Leadership Insights

Paving Pathways: Owen Davis' Impactful Leadership in Shaping Digital Apprenticeships & Further Education

June 9, 2024

Table of Contents

Owen Davis: An Introduction

I was probably more focused on playing rugby in my early years than building a career, and spent a few years working a variety of manual jobs including construction. However In the early 2000’s after getting involved with managing a number of business mentoring and education business links projects for schools, colleges and local businesses. I realised that I not only enjoyed, but had a passion for making a difference to the development and career prospects of young people, especially those who lacked the opportunity or needed inspiration. I was then head hunted and spent the next 7 years building an award winning education and skills team, for a Chamber of Commerce. Eventually over a number of years in different product and operational roles this has lead to me specialising in digital apprenticeships and end-point assessment.

Why did you choose a career in further education?

It was probably nothing more than wanting to make a difference to people and providing them with a better opportunity. There are lots of different ways to achieve success. Helping talent find, understand and realise opportunities and vice versa, is about as rewarding as it gets. If I can always push to be better at doing that, working in the education and skills space gives me the opportunity to make a difference. I found that I had developed a skill in working across different business and education sectors, helping to solve their problems through collaboration and understanding.

Nearly 25 years later although the education and training products and services I’m involved in are different. Playing a role in helping to develop and support people on their career journey still motivates me to stay true to my core values.

Tell us about a notable early experience in your career

In my mid 20’s it was probably managing not to drown when successfully achieving my pool lifeguard qualification! I was working in a project team for a large leisure company and had no business being near water!! But everyone above a certain level within the company had to achieve this qualification. I float like a stone and seriously dislike swimming. I avoided the mandatory training for at least 6 months and even thought about quitting my job. In the end I managed to achieve something i thought was impossible! Although I never once worked poolside.

In my early 30’s it would be successfully managing the Hertfordshire education business links contract, which included the county work experience budget and contract. This was made even more difficult by having to manage subcontractors, improve return on investment and manage a reduced budget. This honed my negotiating skills especially as my largest subcontractor and the CEO of the careers service was my employer 18 months beforehand.

After being made redundant in 2011 during the recession, I ditched the suit and spent a year back in construction. This absolutely reinforced to me that soft skills, attitude to work and ability to learn are essential.

How have you developed your career as a leader in further education?

I’m a fairly competitive learner, not purely in the pursuit of certification, but to find out how things work and to be able understand and empathise with the people I’m working with. I often work with technical specialists, network engineers, data scientists or senior stakeholders and I’m never afraid of not being the smartest person in the room, and it is something I enjoy, as I know it’s an opportunity to learn and grow.

Challenging myself to seek out new opportunities in different environments with new challenges has seen my leadership growth accelerate over the past few years. In recent roles having both direct and indirect management responsibilities mean I’m often required to lead without direct authority when working with different internal and external stakeholders. Nothing puts your adaptability, knowledge, skills and ability to learn to the test than working with new people and teams.

Keep learning, keep learning, keep learning I’ve probably read more books, and dipped in and out of online learning in the last 6 - 7 years than anytime in my career. I look for inspiration, Ted Talks, LinkedIn anywhere really, I love finding out about how and why people have acquired new skills. My current favourite books are Continuous Discovery Habits, by Teressa Torres and Inspired by Marty Cagan.

For me talking, listening and seeking feedback is so effective. This can be from anyone not just customers, new staff, high achievers, and as many colleagues at all levels that I can. In the search for innovation and improvement it’s invaluable, the most difficult conversations are often the most valuable.

Find yourself a good mentor, strategic thinking in vacuum is a dangerous thing! I’ve had an amazing one for a good few years, I won’t name and shame him as he hates publicity!

I try not to ask anyone do anything I’m not prepared to do and maintain a consistent approach to putting my core values into practice. Holding up a mirror to myself and being honest, helps to maintain an effective balance.

Something that I believe is evident in building and developing effective teams is recruiting for attitude, values and diversity of thought, background and personality. In my opinion this helps everyone grow and keep learning, especially myself.

Tell us about some key achievements in your career

It’s the small things that I have achieved as part of team, that very few people are aware of that I’m most proud of. There have been plenty of swan like moments!

The first batches of apprentices taking their digital end-point assessments, back in 2017. The headlines and glory would be the transformation of an organisation into a market leading Digital EPAO. The reality was a very small team of passionate dedicated individuals who refused to fail and let apprentices down. What was achieved in short space of time was truly mind blowing. There were some real touch and go moments.

Helping to lead a business through Ofqual recognition with a close colleague and co-founder of a business should be up there. However the real achievement was proving we could create a value driven business and the bonds with colleagues that survive even after most of us have gone our separate ways.

What have been the biggest challenges you've faced in your career and how did you overcome them?

I think the single biggest challenge I have faced in my career to date is overcoming a bout of crippling anxiety. It is rarely talked about in management or leadership circles for fear of showing weakness. But it is more common than most would imagine and shouldn't be stigmatised the way it is.

I was so focused on the business and the well being of colleagues that I missed some of the key triggers, like continual heavy work load, minimal sleep and working under constant stress and pressure.

I overcame this by introducing more balance into my life and taking more care of myself, health is wealth as they say. The most important and most painful thing for me was really talking about myself with colleagues, friends and family, I am an insanely private person. Even contributing to something like this and answering these questions goes against every fibre in my body! I fully recovered but it was a real learning process and I am passionate about ensuring my teams and organisations I work for create psychological safe environments to help foster meaningful communication.

What are your thoughts on improving the further education sector?

Injecting far more honesty and transparency into the conversations business leaders, policy makers and politicians are currently having on the strategic direction of further education and apprenticeships. I believe the learner, the apprentice and the businesses that either do or will employ them are the reasons that our collective education institutions or businesses exist. This is currently getting lost in translation at the moment.

There is a lot of noise and debate around what is going to happen over the next 6 - 12 months in the industry very little of which is backed by data driven insights. The voices that really make a difference to the learner, the apprentice and their employers are the ones that are seldom heard and that needs to change. We should all start getting comfortable with the fact that none of our organisations have a right to exist if we are not serving the needs of our customers.

What advice would you give to aspiring leaders in further education?

Have a growth mindset, protect and maintain your values and practice what you preach, consistently. Be prepared to challenge the status quo, be comfortable with colleagues challenging you and seek out opportunities that take you out of your comfort zone. My biggest piece of advice is to ask the questions you are most worried about asking, especially when choosing organisations and leaders to work with and for. The values and ethics of the leaders I work with is more important than the salary and benefits that they can offer, the learning and growth potential in the right environment is limitless.

Find out more

People can reach out to me on LinkedIn and take a look at the work I have been involved with on Linkedin or keep an eye out for the work I’m currently doing at 1st For EPA.

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Alex Lockey
Director | Bolt Jobs
Founder Alex Lockey is an expert in further education, learning, and skills sector. He leads cost-effective hiring solutions and is known for successful talent placements. Dynamic and driven, Alex seeks innovative solutions to solve sector hiring challenges.