BY Stefan Seiler 4 MINUTE READ

Two years ago, while poring over an otherwise positive independent survey of our company’s 65 000 employees worldwide, the HR leadership team was forced to confront an uncomfortable statistic: Only 57% of our employees in the survey had responded favourably to questions related to learning and career opportunities within the firm. This was disappointing. We scored 9 percentage points below “high-performing” organisations benchmarked by the independent consultants who administered our survey, and 5 points below financial services firms. When we discussed this with our group CEO, it became very clear: It was imperative for us to find – and fix – our weaknesses in this area.

An engaged employee is a happy employee, and we know from our research that a key driver for engagement is how employees feel about their prospects for career training, advancement, and growth.

Fast forward eighteen months, and 67% of our employees now respond favourably to these questions. This is a 10 point increase in our score, and we now not only beat the financial services benchmark, but also even the high-performing organisations benchmark.

What happened? Yes, there was a clear strategy that involved tackling the challenge from multiple angles, with some Swiss precision thrown in for good measure, meaning very specific, targeted interventions on multiple dimensions. But we also learned some key lessons along the way that apply to any company that wants its employees to grow with them.


We’ve found that employees who rate their line managers positively are more likely to say they plan on staying with UBS. As a result, our employee survey now includes very specific questions like, “My line manager actively supports my professional development,” and we provide line managers (and managers of managers) transparency on how their employees rate them (anonymised, of course). These personalised scores are part of the performance management process, and our UBS University – our in-house, one-stop shop for all learning and development activities – also provides line managers targeted learning resources to make them better people managers.

Sounds simple, but this is a game changer. Line managers get specific bottom-up feedback and learn how they can improve their leadership effectiveness. Employees see that their feedback makes a difference. And it helps us identify where our central line manager training tools can improve


In 2017, Pew research told us that millennial workers were just as likely to stay with their employer as gen-Xers were when they were young adults. Our own research conducted with 700 UBS millennials told us exactly the same thing. They told us: Offer us opportunities to develop our career, and we’ll stick around.

To make sure all generations of top talent believe they can build a career at their companies, internal mobility must be a priority.

Next to the important role of line managers who need to actively develop talent for the whole firm, we created a tool based on advanced analytics. Our internal recruiters use the tool to identify internal candidates for open roles and have discussions with line managers. We also made the matching tool directly available to all employees. They can match their profile with all open roles in the organisation, can map out career paths, receive learning recommendations to close skill gaps, and directly apply for open roles. And last but not least, it enables the organisation and creates a culture where line managers understand their imperative task to develop their talents for the firm, and not “horde” high performers in their own teams.


Getting feedback has always helped me personally, and employees increasingly tell us that they want more frequent feedback. But you can’t solve problems around employees’ career development by simply rolling out a new feedback tool.

Instead, companies need multiple tactics to ensure the flow of feedback is frequent and strong. In our case, instead of a new tool, we focused on improving our feedback culture by including the topic in our new line manager effectiveness rating, and implemented an innovative multi-channel internal campaign to raise awareness on the importance of giving and asking for feedback. This includes things like video clips, e-cards, and even stickers on elevators and bathroom mirrors. (“Looking good! See yourself as others see you? Ask for feedback.”) And of course, not just providing feedback, but also responding and acting on it is key. The impact of the campaign is measurable: In addition to thousands of views and downloads, we also saw a 5 percentage point uptick on the feedback-related question in our employee survey.


There is no doubt about the importance of ongoing, targeted, high-quality learning. And when we looked hard at our learning offering, we knew it needed a boost. So we combined the feedback from internal stakeholders with everything we could learn from best-in-class firms and universities to transform our own UBS University.

We targeted the content on growth and transformation, with a digital curriculum and curated learning playlists on specific topics and for specific roles. We teamed up with external partners like Singularity University to innovate. We also made learning easy to access through simple search tools (like content based on how much time you have to learn), a mobile learning app, and better communication. We’ve also said goodbye to mountains of old content. The result? Average hits on the UBS University page increased from 6 500 to more than 90 000 per month, and employees who say, “Learning opportunities at UBS help me to perform better in my job” have increased from 55% to 68% – and is now above the high-performing organisations benchmark, too.


Sometimes trying to make changes in a large company can feel like trying to make a cruise ship as agile as a kayak. But our journey since 2017 has shown that organisations of any size can shift employees to greater engagement in a short time.

To do so, you have to be ready to invest. You have to be organised in your approach so that actions happen in co-ordination. And you have to be specific in what you ask and what you do as a result. There is an art to this, and a science. An art because this success is only possible when interventions are delivered to the target audience in a well-orchestrated and connected-up way. And a science because decisions need to be data-driven, and goals and results measurable.

Get both right, and you and your employees will grow.

Stefan Seiler is group head, human resources, at UBS. UBS, headquartered in Switzerland, employs more than 66 000 people in wealth management, investment banking, and asset management, and private and corporate banking services. Seiler is an adjunct professor for leadership and strategic human resource management at Nanyang Business School, Singapore.

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