After chairing the National Training Awards judging panel for six years, Pat
Stringfellow has been awarded an MBE. She talks to Guy Sheppard about the status
of training in UK industry.
Next Tuesday’s (18 November) National Training Awards (NTA) ceremony at the
Guildhall in London will be the latest in a succession of red-letter days for
In June, the Open University awarded her with an MBA after three years of
cramming study in between chairing the NTA national judging panel and being HR
director of Rentokil Initial UK Cleaning. On 1 September, she switched to a new
job as HR director of Initial Hygiene, saying she needed a new challenge. And
on 12 December, she will travel to Buckingham Palace to receive an MBE for her
services to training.
She hopes the honour, which was proposed by the Department for Education and
Skills, will help raise the profile of the NTA and training generally.
"It may be that people might see what I am trying to do as more
worthwhile because other people have recognised it," she says. "But
just because you have an MBE, it does not mean that what you say should be any
better regarded – you have to have something worthwhile to say."
Leadership appears to be one of Stringfellow’s main strengths, and was
quickly recognised by both Initial and UK Skills, which manages NTA on behalf
of the DfES.
Within a year of joining the company in 1991 as a personnel training manager
she was appointed HR director. She became a regional NTA judge the year after
Initial first won an NTA in 1994, and began chairing the national judging panel
two years later, taking over from Geoff Armstrong, director-general of the
Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD).
"I thought it was a great honour to be asked to take over from someone
who was obviously very well known in the industry. There are about 20 people on
the panel, and judging is very democratic. I’m there to make sure that everyone
is heard, so that we can debate every entry."
Despite a 25 per cent increase in entries compared with last year, she
believes that the status of training in many organisations is still a long way
short of what it needs to be.
"I believe passionately in training, development and learning,"
she says. "NTAs are partly about telling good stories so that UK industry
as a whole will realise the importance of investing in training. There is still
not enough recognition of its importance in improving your business."
She says training is too often seen in terms of improving productivity and
achieving targets when in some cases, it can actually help with survival.
"There are many examples of organisations turning themselves around not
by cost-cutting, but by actually putting money into training and development as
a way of getting out of their problems.
"The bravest thing to do is to invest in training and development to
get yourself out of trouble because it takes a while to reap the rewards,"
she adds. "You have to have that leap of faith."
One reason she believes UK industry does not take training seriously enough
is because training professionals fail to demonstrate how it affects the bottom
"Even though it is difficult to prove cause and effect, it is our
responsibility to find a way of proving it to justify the investment.
"People in HR, whether in training or whatever, have to realise they
work in the commercial world; that means they must demonstrate that the
resources which are going to be put in will have a pay-back."
She also believes that training professionals need to look more closely at
the commercial objectives of the organisations they work for. "They need
to look at how training and development can link into them to deliver
results," she says.
Quantifying the returns on investment effectively often means looking at a
wide range of performance indicators, she says. At Initial Cleaning, for
example, she had to stop sales staff productivity being undermined by a high
turnover of new recruits.
Analysis of the problem revealed weaknesses in induction and ongoing
training programmes as well as a commission system which was too orientated to
winning new business.
The solution included re-jigging incentives and using other sales staff as
"What we saw over 12 months was productivity improving and turnover
falling, and generally a much more successful sales force," she says.
"At the end of the day, the measure was sales per head – that was how
we demonstrated improvement through the investment we made."
She believes one of the great benefits of entering the NTAs is that they
encourage companies to closely examine what returns they are getting from their
Much of her success at Initial Cleaning centred on the way staff were
encouraged to think of their work in terms of a career, thereby improving their
commitment and job satisfaction. "People don’t see cleaning as a career at
cleaner level, but some of our best managers have come up through that
route," she says.
Training in the contract cleaning industry is inherently difficult because
most employees are part-time and low-skilled. High turnover levels make the
idea of career progression difficult to sell, and many workers only stay for a
few weeks or months.
Part of Stringfellow’s solution was to stress to staff how important they
were, by highlighting how workplaces would, at the very least, become very
unpleasant places without them.
"It is a hidden service," she says. "Everyone shouts when the
toilets are dirty or there’s no toilet paper, but you rarely hear anything when
washrooms are looking lovely and clean."
Getting any message through to the company’s 20,000 cleaners was always going
to be difficult as they are dispersed across 8,000 sites. "It’s through
your management and supervisory channels that you recruit, train, develop, and
motivate," she says.
"Cleaners are interfacing with company staff, not us at Initial.
Therefore, we have to be very creative in the way we communicate with
Stringfellow promoted a number of initiatives including changes to NVQs for
cleaning and an appraisal scheme which operates on a group, rather than an
"We got staff together in groups of five or six and talked to them
about how we thought they were doing, and reviewed things such as health and
safety," she says. "It is a way of appraising staff who often work
very short, unsocial hours as well. Many might say ‘why do I need appraising?’,
or they might be afraid of being told off."
Another notable achievement was Investors In People (IIP) recognition in
1999, and Initial is still the only national contract cleaning company to have
achieved this. But Stringfellow admits she was initially cynical about the
value of NVQs and IIP.
"I thought they were bureaucratic and did not have much relevance to
the workplace," she says.
She quickly became convinced of their value, however, and now regards IIP is
an important benchmark for a well-managed business. "One of the reasons
for me going into Initial Hygiene was to introduce IIP among their staff,"
With NVQs, it was an increasing emphasis on on-the-job training and a more
user-friendly approach for people with low reading and writing skills that won
her over. "Initial Cleaning has been instrumental in developing NVQs for
the industry," she says. "Before, we didn’t have structured training
for cleaning staff. We put in a strategy to develop low-skilled workers in 1994.
Labour turnover fell and quality and productivity improved. We could clearly
show a noticeable improvement where the NVQs were implemented."
She believes too much training is thought of in terms of classrooms and not
enough in terms of work shadowing, distance learning and other less traditional
A former NTA national winner illustrates her point. Ballbearing manufacturer
NSK-AKS from County Durham needed to rebuild motivation among staff following a
big redundancy programme.
"They could have bought a team-building programme off the shelf,"
Stringfellow says. "Instead, they rang a local school that desperately
needed a new playground, but could not afford it. They used that project to put
something into their community and rebuild the morale of the workforce. It was
an inspirational, innovative way to achieve their goals."
She acknowledges that innovation can be difficult, because work pressures
often make it impossible to plan long-term. But she hopes there will be plenty
more winners like NSK-AKS at next week’s NTA ceremony.
"We want them to be in the limelight for a while so they will be able
to show that investment in training development and learning does pay,"
she says. "We want them to almost be disciples of that message."
1984 Management trainee with Marks & Spencer
1987 Personnel manager with Marks & Spencer
1988 Regional personnel and training manager with Lex Service
1991 Personnel manager with Initial Cleaning
1992 HR director of Initial Cleaning
1997 Chair of NTA cross-industry judging panel
2003 MBA with the Open University HR director of Initial
Hygiene MBE for services to training