Michelle Blieberg, global learning officer at UBS’ investment bank, loves a challenge. When she took her current position with the Swiss-based wealth management firm more than three years ago, the learning function was little more than a course catalog. In the course of her tenure, Blieberg has transformed learning into a highly strategic operation that’s recognized throughout the enterprise for its innovative and effective programs.
“I was brought in here for a restart,” she explained, adding that this suited her just fine. “I’m a start-up kind of person. My two specialties are mergers and acquisitions and starting corporate learning centers. I really love it when a company has a vision for something, either a new start or a restart. I’m very entrepreneurial — I grew up in a family that did that kind of stuff, and that’s what I like to do.”
Blieberg got her first inkling of what she wanted to do during her time as a student at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, where she participated in both a human resource MBA program and graduate counseling in the School of Education while pursuing an undergraduate psychology degree. Incidentally, this also was when Blieberg began to develop her prodigious work habits.
“My workaholic tendencies showed up as an undergraduate,” she said.
Although Blieberg weighed going for a graduate degree, she opted not to after being offered an enticing rotational human resources assignment that provided her with access to various working environments. She was exposed to many different aspects of this then-emerging discipline with that organization and others, but she eventually realized she wanted to be involved in enterprise education specifically.
Before her current position, Blieberg worked for other financial firms (including JPMorgan, Shearson Lehman, Charles Schwab and Moody’s) and ran two corporate universities. Despite this wealth of experience, none of it really prepared her for working at an organization as international as UBS, she said.
“Now that I’m here, I almost forget what it’s like to not be in a global company,” Blieberg said. “Every Wall Street firm says they’re global, but they have a U.S. headquarters, do things on a U.S. time frame, design in the U.S. with U.S. vendors and then export products and services. That’s counter to how everything is done at UBS. For example, the UBS investment bank doesn’t have a headquarters — I could just as easily be operating out of Asia, Switzerland or London [as New York].”
The investment bank, which accounts for about a quarter of UBS’ workforce of 80,000, is the most global part of the enterprise. As such, its learning function is charged with delivering development programs to other lines of business in any location where it makes up the majority of personnel, which includes most places outside Switzerland.
To make learning more supportive of the investment bank’s objectives, as well as the overall enterprise, Blieberg devised a development board composed of company leaders such as the heads of IT and research and the regional CLOs for Europe, North America and Asia-Pacific. This body meets in person twice annually and also holds quarterly video conferences.
“It’s what I’m most proud of,” Blieberg said. “I’ve had that in other companies where I’ve worked. What we have done here is something I’ve never seen before. The chairman of the company appointed the woman who runs our private equity business to be the head of the development board. She’s also in his strategy office. The two of them — with our input — selected 20 of the most senior people in the firm to be a part of this development board. This group really helps determine what programs would best help us move forward with our strategy.
“What’s made this come to life is that they can chunk out pieces of learning that they can own and be a crucial part of. The development board has actually piloted parts of programs. They’ve traveled with me to interview key vendors and sample things, and that really makes them feel like owners. They also help deliver it.”
Additionally, Blieberg has worked to change the overall learning corpus from a set of courses consumed passively to a series of educational experiences that engages participants.
“That’s something I believe in, and I try to work with my staff on that,” she said. “I think the field of learning has been slow to catch up. I’m amazed at how much of the vendor stuff I get that is still instructor-led. The group that I find is the most engaged in helping us do this is line managers. They intuitively know that people learn by doing. They just don’t know how to put a framework around that to make it happen.”
Blieberg already has applied this philosophy in two major learning initiatives: ASCENT and SUMMIT. (The mountain themes are derived from UBS’ Swiss roots.)
The former is a two-year program that is in its third iteration. Although it started out with 250 participants per year, it has since been expanded to 300 to accommodate employees from outside the investment bank.
“We’ve been able to expand with the same staff and budget,” Blieberg said. “The goal of ASCENT is to increase retention by 50 percent and build a global community of senior leaders, so that by the time they get to the top, they know each other and solve business challenges together.”
In ASCENT, two teams are assigned to a UBS leader, such as a managing director or even a board member, who in turn help these groups work for several months on business challenges they’ve selected.
“We have now finished the first classes, and about 50 percent of these (solutions) have been implemented to some degree,” Blieberg said. “That’s one of the hardest things to do in learning: to conduct serious learning while doing real work.”
SUMMIT is a higher-level initiative targeted at 1,400 managing directors (MDs) that lasts 18 months. (As with mountain climbing, the SUMMIT comes after the ASCENT for learners within the UBS investment bank.)
The program kicked off in May with a three-day “base camp” in Miami, and a similar event was held in Barcelona, Spain. Another is slated to take place next February in Singapore.
Interestingly, the attendees’ assigned base camp locations have nothing to do with where they’re based, as one of the main goals of the program is to create expansive networks among UBS’ globally dispersed leaders.
“One aspect of SUMMIT is the exposure our senior leaders get to organizations outside financial services,” said Maria Bentley, global head of HR. “This helps them learn about other leadership challenges and approaches and to bring back those different perspectives into their working relationships at UBS. These are genuinely new ways for our people to learn, and their feedback on the impact on them as individuals has been extremely positive.”
At this base camp, participants get the opportunity to interact with some unique leaders, none of whom are from the financial services industry. For instance, those at the Miami event met with Ed Villella, the head of the Miami City Ballet and one of the most celebrated ballet dancers of all time, to try to learn from his experiences.
“He gets people to stretch beyond what they believe possible in a very holistic and innovative way,” Blieberg said. “People have left some of the top ballet companies in the world to join him. We’re going to send in a team of MDs not to be lectured by Ed Villella, but to get a 10-minute overview and then find out what they need to learn from him. How has he become such a unique leader? How has he been able to redesign a profession that no one else has redesigned in 100 years? The learning really happens when they come back and hear from each other. It ends 18 months later with a two-day regional event called PINNACLE. In between, there will be some very unique opportunities for MDs to learn with peers.”
Of course, not all learning needs to be quite so advanced or intensive — Blieberg also has developed programs for on-the-job performance support, designed for accessibility and speed.
“We’ve studied the trading floor and thought about which methodologies are best for learning,” she said. “It’s actually the largest trading floor, the size of three football fields. Most of our traders have four to six screens in front of them. That’s the way they do business. E-learning doesn’t work for this group — they couldn’t concentrate on it. So, we came up with the idea of Express Learning programs, which are 90-minute learning modules that they can take before work starts or at the end of the day. What surprised me is the group that takes these the most isn’t the trading group, although they’re high users. It’s the logistics group, the operations and IT folks who find it hard to get permission from their bosses to leave their desks for a day.”
Based on the anecdotal evidence she’s gotten on these courses so far, it seems learners are getting a great deal out of them. Blieberg offered one firsthand example of this.
“I was sitting in the back of an ASCENT program, and they did a quick ‘get to know your neighbor’ sharing session. The guy next to me went first, and he didn’t know who he was talking to, as I’d never met him before. He said, ‘I heard about something cool called Express Learning. I didn’t know what it was, but I’d heard no matter which one you get into, you could really learn something. I went to one of them and had an amazing session. I came away with some really usable skills.’ I felt like a proud mother.”
Blieberg cited these kinds of impacts on workforce performance as her primary motivation.
“I’m not your academic type of learning officer,” she said. “I’m very practical, and I’m known for execution. Learning is a very powerful lever that companies should use to execute their strategy.”
Her colleagues at UBS agree.
“Since Michelle’s arrival, we have moved from a product-based learning environment toward one that encompasses all types of learning, regardless of where one is in one’s career,” said Francesca Barnes, UBS global head of private equity. “What Michelle has done brilliantly is to take the staid thinking and traditional education ideas of the business and turn them into momentous development opportunities for our people. Michelle’s ability to combine the vision about how development can be done differently, inspire her team to deliver creatively and actually deliver with flawless execution is exceptional.”
– Brian Summerfield, firstname.lastname@example.org
NAME: Michelle Blieberg
TITLE: Global Learning Officer, Investment Bank
• Established a development board to drive learning initiatives.
• Rolled out the ASCENT program to develop high-potential employees.
• Launched SUMMIT program to build managing directors’ leadership
and collaboration skills.
• Restructured and created a vision for the learning function.
Learning Philosophy: “I’m very much in favor of outside-of-the-classroom, experiential and long-term learning that’s delivered by senior leaders and other leaders in the firm.”
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