Article: Unilever’s Chief Learning Officer on the key to addressing the skills gap

Learning & Development

Unilever’s Chief Learning Officer on the key to addressing the skills gap

Tim Munden, Chief Learning Officer, Unilever, talks to People Matters about weaving learning and well-being in the flow of work, and the essentials to building a high-performing leadership and workforce that thrive through uncertainty.
Unilever’s Chief Learning Officer on the key to addressing the skills gap

READ the October 2021 issue of our magazine: The Skills Gaps Conundrum

With over three decades of illustrious experience in the HR domain, Tim Munden is presently the Chief Learning Officer at Unilever. Tim joined Unilever back in 1993 and has since then transitioned through a series of leadership roles across various business units and geographies including the UK, Ireland and USA. 

In addition to his role as Chief Learning Officer, Tim is also leading wellness for Unilever, where he is focused on building leaders and teams needed for a purpose-driven business, developing the skills and capabilities for a digital and disrupted world, and enabling well-being for happiness and high performance.

In this exclusive interview with People Matters, Tim talks about the habit of underestimating change in the long term, enabling learning amid mounting burnout concerns, and the essentials to building a high-performing leadership and workforce that thrive through uncertainty.

Here are excerpts of the interview.

Can you give us an overview of how Learning & development has transformed amid the ongoing uncertainty globally?

The pandemic forced all learning and development activities to go online, and we had to find ways of using online learning to substitute for a lack of face-to-face contact. For skill building, it was easier because we were already used to a lot of online or blended learning.

It's in deep personal and leadership development that this was the hardest. This type of learning requires a space away from work and away from distractions to help people really reflect on their leadership. 

Having to try and create those kinds of spaces virtually was a challenge but has been remarkably successful. We've managed to find new formats and new techniques for creating deep development opportunities. This sometimes involved taking a hybrid approach - for example taking the leader away from their usual workspace but connecting to the coaches who are in different places digitally.

There is a significant and continuous rise in employees experiencing stress and burnout across the globe. How can organisations approach learning and upskilling at a time like this?

We are focused on helping people experiencing stress and burnout. The role of learning in this is to try to give people access to techniques, knowledge and understanding, but also to work closely with our well-being colleagues to make sure that people have access to the help they need.


There are some things we know really work. For example, to manage burnout, or potential burnout, it is vital to set clear boundaries when you are working at home. Creating psychological safety with leaders so that employees can talk to their line manager is also crucial.

Training line managers to understand more about mental health and spotting signs is important.

We've been training mental health champions who are available to talk to and signpost people to help. Right now we have 3,228 trained mental health champions and 120 trained mindfulness champions.

Coming back to learning and upskilling, having the right skills to ensure you will be employable in the future is a really important part of helping people avoid stress and burnout. To ensure we give our people confidence for the future, we've been rolling out Future Fit Plans, holistic development plans that begin with the individual’s purpose and then map the opportunities, experience, skills and leadership capabilities they need to fulfil that purpose. Starting with purpose gives people the energy to embark on the plan.

In the era of personalized and bite-sized digital learning, how can L&D leaders retain and enhance the element of group learning?

Delivering online group learning is important and not all platforms are great at that. There are techniques that can be effective and the important thing is to structure online learning events so that people have a real space to learn together.

Sometimes I think people are reducing modern learning to, for example, ‘I interact with a learning experience platform, I download video content or written content and that's my learning’. Actually, that's just one form of modern learning. Online group learning or learning in cohorts is critical too. But not all technologies or event designs incorporate that.

Designing learning experiences so that there is space for group discussions so that people can learn from each other, even if it's online, is a must-do.

With so much focus on strengthening collaboration and connect for a distributed workforce working through a crisis, how can the L&D function contribute to enhancing emotional intelligence and psychological safety at the workplace?

Psychological safety is key to a number of outcomes for business. It's critical for innovation, agility and well-being and it’s at the heart of creating a learning organisation. What's our contribution? First of all helping people understand what psychological safety means but also helping leaders understand where they are, and the level of psychological safety in their teams. We've been implementing a Team Energy Tool at Unilever, which thousands of individuals have gone through. It helps to identify the level of psychological safety within a team and the challenges to promoting it.

Additionally, we are seeing a huge shift in leadership. Once upon a time, leaders were meant to be the people who were never fazed by anything, had all the answers and wouldn’t admit any weakness. Models of leadership are becoming more nuanced. Leaders need to give confidence and to show that they have the capacity to think clearly under pressure, but also need to show that they are human. They need to share their mistakes and struggles. Teams don’t want to be led by someone distant, who works from behind the job title. Employees want to learn from their leader.

Our role is to help leaders create psychological safety and the spaces for real dialogue. We call this ‘High support, High challenge’ leadership. Those two things together are very powerful. They are the key to 21st-century high performance.

What’s your best prediction about the future of work 2-3 years down the line? How will the workplace change in the coming years?

A business leader I worked with said, wisely in my view, that we generally overestimate change in the short term and underestimate it in the long term. I think in the next two to three years we need to focus on two things.

One is finding new ways of working in a post-pandemic world and managing some form of hybrid. We will have to find a way of marrying up the needs of the team to be held together, the needs of the task to be completed and the needs of the individual, which have shifted. 

Longer term we will see the 'disaggregation of work', meaning that organisations will break down jobs into tasks for which we can define the skills required. In parallel, we will increasingly identify and measure the skills people have – rather than seeing them as blocks of experience or defined by broad job titles.

This skills-based workplace will be powerful – it will drive learning, opportunity, and inclusion – but it will also change how we see employment and like all changes, will need to be well managed.

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Topics: Learning & Development, HR Technology, #TheSkillsConundrum

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