The Power of Action Learning and the Net Zero Agenda

Training and development opportunities for senior leaders  

Kate Maughan, Director of Member Engagement, NHC 

In 2020, the NHC ran its first Action Learning Set for members, facilitated by Action Learning Associates. While Action Learning is a great tool for any topic, we designed the sets around decarbonisation – the net zero agenda is a priority for our members, and when thinking about new skills, new technologies and a whole new direction, it can feel like a step into the unknown, so we felt this was a great first theme to tackle. 

What is Action Learning? 

Action Leaning is a process, rooted in listening and question making, that drives effective decision making and supports set members to take new action. It provides a safe place for learning, thinking, planning and decision making and in this case brought together five senior leaders from across the NHC membership. Each set is guided by a facilitator who keeps set members to the discipline of asking questions to probe and explore in depth, rather than moving into the familiar responses of discussion, advocacy or offering your own solutions or opinions. Set members learn from each other’s experience, offer each other honest feedback and build a network of trusted peers who together explore the big questions in the work. 

Sets are deliberately kept small to maximise the value members get from taking part, and meet four times over five to six months. 

Action Learning can form a fundamental part of your training and development programme for senior staff, and offers something much more tailored than many standard training and leadership programmes. 

What were the key issues raised on decarbonisation? 

At each set meeting every member shared a challenge they would like to work on (called a ‘bid’) and the set as a whole decided which two bids would take priority, based on how the individual communicated urgency, importance or how they were currently feeling about the issue. Some of the bids from our set included: 

  • Business planning and budgeting around decarbonisation – what should be built in? 
  • Developing a zero-carbon strategy and action plan 
  • Where do I start? And how do I get buy-in across the organisation, so decarbonisation doesn’t feel like just one person’s job? 
  • How do we begin to engage customers in this agenda and, ultimately, offer them a viable proposition? 

There was a lot of common ground here, with a number of set members looking to change their thinking and solve problems on the same or similar issues. 

Members explored these issues in depth throughout the process, and alongside the sharing of ideas, they also shared policies, strategies and other practical tools, while developing a new way of thinking about their challenges. 

How worthwhile was the process? 

We asked members to evaluate the Action Learning Set; all of them felt more confident about how they would approach their decarbonisation work going forward as a result of the process, and, crucially, felt that they had a better understanding of decarbonisation at the end of the four sessions. Members told us at the start that they wanted to: 

  • Develop a network of senior leaders working in the same field; 
  • Share information and learning with and from each other around decarbonisation; 
  • Experience Action Learning and strengthen the transferable skills of listening, question-making and feedback. 

During evaluation, all members felt they had achieved their expectations in these areas, and despite joining the sets with these skills already in place, came away with much improved confidence about their ability to listen and ask questions. 

What were the top takeaways for set members? 

Here are some member quotes: 

  • “New contacts, the Action Learning approach (love it!), giving myself the time to do the sessions.” 
  • “New working relationships, fresh ideas, a refocussed approach.” 
  • “Everyone is in the same position, there is support out there, be honest and open as you get more out of things.” 

A knowledgeable and sustainable network 

This set want to stay connected, and agreed to arrange a future meeting that they would self-facilitate. Members told us they highly valued the network they had created through Action Learning and found it a ‘safe place’ to bring up challenges and find reassurance. One member commented: 

“It’s been good to make time to do this; it feels like a luxury and I have thoroughly enjoyed every session.” 

What’s next, and how can you get involved? 

Following the success of the first set, here at the NHC we are very keen to continue to work with Action Learning Associates to build more Action Learning Sets to grow members’ confidence and networks – we’ll be launching new sets later this year, but would welcome your feedback on other themes you would find useful (some suggestions already have included the Social Housing White Paperpeople management and development, and communicating with customers). 

Sets can be run like this one, bringing together different people from across our Northern membership, or can be run in-house as part of your training and development programme for wider staff groups. 

If you’d like to get involved, please do get in touch with me at and look out for more details about our Action Learning offer later in 2021. 

Other ways we can support 

We’re doing a huge amount of influencing and engagement work for our members on the net-zero agenda; use the links below to find support and information. 

On-demand webinars from last year’s #Our North Net Zero event series 

Documents, publications and resources 

Our next series of online Net Zero events will be launched later this year, and bookings are now open (with no charge for NHC members) for our annual Northern Housing Summit, taking place on the mornings of the 2nd and 4th November – book your place here now!