Singapores United Overseas Bank Limited focuses relentlessly on
talent development in good times and bad. Perhaps thats why the
bank stands out from the pack in a competitive financial
One of the principal pillars of the burgeoning Asia-Pacific region
is its robust banking industryan agile and highly competitive
sector that embodies Asias entrepreneurial business climate in many
ways. Perhaps no single enterprise better demonstrates that
spiritthrough good times and badthan United Overseas Bank (UOB),
the 76-year-old institution with more than 500 offices in 19
countries spread across four continents.
As the industry recovered from a two-year crisis that fundamentally
altered the banking landscape, UOB emerged with distinction as one
of the global industrys strongest organizations.
UOBs Talent & Organisation Development Division plays a vital
role in helping to determine and execute strategic talent
initiatives undertaken by the bank. In addition, the division plays
a fundamental role in keeping every employee productive and
motivated throughout their careers.
An example of this is an initiative called i-Learn. It is a virtual
learning campus created last year to serve as a repository for
internally developed best practices and other knowledge products.
It has an interface with outside expertise and a suite of
e-learning modules built around important workplace skills. It is
the brainchild of a cross-functional group of high-potential
employees who noticed a weakness in the area of knowledge sharing
and decided to fix it.
This group of employees was participating in a UOB talent
development initiative called the Inspirational Leaders Program,
which encourages collaborative efforts by senior level employees.
To help bolster the programs return-on-investment, each assigned
group must create and pursue a project that helps to solve an
organizational problem or introduces a new and better way of
The employees decided to help reduce the typical learning cycle and
address a perceived tendency to reinvent the wheel in learning,
says Michael Boey, the divisions head and executive director.
Each had experiences to share about the lending business, including
tips on how to write best-in-class credit papers, and advice on how
to avoid mistakes others have made, adds Boey, whose portfolio also
includes responsibility for formulating and implementing the banks
learning and development strategy.
So they created a virtual campus and loaded it with internally
written case studies and learning products about banking,
leadership, and personal effectiveness skills for use by new
employees and others. The online curriculum is supplemented with
Harvard ManageMentors suite of e-learning modules and other outside
resources selected by the division. To encourage participation and
positive outcomes, and to complement the e-learning modules, the
division initiated a series of two-hour on-site learning cafs for
associates to discuss how to apply the new skills.
i-Learn is just one example of UOBs cross-functional approach to
improve service quality, shorten cycle time, and reduce overall
costs. Such intense focus on enhancing work processes to boost
customer satisfaction reflects the hotly competitive business arena
in which it operates. For example, transactions such as approving
and processing loans used to take days, but are accomplished within
Another recent project involved UOBs Management Associates program,
in which top college graduates are recruited and groomed for
leadership roles. In one particular project, the team was tasked to
examine innovative new approaches to increase the operational
efficiency of the banks branch network.
A three-month exercise produced several suggestions that were
presented to senior management. Results were impressive. The
average customer waiting time at its branches was literally cut in
half, Boey says. Another recommendation to relocate an
underperforming branch contributed to increased profitability for
its retail banking business.
We have found such cross-functional projects to be very useful in
helping us assess and develop our high potentials, says Boey. They
also provide a conduit for our senior managers to transfer their
knowledge and experience to junior executives. And since the
project teams work on real issues, not hypothetical cases,
commitment from team members and sponsors alike is very high, he
For our high potentials, the challenge and opportunity to work on
such high-profile projects helps to motivate and retain them within
the bank, adds Boey.
The division directly participates in developing and implementing
talent strategies within the 21,600-employee organization, and has
ownership of numerous initiatives. Among them is the banks
succession management process. Case in point is the International
Managers Program launched last year to bolster the bench strength
of the banks international operations. The program hires and trains
mid-career executives for senior leadership positions.
It features a multistage selection process designed to determine
competencies in key areas including customer focus, cross-cultural
resourcefulness, ability to manage internal conflict, and
leadership under pressure. It puts new hires through a rigorous
program that includes participation in an intensive banking
certification program offered by a local university, on-the-job
training, and rotations. These hires are given stretch assignments,
and they are expected to perform to exacting standards. Four
individuals were hired in 2010 from a candidate pool that exceeded
2,000 people, and another four were hired this year, according to
Yet another example is a career development initiative designed to
broaden the skills of sales, operations, and customer service
managers so they can become branch managers. This program created
individual learning modules for each of the three subordinate
positions. It is a company-wide strategy to create universal
bankerssingle captains in each branch who can do it all, explains
Boey. He says the program was not motivated by any cost-cutting or
retrenchment agenda, and that no downsizing has resulted from the
The division is the custodian of all customer service programs for
the organization, says Boey. He calls it a priority that explains
why the bank continually reinforces five service values in its
associates: professionalism, teamwork, passion, empowerment, and
One customer service training program launched during the past year
is Wow! Service @ Work, which teaches frontline associates how
service values translate into day-to-day behaviors. Under the
program, each associate develops a personal action plan to
demonstrate Wow! Service in his interactions with customers. The
results are also impressive. The proportion of engaged employees in
the bank has tripled in the past three years, according to a survey
by the Gallup Organization, an outsourcing partner.
Meanwhile, the division is equally proud of efficiencies realized
on the content development front. For example, during the past
seven years, the division has reduced its content development cycle
time from a few months to two weeks. After the unit was certified
to use the Gallup StrengthsFinder tool last year, it designed a
single-day program called Strengths Unleashed! within two weeks to
help associates focus on using their strengths.