UCD Professional Academy CEO Aaron McKenna shares his life and business lessons.
UCD Professional Academy hosts courses to address upskilling across a variety of sectors through short form lifelong learning.
It also recently commissioned a survey which takes an insightful look into how short professional courses are considered by Irish workers, what drives workers to pursue upskilling opportunities and explore the barriers that prevent them from doing so.
“I loved the idea of helping people to progress in their careers no matter their background”
Tell us about your background, what journey did you take to arrive at where you are?
For the CEO of an education company, I took quite a circuitous route to where I am today. I left school without a Leaving Cert which is not something I would recommend today! After a bit of wandering, I was lucky to eventually fall in with a small online media company with big ambitions. The environment of a small start-up gave me responsibility beyond my years and a few good mentors helped shape me. Eventually, and with a lot of self-learning and part time study, I found my way into senior leadership in a private sector education company. I loved the idea of helping people to progress in their careers no matter their background, and when the opportunity came up to help UCD enter a similar market for non-traditional education and training I jumped at the chance. At UCD I met people who wanted to push boundaries while maintaining ahigh quality of service and use any profits we generated to re-invest into the core activities of the university. It was this compelling idea that led to the creation of the UCD Professional Academy.
“Upskilling is vital to maintaining a competitive workforce in an open economy like ours”
Why are you doing what you are doing? What need are you meeting? What’s your USP?
The UCD Professional Academy addresses the significant need for shorter format upskilling. People need to get quick hits of skills they can apply in their roles tomorrow, in anything from data analytics to sales management and a whole lot in between. Upskilling is vital to maintaining a competitive workforce in an open economy like ours. We find that the biggest barriers to people taking any course is having something available at a time and in a way that suits their busy schedules. So we set out to create these shorter, typically 36 hours of tuition, courses and make them as easy to access as we could. Most people study online at a live class in the evening, others pursue self-paced on-demand learning, some attend classroom or morning sessions, and other through their companies through on-site learning. We deliver high quality learning in a flexible way, and like all good businesses it’s a simple idea that drives the growth.
We’re not replacing traditional or longer form education. The vast majority of our students weren’t considering anything like a masters, but having taken a short course with us almost half say they’re more likely to go on and do something meatier. We trialled this connection with a school in UCD recently, helping to funnel Professional Academy students towards a relevant master’s degree. 40 percent of the domestic intake of Project Management MSc students at UCD last September had come via the Professional Academy. We’re creating strategic value for the university as well as delivering a great service to our students.
“I felt a great sense of responsibility to both the university and our small team at the time. As it happens, we delivered a seven-figure profit to UCD in the first full financial year and our growth has been self-sustaining”
How did you fund and start the business and what are your growth plans?
We started the Professional Academy as a trial, taking in our first 200 students in February 2020. We launched with 10 courses and everything was geared towards the classroom, getting people coming home from work up the N11 and dropping in to Belfield for a few hours. When Covid lockdowns arrived in March, we had to send the students online and adapt quickly. The business unit was funded by UCD but it was a deeply uncertain time and we had to get on with driving growth. I felt a great sense of responsibility to both the university and our small team at the time. As it happens, we delivered a seven-figure profit to UCD in the first full financial year and our growth has been self-sustaining.
We’re ambitious to grow both our offering, which is now well over 40 courses, and the ways we deliver it, for example by making more delivery modalities available. We’ve also had great traction with corporate clients. Lots of individuals are sponsored by their employers and we’ve now got over 1,000 “logos” where we are selling multiple seats and growing our footprint as a trusted learning and development partner.
What are your key skills and qualities that set you apart?
My key skills and qualities lie in striking a balance between data-driven decision-making and embracing innovative, non-traditional approaches.
If I find an opportunity to achieve an important goal, I’m not afraid to drive change, even if it’s uncomfortable sometimes.
What (or whom) has helped you most along the way? Who was your greatest mentor/inspiration?
I’ve been lucky to have had a number of mentors along the way. I had a boss early on in my career who introduced me to the concept of equity and thinking like a shareholder learned that if you are ambitious and show that you are willing to take ownership of things, more experienced hands would generally return the favour by offering you good advice and insights. Learning to be open to that advice and mentorship has shaped me into the success I am today, and it continues to be an important part of how I continue to grow.
What was the greatest piece of business advice you ever received?
You can only control the inputs. The outputs will sort themselves out based on whether you picked the right inputs and executed well enough on them. Focus your energy almost exclusively on inputs and worry about outputs only insofar as they help you refine what you do in the next cycle.
“I think the quality that ultimately makes a difference over the long run, is embracing failure and having the resilience to go again. If you let your failures, big or small, deter you from trying again, you are done”
What circumstances/qualities/events can mark the difference between success or failure in life or business?
Success or failure can often be a function of luck. There’s plenty of hard working people who fail. Plenty of great businesses get struck dumb by some outside event they couldn’t foresee or control. I think the quality that ultimately makes a difference over the long run, is embracing failure and having the resilience to go again. If you let your failures, big or small, deter you from trying again, you are done. If you’re not open to learning from your failures, you will fail again. If you are not brave enough to move on from your failure and risk failing again, you are stuck. I am a big giant failure. I have failed so many times in so many ways. And every time I try and learn from it, dust myself off, and go again.
What was the most challenging aspect of either starting or growing the business?
Apart from the pandemic landing the month after we took in our first paying classroom students! I would say that what we are doing is relatively unconventional for the university. We have moved into what was for UCD a new segment of the workforce upskilling space. It’s an important space and one with great potential as our success has shown. But in leading the UCD Professional Academy I’ve had to ensure that we show the university, as well as our students and corporate clients, that we are truly delivering a high quality service every day.
I speak to colleagues from higher education institutions around the globe who are on a similar journey, and the story is often the same: The institution is quite rightly risk averse in its views. It is protecting a reputation built over a century or more. It has to be done, because the transformation in our working lives is so profound and the need for ongoing upskilling so very urgent. I was lucky to have leadership at UCD who were willing to take a risk, while being very transparent in their expectations for quality and integrity in all that we do.
How did you navigate your business through the pandemic and what lessons did you learn?
We had about a dozen employees the day we went into lockdown. We had just taken in our first 200 students, in the classroom. I remember that day we were sent home, wondering if I’d ever see any of the team in person in the office again. So we ploughed into Covid as a true existential moment of crisis. Thankfully, for us, it turned out that many people, stuck at home, decided to take a course as a productive way to spend the time. That helped us to go from barely alive start up to feasible entity. We’ve sustained and built upon that growth thanks to an amazing team delivering on the promises we make every day, and our 200 students is now well in excess of 20,000 enrolled since day one. Onboarding scores of new staff, building processes and new capabilities, and delivering a great service remotely was one of the most interesting periods in my professional life.
How has digital transformation been a factor in your scaling journey and do you believe Irish firms are utilising digital technologies sufficiently?
Our working model has completely changed with the digitalisation of the classroom. The way people consume upskilling is changing. We launched as a classroom provider in February 2020, in an amazing feat of poor timing. We became, by default, an online provider in March of that year. Now we see preference for classroom delivery approaching only 10% of the market for courses we provide in-person teaching has now become niche for our type of product, aimed at busy working professionals. But on the other hand, it has allowed us to reach so many more students across the country, not just those who are driving home past UCD campus. As a result, our business has grown faster and further than we could have predicted. I can’t speak for every other firm, but I would encourage all leaders to be innovative and explore how tech can help your business grow.
“My ethos has always been to give my employees the agency to be self-motivated, but to achieve this you need to provide them with meaningful work, a shared vision to believe in and the tools to achieve that shared vision through their work”
If you were to do it all over again, what would you do differently?
Not a thing. Learning from mistakes and setbacks is our most powerful tool, and I’ve been fortunate enough not to make any disastrous decisions I would want to take back. Sometimes I might think “I wish I’d been calmer in this early crisis”, but these are the situations where do we get the experience to handle tricky situations and grow or develop our personal and professional skills.
Who inspires you in business today?
Warren Buffett: a sage voice of reason in a fast moving world.
What advice/guidance do you give new hires and how do you nurture talent in your organisation?
My ethos has always been to give my employees the agency to be self-motivated, but to achieve this you need to provide them with meaningful work, a shared vision to believe in and the tools to achieve that shared vision through their work. From my side, it’s important to be trusting and transparent. I give my employees the space to take ownership of their work and to encourage innovation. I would encourage new hires to be self-motivated and take any opportunities that allow you to take ownership of your work.
What business books do you read or would recommend?
I always enjoy a good Michael Lewis yarn, which often focus on people who think or act a bit differently than their peers, for good or ill, and do interesting work. I recently read ‘The Power Law’ by Sebastian Mallaby, which tells the story of Silicon Valley through the eyes of venture capital investors, which is a fascinating angle, different to the entrepreneurial perspective view we often get. I really enjoy books that dissect failures as well as successes, and I often go back to ‘Barbarians at the Gate: The Fall of RJR Nabisco’ when I want a reminder that all glory is fleeting!
What technologies/tools do you use personally to keep you on track?
Pen and paper. There is nothing quite as simplifying as sitting down to look at what you need to be doing, your calendar, your unread emails or Slack messages, your upcoming deadlines, your company OKRs. And writing and re-writing on a sheet of paper how you’re going to purposefully tackle the tasks. Technology is generally about moving quickly. The pen and paper is about taking a beat to make sure you’re actually on track.
What social media platforms do you prefer and why?
LinkedIn. I find a lot of really interesting people putting up fascinating content on their area of expertise, and it’s an efficient way to keep up to date with your network. I deleted Twitter some time ago, too much noise and not enough value even though I could go down a rabbit hole every day on it.
“People will remember you not for what you do or say, but for how you made them feel”
What are your thoughts on where technology overall is heading and how it will apply to business generally and your business particularly?
For us at UCD Professional Academy, live online and live on demand learning are big winners, so we’re going to continue adapting to that technology. Moving forward I think immersive learning, like the Metaverse, is on a lot of minds. The question is whether it will emerge from an expensive fad and emerge as the new, best way to learn. We have been successfully adapting to these trends in learner preferences and ensuring our delivery keeps up.
Finally, if you had advice for your 21-year-old self – knowing what you know now – what would it be?
People will remember you not for what you do or say, but for how you made them feel. Whether that’s about your legacy as a person or a business relationship, it’s really important to do your best to be a decent person to others. You choose how you behave, how you present yourself, and how you try to make someone feel in any given interaction.