Singing a different tune. Conversation with Denise Hanlon – Head of Learning & OD, ING Direct Australia

We talk to Denise Hanlon, Head of Learning and Organisational Development at ING Direct. Denise has worked in various roles including HR, board director and Organisational Services. An avid learner, Denise has competed masters degrees in  Business Administration and Finance.  Denise  facilitated the “Leadership Learning for Performance” at the Learning Café UnConference. Denise has a passion for singing and being an MC at corporate events.

Jeevan Joshi: The first question really is how you did get into learning?

Denise Hanlon : I don’t really think of myself as being in ‘learning’. My background is as an HR generalist. I have lot of tools in my kit – L&D is just one of those. I currently have a team of 14 people – including L&D, OD and the recruitment team – so I think of my role as a people leadership one more than anything.

Jeevan Joshi : You obviously have a fairly wide range of experiences and skills including board management positions and managing IT/ finance support functions. Does that experience help you in your current role as the head of learning in OD?

Denise Hanlon : I think it does. I have experience that’s wider than L&D or HR and I think I can bring a bit of business perspective to what we do and how we do it or indeed, whether we do it. I’m pretty focused on making sure that what we offer is a service, that the business needs – not just something that we think will be good to do because it looks good on the CV or it’s more fun than some of the other stuff.

Jeevan Joshi : I’ve seen that the learning function usually tends to recruit from its own ranks? Do you know why that happens? What’s your view on that?

Denise Hanlon : My observation is the same as yours. I don’t have an explanation as to why there seems to be such reticence to appoint people who don’t have a specialist L&D background. I’m grateful to my HRD that he sees the role as I do. That said, in my business, the majority of our technical trainers did actually start out in the business.

Jeevan Joshi : Denise, I also noticed that you have a Masters in Finance as well as an MBA. How much does that help you in your role, at the moment?

Denise Hanlon : My studies focussed on the management of financial institutions so, now that I work for a bank, I can actually see the theory play out in practice. I understand how financial institutions operate, their role and the role of the regulators. I’m not an accountant and I’m sure there are people who could look at the balance sheet and make more sense of it than I could but I am reasonably financially literate and I think that can only help in any role and any business.

Jeevan Joshi : Okay, and does it translate into more confidence that the business may have on the learning function because you know, you might speak their language. Do you see that being translated?

Denise Hanlon : I’d like to think that it can’t hurt. It’s not like I walk around with a sign on my forehead, “Hi, I’ve got a master in finance”. I’d like to think that it’s part of my offering.

Jeevan Joshi : It seems learning is pigeon-holed by the business into creating learning before they can be involved in the understanding the problem to be solved.  Do you think this may be because that the business may not have the confidence that learning professionals can understand the problem?

Denise Hanlon : I think the answer is “yes” for any function. So perspective is probably one of the greatest things that you can get. If you get the opportunity, get involved in as many different things and work in as many different places as you can. I personally find that very helpful. We’re very lucky here; the L&D function is very highly regarded and has a great reputation

The people that we recruit into these roles generally have a wider perspective and do know how to ask the right questions. They can actually influence the business away from a training solution if that’s not the best solution.

Jeevan Joshi :. What are the current issues and challenges that learning faces in your industry?

Denise Hanlon: Well, I can speak about learning in ING Direct, not sure about the industry as a whole.

We have a high-touch service. As the organisation grows and becomes more complex – how do we continue to offer a service that’s really valued with no more resources? I’m sure that’s not just an industry thing or an ING thing. Technology is practically screaming for us to engage with it as efficiently as we can. A lot of it is free. So, how we use technology is a big thing for us at the moment.

We are still heavily committed to face to face learning .People get a lot out of it and we think we have pretty special place as a result – but there are definitely a lot of technological opportunities,

Another issue – or probably more of a general comment – is the need for L&D to respect the relationship between a manager and an employee. I see our job is to try to help foster that relationship. Sometimes, we assume that we care more about an employee’s development than their manager.

Jeevan Joshi : I haven’t looked at the evidence but generally speaking learning professionals tend to be nurturing so it may be natural to assume that learning people will be more naturally inclined to nurturing them than people managers?

Denise Hanlon : I actually don’t accept that. My belief is that a manager’s great passion is to get the best out of their people. Sometimes, L&D and other parts of HR almost ‘interject’ themselves into the relationship. They have conversations directly with the employees and my question is always ‘where is the manager in this conversation’? This is the key to building manager capability – sometimes we just need to keep out of the way.

Jeevan Joshi : What is your own, philosophy on learning? How much time do you devote to learning?

Denise Hanlon : I can learn the same things over and over again and still get something out of it. Personally, the number of years that I haven’t been studying or learning something are far few than the number that I have . One of the great parts about this job also is the opportunity to get out and hear about what’s happening outside of the four walls of ING DIRECT – it really stimulates my thinking.

Jeevan Joshi : We know you have a special talent outside of work. You’re into dancing and singing. So, tell us…

Denise Hanlon: Not dancing. Not dancing, Jeevan.

Jeevan Joshi : Okay, fair enough. Singing. So, tell us about that. How do you get into that and is that something you enjoy? How do you manage to find time for it ?

Denise Hanlon: Yes, I have limited time these days but it’s something I’ve been doing for a long time. It’s morphed into more of a comedy, cabaret kind of thing now. I probably wouldn’t do more than about half a dozen events a year and that’s enough for me because it’s quite labour intensive and a bit stressful all by myself….. but I can’t seem to shake it!

Jeevan Joshi : Obviously a very organised person. Thank you for your time Denise.