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Gordon MacKay

“My train had left the station, or so I thought, and then the OU pulled up with open doors!” The words of lifelong learner Gordon MacKay who, during the last 10 years, has progressed from project delivery to training project managers and leaders on some of the most complex and challenging nuclear remediation projects on the planet.

Gordon, who turned 65 in December 2021, lives in the village of Low Moresby, near Whitehaven, in West Cumbria. He has a strong focus on sustainability and leadership as the Project Management Capability Lead at Sellafield since January 2017. The current activities of the former nuclear power generating site on the Cumbrian coast include nuclear fuel reprocessing, nuclear waste storage and nuclear decommissioning.

His current role is remarkable considering Gordon left the Royal Navy in October 1979 with no academic qualifications other than a Higher National Certificate (HNC) in engineering (Plant Maintenance) – ‘an activity I had no desire to follow!’ Unsure what to do next, it was while working as a volunteer verger at Coventry Cathedral the following summer that his life changed forever. This was by meeting an academic formerly at Oxford’s Balliol College, Professor Cecil Todd, who was coaching international undergraduate visitors in English Literature.

Gordon said: “I was in awe of this man who introduced me to the work of TS Eliot and Hermann Hesse. Like Socrates, he would invite us to consider and discuss moments in their stories from perspectives other than that presented by the author or narrator – different ways of seeing. 

“He then said to me one day: ‘You know, Gordon, if you put your mind to it, you too could graduate with a degree!’ He explained the opportunity The Open University offered – my train had not left the station and it was not too late! On reflection, I now know that more than two decades of conditioning began to crumble as nobody in my family, to my knowledge, had previously earned a degree.”

A member of the cathedral’s congregation paid for Gordon to initially study the OU’s ‘A101: Arts Foundation Course’, which opened the door to his first full-time arts degree. This was a BA (Hons) in Organisation Studies at the University of Lancaster, finishing with a 2:1, before switching back to the OU and being funded by his employer British Steel to complete his MBA in 1999 to gain a deeper understanding of the business world.

Funded by Scottish Water this time, he followed this up by earning a richer appreciation of the wonders of our world through an OU science degree with a BSc (Hons) in Environmental Sciences. He has continued to study via the OpenLearn and FutureLearn digital learning platforms and has also been a mentor with the University of Chicago on several psychology courses.

Gordon continued: “During my MBA studies with the OU, I was able to realise the power of others to do amazing things – this is what I call leadership. Knowing how I had been treated, particularly in the Royal Navy, and the problems caused by bad management, you need to know how to get the best out of people. It’s not about me, it’s about we.

“The science degree really helped to put my life in context. It satisfied my curiosity and was a journey of developing a scientific outlook and method, together with a genuine sense of awe and wonder at the universe.

“My journey into, and through, project management was informed by all three degrees. All these different elements – and I am definitely a lifelong learner as I’ve continued to do various short courses with the OU and other places since then – have given me a fantastic panoramic view of the world. It’s been quite a trajectory having been a bit lost in my mid-20s without any O or A-levels.”

Fifteen years after the publication of Practical Leadership via the Institute of Leadership Management (ILM) and Elsevier Publishing, Gordon authored a second book in 2021 on Evolving project leadership: From command and control to engage and empower. This was through the Association for Project Management (APM) which is the UK’s chartered body for project management.

This resulted in him being a keynote at the NHS’ Autumn Conference in September, speaking virtually to managers from across the country, and also presenting at a local (North West branch, Cumbria group) online meeting of the APM in the same month, having been a panel member for one of APM’s podcasts the year before on how to be a great project leader.

He has also presented on several occasions to the Nuclear Project Management Special Interest Group (Nuclear PM SIG), a joint initiative between the Nuclear Institute and APM; and has written, or been referenced in, several blogs with the APM.

Gordon added: “I owe everything to The Open University for the doors it has opened and I would like to say thank you! You, too, can realise your potential like I did. Whatever your age, whatever your background, The Open University is at your platform, now – welcome aboard!”