to senior stakeholders. All of this is with the aim of L&D delivering greater value to the business.

Take the example of Hughes’ development journey, who is not a senior member of the team. Through S4C she has gained the confidence to write guest blog posts for external websites, co-present an external webinar, attend in-person networking events, and present at a department-wide meeting.

Further evolving, BT is now in the ‘Super:System’ stage, whereby large-scale systemic change across the team is taking place.

“We’re now role-modelling the type of learning we want to see in our business. Our leaders aren’t dictating to us what we should be learning, they’re listening and responding,” says Phipps.

Judge's feedback

“BT Consumer Group has demonstrated a phenomenal shift in learning culture within the L&D team. This will really set them up for bringing innovation and a shift in learning to the whole business. When the L&D team get it, it’s easier for the wider workforce to become Culture Pioneers.”

Laura Overton – Culture Pioneers judge and award-winning industry analyst.



Nine Feet Tall

Management Consultancy Nine Feet Tall is on a mission to create a ripple of positive change in its wider community and it’s clear this ripple starts from its vibrant learning culture.

As a values-led, non-hierarchical SME specialising in complex change it is business critical that the whole team is continuously upskilling to effectively lead on transformation programmes. This was a challenge during the pandemic, with a hit on turnover leading to furloughed employees and a reduction in L&D budgets.



Learning became a focal point for those on furlough, who got involved in pro-bono work for charity clients alongside completing newly created virtual sessions, called ‘High Impact Practices’.

Central to Nine Feet Tall’s development offering is 9Start. This programme aims to take those new to the consultancy to the next level through a mix of on-the-job learning and formal training. “We benchmark ourselves against excellence and pride ourselves on developing 9Starters to be the best consultant they can be,” says Principal Consultant and L&D Team Lead Lauren Roberts. Alumni from the 9Start scheme have set up their own businesses, as well as for the big four consultancies.

Such dedicated L&D support is not only for new starters. To help consultants achieve their career goals, employees have support from a mentor, plus 10 days per year (pro rata) to spend on L&D (9Starters have 20 days). A capability matrix is also used for performance conversations.

Since striving to embed learning into its culture, the consultancy has seen a reduction in employee turnover by 50% in Q1 2022 vs Q2 2021. Furthermore, when asked in a survey if employees feel happy working at Nine Feet Tall, 95% agreed they do, compared to 62% in 2021.

Judge's feedback

“It is wonderful to see Nine Feet Tall’s ongoing commitment to help people flourish. The pro bono work shows real ingenuity, and the capability matrix encourages ownership, which is crucial to embedding learning into an organisation’s culture.” 

Laura Overton – Culture Pioneers judge and award-winning industry analyst.



Bright Horizons

Having entered in 2021 and not quite making the shortlist, Bright Horizons Family Solutions took on board our feedback and created a 2022 entry that wowed our judges.

The child-care and pre-school service provider Bright Horizons is dedicated to the learning journeys of all its 7,500 employees – from nursery apprentices to those in the support office to the senior leadership team.



Learning starts with a comprehensive induction programme that is split into three parts: My Bright Arrival (the first three days), My Bright Journey (the following five months up to probation ending), and My Bright Future (month six), which focuses on potential career pathways and creating a professional development plan.

“The purpose of our induction programme is to ignite and excite a passion for learning and personal growth in our colleagues,” states Louisa Devonport, Professional Development Talent Manager.

Davenport’s role was created in the summer of 2021 to help drive a new talent management strategy forward. She created a Calendar of Talent Conversations to bring more structure and regularity to development discussions, as well as a leadership competency framework that is currently used by 711 leaders to help improve their skills.

Bright Horizon employees now all have access to a dedicated learning portal, plus opportunities to knowledge share through various talent programmes, as well as access to an in-house career coach.

Over the past year, the company has increased its retention rate by nearly 10% and its overall employee satisfaction rate by 2%. In terms of growth and development, there has been a 5% increase in employees stating that their career goals are met at Bright Horizons.

Judge's feedback

“You have come so far and shown dedication to creating a really comprehensive approach. People are really supported as they progress through the organisation and they appreciate that support and a clear pathway with clear expectations. This is a tough industry to be in and I commend you for how hard you've worked.”

Blaire Palmer – Culture Pioneers judge, culture specialist and CEO of That People Thing




As the UK’s leading online tuition platform, MyTutor sees in practice how learning can change lives – not just of the children they educate but also of the university students and graduates employed.

It’s been a tumultuous ride as the company has had to scale to meet the spike in demand for online tuition since the pandemic – growing at a rapid rate from 50 to 280 employees. But the company has not allowed L&D to be put on the back burner to meet the four-times demand.


Holding firm to its values of curiosity and feedback, MyTutor has bolstered its L&D offering to further embed it into the culture of this scale-up business.

“Our objective is to create a culture of learning in the company where learning isn’t a second thought, it's not something you have to do but rather something that is naturally incorporated into your day,” says Yasmin Lord-Pottinger, People Ops Lead.

Putting colleagues in the driving seat of their own development, each employee receives an annual L&D budget of £350 to build long-term professional skills, with support on how best to use this budget provided. In addition, employees share skills in weekly Zoom lunch n learns, a mentorship programme is well underway and monthly drop-in coaching sessions are provided for leaders.

MyTutor's continued growth and industry leadership suggest its L&D efforts are paying off, with a doubling in turnover in 2021 versus 2020. The company also has a positive eNPS score of 63, and its Glassdoor rating is 4.4 – 1 star higher than the platform average.

Judge's feedback

“MyTutor is really pioneering in its comprehensive strategy of involving all with learning and expecting all to learn. It is modelled and encouraged from the top, teams and individuals support each other, investment is made and teams are encouraged to help people learn how to learn.”

Laura Overton – Culture Pioneers judge and award-winning industry analyst.



Designer Contracts

As the largest flooring contractor in the UK, Designer Contracts has been hit hard by the skills shortage, exacerbated by Brexit and an ageing workforce.

The organisation has pivoted its focus from short-term upskilling to building a culture of sustainable, self-directed learning, with inclusion at the heart.



Achieving digital inclusion, in particular, is a key ambition for Designer Contracts. Flooring is an evolving trade and those workers less confident with installation technology require upskilling to ensure long-term employability.

To support this mission, the organisation partnered digital natives with those in need of upskilling to help share knowledge, gain experience and build up confidence with tech. 

Designer Contracts is truly leading the way in tackling the skills shortage in the flooring industry. The organisation took on its first cohort of 16-18-year old apprentices at the start of 2022, and is also investing in CPD and accreditation for seasoned fitters. In addition, every employee has access to coaching and mentoring opportunities, secondments, internal courses and self-directed learning via intranet resources. The business is also working hard to create the conditions where learning would blossom naturally through ‘on-the-job’ experiences. 

The construction industry is not well-known for taking a proactive approach to mental health, but Designer Contracts takes its employee wellbeing very seriously. Collaborating with Mental Health England, the organisation created a bespoke programme of mental health training for every single manager, which has led to positive behaviour change. Leadership training is soon to follow for all managers too.

“We will always want to learn more and be better, but that attitude in itself tells me that we’re well on our way to developing a true learning culture,” concludes Rachael Pemberton-Baghurst, Performance & Development Director.

Judge's feedback

“I love Designer Contracts’ philosophy around self-directed life-long learning. The organisation has prioritised skills and expertise sharing rather than mandating that everything has to be formally 'taught'. I get a real sense of a learning culture here and not just a series of activities.”

Blaire Palmer – Culture Pioneers judge, culture specialist and CEO of That People Thing



Escapism Bar Group

Escapism Bar Group comprises seven independent bars located in Leeds, all offering unforgettable experiences for its customers.

Pre-pandemic, the 60-strong workforce was known for being the life and soul of the party – and a drinking culture played a part in this. The leaders wanted to keep the fun, but replace the boozing with something more fulfilling and healthier for its people.



Smart use of the pandemic closure periods allowed Escapism to create a development plan that encouraged employees to see Escapism as more than just a bar job.

Its new programme, ‘From Barback to Boardroom’, offers learning opportunities to everyone in the business, from part-time bartenders through to the company director. It incentivises people to learn and work hard (while still having fun) by offering bonuses, a new enhanced pay structure, rewards and opportunities for progression.

Managers, who were previously tightly controlled, have now been equipped with the skills, knowledge and autonomy to run the bar how they see best, thereby improving manager engagement. 

“Our Barback to Boardroom programme offers staff from all walks of life the opportunity to grow within the company,” says Flynn Byrne, Head of Learning and Development.

Since the programme launched, the Group has made impressive progress with upskilling and promoting its staff. There have been:

  • 20 bartenders certified
  • 12 supervisors certified
  • 2 upper management positions certified
  • 3 progressions into HQ 
  • 3 promotions to HQ

The Group’s financial performance suggests its fresh approach is paying off. One of its bars now happily takes four times its pre-Covid revenue, and the group has already achieved its annual EBITDA target in just six months. Employee turnover has also reduced, while mystery visits across all sites have improved by 20%.

Judge's feedback

“This has been such a tough period for the hospitality sector, but you've stood by people, addressed some cultural issues and come out stronger.”

Blaire Palmer – Culture Pioneers judge, culture specialist and CEO of That People Thing


Explore the inspirational stories of Culture Pioneer finalists from the Wellbeing, Inclusion and Brand categories here.


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