L&D in the hot seat: Tony Aitken, Synlait Milk Ltd

by John Hilton19 Aug 2016
L&D Professional interviews Tony Aitken, Organisation Development Manager at the dairy processing company Synlait Milk Ltd, for his insights. He is based in New Zealand.
LDP: What are some key aspects of your L&D program?
TA: The most important part of our L&D program is building the capability of our people to keep up with the demands of an aggressively growing company – both in size and complexity of value added products produced.
A large proportion of our people are making a career change by entering into the dairy manufacturing industry. If they are a manager, many of them are operating at a higher level than they have previously.
So everyone is ‘new’ which means that they all have plenty to learn, and we need to get them up to speed and operating competently as fast as we can. We are a fast-growing company which means that after we get staff trained to become competent, there is a wave of new employees behind them needing training or existing staff moving into new roles.
Food safety is one of our critical priorities. Our industry is highly regulated, with our customers and the various regulatory bodies expecting us to have very high standards, and rightly so.
LDP: How do you go about meeting the needs of the learner?
TA: Finding the balance between meeting the needs of the learners and simultaneously delivering to the business needs is critical.
An example of us trying to meet the needs of the learner is how we assess the learning styles of all staff as part of our orientation program, and then share that with their managers. 
New staff face a huge learning curve and doing this small thing helps them to think about themselves as learners. It also helps the managers understand the best way to help them learn.
We are also developing a strengths-based culture through our company. Assessing the strengths of our people helps us to better understand who they are and what their needs are, and deepens the relationships between managers, trainers and the learner.
Perform & Grow (Synlait Milk Ltd’s performance appraisal system) contributes to identifying development needs based around the expectations for the coming year.
LDP: Is leadership development an important part of your L&D?
TA: A big focus for us is in building leadership capability. We are very deliberate about this and our approach is to keep it as simple as we can. At the same time we ensure we are thinking about long-term capability. We give managers real tools that are built into our system.
They can apply those tools in the way they work, rather than being something extra they have to think about. As well as providing coaching internally, we measure leadership performance regularly and use that in conjunction with our strengths approach to get the best out of our leaders.
LDP: What’s your greatest challenge at the moment?
TA: Our greatest challenge right now is moving to an environment where we are using online learning. This provides many opportunities for us and also requires a behaviour change for many of our staff. 
We have the full spectrum of computer users, from those who use a computer all day in their roles through to those who rarely use one.
Of course, online learning provides plenty of other options and opportunities for us. While they are all very exciting and attractive, the challenge for us is to make sure we are keeping the business needs at the forefront of all that we do.
LDP: What’s a key lesson you have learnt in L&D?
TA: My role is to ensure that L&D is a strategic part of our company’s success. The main lesson that I seem to be learning (or re-learning) recently is the need to be able to prove the value that is added by L&D and that it is meeting the current and assumed future needs of the business.
This involves making sure that L&D is adding to the purpose of the company and that we can prove a return on investment.