Betty Lau - Global Learning Director, Singapore

In my role as Global Learning Director at Unilever, I am responsible for Four Acres Singapore, a €45 million learning centre devoted to leadership development. The site plays a central role in Unilever’s strategy, not only developing a new generation of purpose-driven leaders from all around the world to hone their skills and experience but also keeping them highly motivated and engaged.

Betty Lau - Global Learning Director, Singapore

Launched in June 2013, the centre continues a long tradition of learning at Unilever stretching back more than 60 years to the opening of the original leadership development site in London. Our approach to learning has changed considerably in that time – and is continuing to develop and evolve. In fact, the changes we are making right now to our learning offering are potentially some of the most significant we have ever seen.

Chief among these is our move away from conventional learning programmes to persona-designed thinking to craft a user-focus personalised learning journey. This represents a major shift in thinking and will provide a key point of differentiation for our learning offering in the years ahead.

To help you get a better understanding of what makes our offering unique, here are some of the key principles that characterise our approach and that will continue to define our learning interventions going forward.

Learning is the starting point for design and focus at all times

“In an increasingly volatile and uncertain world, a new type of leader is being called for – both in Unilever and society as a whole. These leaders must be guided by values and understand the responsibility of leadership for the 21st century. We will actively seek and develop these leaders through Four Acres.”

Paul Polman, Unilever CEO

When Hay Group named us as one of their Top 5 companies for developing leadership, they singled us out because of our commitment to ensuring our leaders get the critical experiences that build the capabilities they need to succeed.

What does that mean in practice? Ours is essentially a learner-centred design approach. We always take the user – our colleagues – as the starting point, and rather than thinking about what we want to deliver to them, we instead think about what kind of learning they need to win in the VUCA (Volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous) world.

The objective of developing personas is to create realistic representations of our key audiences, based on qualitative and quantitative need assessment interviews and feedback from our colleagues. This helps us to understand and focus on the major needs and expectations of different learners, and give us a clear picture of the learner’s expectations and how they are likely to interact with us, facilitators, fellow participants and coaches.

Personas are evolving. We will need to refresh and adapt our offerings more frequently, and the kind of target interventions that we design will be more than face-to-face learning programmes. They can be mobile-learning, shadowing, experience immersion and other forms of exposure that will support our colleagues to gain the right level of experiences and exposures.

Learning is a journey, not a one-off event

A key way we are trying to redefine our offering is by exploring the concept of the learning journey. This means that, rather than delivering a set programme, we instead help leaders define the kind of stimulations and exposure that will be most constructive to their learning. The face-to-face learning programme itself then becomes a stimulating toolkit marketplace to allow participants to pick and choose what they resonate most with and enables them to learn from. This enables people to personalise their learning journey and to work towards achieving longer-term learning goals.

The UL2020 programme is a great example. Identifying some of Unilever’s most critical challenges, UL2020 is an evolving programme that asks cross functional, cross geographical and business category leaders to work as small teams on these challenges. They have the opportunities to reconnect with their personal purpose, while working with leaders with similar purposes to create a bigger social and business impact.

Start-ups CEOs were brought in to work with our leaders, to provide stimulation and disruptive thinking on eCommerce, and to let our leaders expose an alternative way of running business. UL2020 is unlocking ground-breaking ways of working and new leadership skills, while delivering results that help to define our future.

Face-to-face learning is not everything

Rather than delivering a set programme, we instead help leaders define the kind of stimulations and exposure that will be most constructive to their learning.

When many people think of “learning”, they think only of the traditional, face-to-face variety. Although we do still provide this kind of experience in Singapore, it actually forms only about 10% of the learning journey that our participants go through.

A further 30% of their experience is made up of mentoring and coaching: participants are provided with their own personal coach for all Four Acre programmes and there is also an element of team coaching for the programmes that have an action learning project. The remaining 60% consists of the participant applying what they have learned in the workplace – and this, for me, is the most important element of all.

This more rounded view of what learning can be is reflected in the design and facilities of the learning centre itself. Our leaders live and learn together in Four Acres, building a strong sense of community and fostering collaboration and sharing.

In our view, it is very important to provide participants with this kind of environment, not only because of the emphasis we place on employee wellbeing at Unilever but also because it is highly conducive to informal networking – and the learning that can be achieved through offline discussions with peers is just as valuable as that gained in the classroom.

The success of Four Acres Singapore is crucial for Unilever, as we continue to expand our presence in emerging markets. By taking a new and unique approach to learning, characterised by the three principles outlined above, I believe we are perfectly placed to build an effective leadership pipeline for the future.

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