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Janine Milne

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Talent Spot: Charles Elvin, chief executive at the ILM

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As chief executive at the Institute of Leadership & Management, Charles Elvin is responsible for setting the UK’s largest management body’s agenda and striving to improve skills through a focus on qualifications.

He is a lifelong believer in the transformational power of education, an idea that was drummed into him from his earliest years by his grandfather, the eminent educationalist, Lionel Elvin.
 
His ancestor’s many achievements include being principle of Ruskin College in Oxford and an influential member of the 1963 Robbins Committee, which transformed University education.

So, when Elvin finished his degree, teaching was his inevitable first port of call and he spent two years teaching English as a foreign language. “I took one look at the ‘Milk Round’ and ran to Japan,” he laughs.

His experiences there gave him a lifelong love of travelling in South East Asia, but also made it very clear to him that teaching itself was not his calling. “Those who love it actually get a real buzz out of it, but for me it never gave that level of emotion,” Elvin explains.

Although standing up in front of a class wasn’t for him, his interest in education and learning remained undimmed and it wasn’t long before he began working at RM, a provider of educational software and services for schools.

 
Working there fired his interest in how technology could be applied to enhance and transform learning and gave him an introduction to the skills necessary to set up the education systems that could contribute to doing so.

“I see myself on the side of learning development. It’s very useful that I know how training works in the classroom, but my skill is running learning and development functions effectively,” Elvin says.

At that time in the very late 1990s, the use of technology in education was just beginning to make an impact so he felt that he was very much in the right place at the right time.

 
Education, education, education
 
On leaving RM, however, Elvin applied his interest in education in a very different direction. He joined financial services giant UBS, which was looking for someone to set up a complex, technology-driven education programme for its customers.
 
It was an enormous change, but the combination of “mind-boggingly large budgets”, the increasing levels of sophistication involved in online learning and the fact that he was setting up an education system from scratch made it an exciting place to work.
 
But after nearly three years, it was again time to move on. “I wasn’t destined to work in a bank,” Elvin admits.

But he didn’t just leave the bank. He also left the UK and headed to Malaysia to work for a small educational software business, owned by UK educational charity, CfBT Education Trust. “It was about as far removed from banking services as you can imagine,” recalls Elvin.

Although he had a great time there for 18 months, it was only ever meant to be a short-term placement. But instead of returning to the UK, Elvin began working for a consultancy in the US. Family commitments eventually pulled him back to the UK, however.

 
Meeting his wife meant that this time he stayed put, joining first the British Standards Institution as global director of its commercial training business and expanded the organisation’s training function significantly. He then took a senior position at The Open University.
 
Elvin is a major fan of the OU, not only because of the service that it provides which can transform people’s lives, but also because it is an innovative and exciting place to work for anyone interested in education and educational technology.
 
“When you work at the OU, you forget how cutting-edge a lot of what they are doing really is,” he says. “They are so far ahead of a lot of businesses and don’t know how far ahead they are.”

Although he really enjoyed his stint there, when the chance came up to work at ILM, it was too good an opportunity to miss. “This is the kind of job that comes up rarely,” Elvin points out.

 
Having goals
 
As at the OU, he believes that the organisation is very values-driven and has a deep belief that education can change lives. Therefore, since taking up the chief executive post in February, Elvin has concentrated on building up two areas of the organisation.
 
The first is to help equip people with the requisite skills to start their own business, and the second is coaching.
 
“More and more, people are seeing the value of coaching and mentoring, so it’s important for ILM too,” Elvin says. “One-to-one coaching or mentoring gives an intensity of experience that is very personalised. At the right time, in the right way, it can be enormously effective – but it isn’t cheap.”

The recession and continuing economic uncertainty means that whatever remains of training budgets is under pressure to deliver more. This means that HR professionals need to be crystal clear about the aims of their learning and development programmes.

 
“Companies need to have goals. They need to work out what they are after within what period of time and how they want to transform how they work,” Elvin explains.

But he believes that it is both difficult and foolish to try and put a monetary figure on the value that can be derived.

 
“Any good CEO doesn’t need to be convinced of the ROI on learning and development. A better measure is to work out how you want the organisation to work better or work faster and that’s hard to do – you have to dig into what you want to be,” Elvin says.
 
The challenge is that good leadership and management interventions tend to take several years to come to fruition. “Learning and development will never be a quick win, but is does lead to long-term success,” Elvin adds.

But he believes that former Tesco chief executive, Terry Leahy, has the right idea about leadership. When asked what it meant at the supermarket chain, Leahy responded that there wasn’t one leader at Tesco but thousands. “That is so on the money,” Elvin says.

 
And finally…
 
Who do you most admire and why?

My grandfather, Lionel Elvin, because he came from the type of background where you didn’t go to university but he got a scholarship to Cambridge and worked his way through college. He was a well-known educationalist and the whole view I have of the power and importance of education comes from him.

From education in 1905, when he was born, to education in 2005 when he died, there’s been a complete transformation and he’s one of the people responsible for that transformation.

What’s your most hated buzzword?

“Edutainment.”

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

“No decision is always the wrong decision.” I’ve always felt that was an important piece of advice because decisions will be taken for you otherwise.

The other piece of advice I follow, given to me by someone I worked with at the OU, is: “Focus on the leadership issues”. In other words, stop being obsessed by minutiae.

How do you relax?

My ideal holiday would be to go to France with the kids, good books and great wine.

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