The external engagement director of the Open University, and CEO of its global operations, left a career in finance to embrace lifelong learning. He discusses his love of long commutes and hatred of teambuilding exercises
My drink of choice is a spinach, carrot, strawberry and grape smoothie. I’ve convinced myself that the massive vitamin overdose I have when I get home at 8.30pm will make up for sitting down for far too long during the day.
Whether in a car, a train or an aeroplane, I’ve always had a long commute. I have an 80-mile drive to and from work in Milton Keynes, but the beauty of a long commute is it gives me that additional thinking time that we’re all so incredibly short of, as well as time to unwind. By the time I get home in the evening I feel as if my day’s work is done.
I take very, very long walks with my dogs at the weekend. I’m lucky enough to live in the open countryside in Essex and a good 10-mile walk is a great way to catch up [with my family] and take in as much fresh air as possible.
I started studying with the Open University [OU] for something to do. I worked in finance for 25 years and spent a huge amount of time travelling abroad. I wasn’t very interested in novels so I spent hours on planes and in hotels around the world poring over OU textbooks.
It’s so important to learn new things and test ourselves to avoid getting stale. I’m currently studying for my third degree [in politics, philosophy and economics]. I’ve been studying with the OU for 20 years and I’m as enthusiastic when I pick up a new textbook today as I was then.
I am well known for my hatred of teambuilding exercises. In the early 90s I was sent on a training course in the US with an incredibly overenthusiastic trainer. We were given baseball caps, we had to stand on a chair and sing a song about ourselves – there was a lot of fist pumping and high-fives. It was truly horrendous.
I like a relaxed flat structure to let people let off a bit of steam. I try to create an environment where people can say what’s on their mind without fear. If I feel that I’m getting those textbook answers I try to work with people to unpick that and tell me exactly what’s on their mind.
Just vocalising an issue can help you to unpick it a little. I’m fortunate in that I’m able to switch things off in my mind and relax easily but I tend to be quite a deep thinker. Just saying a problem or a challenge out loud clears some of the noise from your mind and gives you that headspace to work through the issue.
I’m better off learning through books. I realised those overenthusiastic ‘life-changing’ courses weren’t for me. I’m quite reserved as an individual and studying by myself is more effective.
Shantaram [by Gregory David Roberts] should be on everybody’s top 10 books-to-read list. I don’t typically read novels, but this inspired an interest in India I’ve had for some time. I’ve been fortunate to visit on many occasions and the culture, the people and the food are incredible.
I find people who’ve had to take a slightly more difficult path incredibly fascinating. Being a big Arsenal fan, a sporting hero of mine is Ian Wright. He’s someone who had to work his way upthe leagues before hitting the big time. I draw inspiration from somebody like that because they prove we don’t all learn at the same pace, we don’t all realise success at the same time.
Steve Hill is a member of IoD Essex
Watch Steve Hill of the Open University discuss harnessing the internet