By Corporate English Solutions

06 February 2023 - 15:55

Case study: How British Council is leveraging learning and development to retain talent in 2023

L&D is crucial for talent retention but what does this mean in practice? How can you connect with your employees’ needs, career plans and purpose, drive their personal growth and improve retention? Read on to discover the principles of British Council’s L&D strategy and how they underpin learning initiatives and drive talent retention. 


Reading time: 5 minutes

The Great Resignation and Quiet Quitting are set to continue and thriving companies need to do everything they can to support the development of employees they want to keep. L&D has become a key tool to develop talent and drive retention

How can you ensure your L&D strategy supports talent retention? 

We caught up with Matt Salisbury, Head of Learning and Development Transformation, to learn about the principles of British Council’s L&D strategy and how these underpin learning initiatives and drive talent retention. 

What are the principles of your L&D strategy? How do these support talent retention? 

At British Council, we believe in empowering our people to make decisions, lead their own learning and develop knowledge and skills they need now and for the future. Staff who are empowered are engaged and thrive. 

Our L&D strategy is based on three pillars - Mastery, Autonomy and Purpose.


Learning is a continuum of performance and competence is not, or should not be, the ultimate goal. It’s mastery where L&D leaders should be focussing for 2023. 

With mastery comes innovation, confidence to create new and better ways to achieve goals. With mastery comes the opportunity to teach others. And employees who develop mastery stay longer with the organisation. 


Giving employees the freedom of choice and the opportunity to make their own decisions about their learning, increases motivation, a sense of responsibility and ownership. Rather than push, it’s pull, where learners take what they need based on their own judgements. Autonomous learning improves the learning experience and drives engagement while developing talent. 


Employees have recently re-evaluated their lives and work, searching for their purpose. In a recent survey, 70 percent of employees believe their sense of purpose is defined by their work. As an L&D leader that means you have an important role to play in helping them find and live their purpose. This brings significant gains for the organisation too. Purposeful employees are focused, productive and resilient which aids talent retention. They also innovate. 

And the bigger picture purpose, the organisation’s purpose, is equally important. How a company talks about its purpose positively impacts how employees feel about their purpose.

How does L&D incorporate these three pillars in learning initiatives?  

The Learning & Development team have embraced and embedded the Design Thinking methodology in everything we do. We see our colleagues as customers, and every learning intervention we develop and deliver as a ‘product.’ We put the ‘customer’ at the heart of everything we do. 

So, what does this mean in practice? 

We carry out extensive focus groups to listen to employees – to better understand their motivations, purposes, needs, wants, and how we can support them in their learning. Combined with surveys and the analysis of existing employee data, we get a rich picture of the environment our customers are operating in and how L&D programmes can align with their purpose.

We’re lucky in that the British Council’s our core purpose is an engaging and meaningful one, and the enthusiasm and engagement of teams on the ground reflect this.

In terms of identifying priority skills for mastery, we use conversational leadership to develop deep understanding of the roles, language, methodologies and mindsets of the client-facing business units we support. We have developed personas with keys skills and knowledge and use these to inform our L&D initiatives.  

Autonomy is key to learning. Empowering employees to define their learning pathways enables them to prepare for future roles, and expand their CVs, giving them an increased sense of purpose.

How does L&D invest in the professional growth of your employees? How does this support talent retention?

Obtaining formal qualifications is important to many of our employees. That’s why we provide funding for professional qualifications or training to upskill in key business priority areas. When an employee is supported in their professional development, and working towards mastery, they are much more likely to stay with the organisation. 

We also invest in 1-2-1 internal coaching. We know that having a coach from within the organisation brings benefits: it builds trust and improves relationships across teams and levels of hierarchy. In turn, this increases a sense of belonging for both coaches and coachees. When employees feel like they belong, organisations experience a reduced risk of staff turnover.  

Learning design innovation for increased engagement continues to be a key priority for 2023. What strategies do you use to ensure learning is engaging? 

Design thinking has become core to our learning design. Key to this is understanding the root cause of a challenge or skills gap and clearly defining the problem. We find this may have a skills element, but not always. It could be nested in with other challenges around processes, culture, IT Systems and leadership. 

Once we have identified the problem, we ideate using divergent thinking techniques to build creative learning solutions. We use an agile approach, launching and learning, taking care to incorporate customer feedback into learning intervention design. This results in an engaging set of learning initiatives which have been co-designed and developed with learners. 

Traditional classroom training is only one way to learn and it may not be the most effective. Research shows that microlearning can improve retention by as much as 80% and engagement by 50%. Through our learning opportunities marketplace, we offer a menu of peer-to-peer learning, project-based doing and mobility as a learning tool. Interaction with team members is exciting, engaging and drives talent retention. 

Thanks to our global and functionally diverse nature, there is usually a team or an individual somewhere in the world that is a master of a particular field or discipline. The role of L&D is to identify the person or team and design opportunities for them to share their knowledge with colleagues. If mastery of a specific skill cannot be found in-house, we have a strong network of external providers who can support us. 

Studies have shown that upskilling managers is critical to employee satisfaction and talent retention. How do you develop your managers? 

While many leadership development programmes focus on execution and technical skills, we understand that managers need to develop broader skillsets. During and post-pandemic, many of our managers have had to adapt to remote and hybrid working, manage change and support the well-being of their teams. 

Our leadership development programmes grow leaders in a more structured way. Our diverse suite of learning interventions includes formal and informal learning, tools and resources to learn in the flow of work. In line with our three principles, leaders will be able to design their own learning pathways, based on their skills and experience, development needs and interests. 

Investing in manager development not only upskills and engages them, but also plays an important part in their retention, and that of their team members. 

By incorporating the principles of mastery, autonomy and purpose into your organisation’s L&D strategy and initiatives, you too can connect with your employees’ needs, career plans and purpose, drive their personal growth and improve talent retention.

British Council has partnered with organisations to develop their talent for more than 80 years. Through our 4-step process, we work closely with teams to ensure learning programmes are engaging, relevant and develop the skills your people and organisation need. Leverage our consultancy and training expertise to grow your teams’ skills and retain key talent.

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Matt Salisbury
Matt Salisbury, Head of Learning and Development Transformation at the British Council

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