Sir Philip was the chairman of a large financial institution.  He led a comfortable, orderly existence.  A dapper man with a fine head of white hair parted on the left, he had never been known to raise his voice and was always charming and attentive. Sir Philip exuded an air of calm confidence.

He looked every inch a company chairman.  He always wore immaculate pin-striped suits, tasteful ties, gold cuff links, and highly polished shoes.  He had an endearing way of gazing at you over the top of his half-moon spectacles.  He rose early each morning, let the dogs out, showered, shaved and dressed before being collected from his home in Berkshire at precisely 7.15 by a chauffeur in a company limousine.  Before leaving he would take his wife of forty years a cup of lemon tea and kiss her fondly on the forehead.  He always sat in the back of the car as it cruised effortlessly along the M4, with the reading light on so that he could peruse The Financial Times (ready for him on the back seat) and look at other documents in preparation for the day ahead.

Once at work, Sir Philip would wish the receptionist a cheery good morning, comment favourably on the display of fresh flowers on the counter, and take the lift to the top floor.  His office was spacious with fine views across the City.  His breakfast would always be ready on the sideboard – muesli with prunes and figs and freshly brewed black coffee.  As he ate his breakfast, he would skim the financial pages of the broadsheets.

After breakfast, his secretary would join him to take dictation.  Sir Philip spurned emails and insisted that they were printed out so that he could deal with them along with the other correspondence in his in-tray (a real, not virtual, in-tray made of oak).  This was typically old fashioned of Sir Philip.  He stood aloof from technological developments.  He also, it has to be said, often found it difficult to connect with younger members of staff. There was one famous occasion at a staff party when a young manager told Sir Philip that he used to work in the finance department at Ford Motor Company based in Dagenham.  After a pause, Sir Philip, who had never been to Dagenham but knew it was beside the Thames, enquired in his usual courteous way, ‘Good fishing in Dagenham?’

The rest of the day would be taken up with interminable meetings during which Sir Philip would behave impeccably.  He would listen without interruption, paraphrase, make informative comments and never show any irritation come what may.

Sir Philip also spent a good deal of time mentoring the newly appointed managing director who exhibited some rough edges that Sir Philip was keen to smooth off.  During his first few months, the MD had, on a number of occasions, been guilty of making off-the-cuff pronouncements that later had to be retracted.  Sir Philip was determined to replace these impetuous tendencies with something more considered, where facts were weighed and pros and cons given careful deliberation.  His calm temperament and orderly habits meant that he was admirably qualified to counsel the MD in such matters.  The MD, however, was disappointingly stubborn and resistant to Sir Philip’s persuasions.  Despite this, Sir Philip kept at it like water dripping onto a rock of granite.  His patience was legendary.

One day Sir Philip’s secretary brought him a letter from a professor of psychology at a nearby university.  The letter explained that the department had won a tender to conduct a preliminary enquiry into how top managers developed their skills and talents.  In particular, the research would aim to identify the day-to-day experiences that provided the most useful opportunities for work-based learning.  Sir Philip was sufficiently intrigued to offer himself as one of the guinea pigs.

A briefing meeting with the professor was arranged.  Sir Philip was required to be shadowed by a young psychologist through three working days.  The psychologist would keep a detailed log of all the activities that took place during his period of observation.  This would be analysed and then, armed with this data, the professor would return to interview Sir Philip in order to discover which activities he had learned most from and to collect specific examples of his ‘lessons learned’.

The shadowing passed with no snags.  Sir Philip was co-operative and helpful throughout the three days and looked forward to hearing what emerged from the log and to the final interview with the professor.

After a couple of weeks, the good professor arrived for the session with Sir Philip.  He had a printout listing 12 different activities in descending order based on the percentage of time they had consumed during the three days.  Top of the list were the mentoring sessions with the MD, second was a lengthy meeting at the Treasury which had been chaired by the Chancellor in person, third was a board meeting and so on.

The professor congratulated Sir Philip on having such a rich and varied working life and started to probe gently for evidence of learning.  Sir Philip was characteristically polite but was adamant that he himself had learned nothing from any of these experiences.  When, for example, his mentoring sessions were explored, he could cite instances of learning by the MD, but was nonplussed at the suggestion that he too might have gained something from the encounters.

Try as he might, the professor always drew a blank.  Sir Philip kept apologising for wasting the professor’s time, but wouldn’t budge from his position; he was there to help other people learn and develop, not to learn himself.

After many gallant attempts to extract some evidence of learning from Sir Philip, the professor eventually accepted defeat.  As he left, Sir Philip shook him warmly by the hand and said, ‘Most interesting.  I must say that if you could make this learning business more respectable, maybe we could do something with it.’

Ah, thought the professor, so that was the problem: Sir Philip couldn’t bring himself to admit to learning because it wasn’t respectable.

Add your voice

Enjoyed this article? Want to hear more? Book me as a speaker at your next event.