Kuala Lumpur-based Ulrika Brunner, who has already had a long career in Asia, has just climbed up another step at her career ladder: appointed CEO at Inspire Group Asia (a New Zealand company).
Inspire Group offers bespoke learning solutions that are engaging, impactful and that resonate, in order to help solve business challenges and shift behaviour within organisations. The Swede joined the company as Country Director for Inspire Group Malaysia, to develop the business for the market leader in customised learning in Malaysia and the rest of Asia.
But before delving further into Inspire’s services, a summary of Ulrika’s 24 years in Asia is appropriate. It was her brother that enticed her to Asia, when he was working in Vietnam. We grew up in Portugal and travelled the world, being the son and daughter of legendary Börje Lantz, Sweden’s first and so far best known football promoter who was active both in South American and in Europe, and also transformed football in the home country.
“I grew up with football players living with us and we travelled all over Europe. It is thanks to our father that my brother and I were so open to leave Europe and really try out something different. So I am grateful how both my parents were open to that we should try out new things and not be afraid, even if it was at the other side of the planet,” says Ulrika who cuts an energetic and light-hearted figure.
“My brother invited me to visit him in 1997, when I still lived in Portugal. Vietnam was a cool and exciting a place to visit. I returned back home after some weeks and then out of the blue I was offered a job in Vietnam, which was booming then; going full steam ahead. I took the job at a firm selling office furniture. I was there for five years, then in China for one year, and then returned to Vietnam for three more years.”
Upon returning to Vietnam and Saigon, Ulrika worked for the Swedish cosmetic firm Oriflame as Marketing Manager for three years.
She met her Swedish husband while in Vietnam and it was because of his job that they moved to China, and later on to Kuala Lumpur.
“We have been here now for 14 years.”
Once there she became the General Manager for Winning Attitude, 2009 to 2014. Winning Attitude is a Swedish company unique on offering an online tool which can measure attitude, explains Ulrika.
“With it you can run an online assessment and at the end of it you get a report on what areas you need to work on, where you attitude is right now. There is nothing similar out there and they have been very successful in Sweden.”
“It went slower in Malaysia, because it was so different and the market was not ready. They do much more personality tests etc. here so measuring attitude was quite different. and it was interesting work. For instance, we did several pilots with the five largest universities on how lecturers can approach teaching with a different mindset and attitude.”
Ulrika also had a stint with, among expats, the well-known relocation firm Asian Tigers Relocation. Then she worked for the Finance Accreditation Agency (FAA), which was the position that led on to Inspire.
“FAA, under the Malaysian central bank, does accreditation of learning programmes for both higher education and the financial services industry. For instance, if a bank has an in-house training academy and roll out courses to their staff members they want to ensure the programme is accredited by a third-party for recognition etc. FAA covered the entire world, focusing on Islamic finance.”
“I took the certified training professional programme there, learning how to develop one’s own programme and how to deliver it to a group of participants. And while learning that I realised that this was something that resonated with me, and it seemed I was also good at doing it, based on my results. I realised I wanted to do something more HR-focused.”
Destiny brought her to an event about leadership solutions with the then CEO for Inspire Group Asia, James McCulloch (whom she has now replaced) as speaker.
“I was completely sold on it; the entire system they have built up, with everything based on being contextualised, while at the same time keeping it simple. It’s not like the content-heavy type of courses being offered from western universities, including lots of models that you have to study; this is more experiential learning. And I had not seen anything quite like it in Asia during my years here,” explains Ulrika.
Afterwards she contacted James to find out more, when it turned out that they were looking for a country director.
“So it was perfect timing; I just felt it was meant to happen, that I would be there on that day. Then things moved on very fast and I started working for them in July 2019.”
And in December 2020 she was appointed as the new CEO for the e-Learning and leadership solutions provider.
“We cover the whole of Asia and have delivered programmes in eight different countries throughout Asia so far.”
Traditional tried-and-tested (and also outdated) learning and development is replaced by Inspire Group with transformative learning that has to be both personal and portable.
“The focus is always on human behaviour change. That’s where Inspire Group’s expertise is, and based on 20 years in the business, so the knowhow that we bring to the table is really robust.”
Many learning interventions fail to deliver a return on investment because they don’t focus on what really drives lasting behaviour change; namely context, belief and simplicity, according to Inspire. This experienced provider’s simple point of difference: Focus first on the areas that will really make a difference through tailoring the solution to your precise need.
Inspire helps the client to develop the areas in a unique way – “through a suite of blended solutions that offer the value and convenience of product, but with the deep impact of a bespoke solution”.
“The way we start working with clients now in Asia, is through our leadership programme ‘Inspiring To Lead’ which consists in 7 different workshops. We start with that for six months and very often the customer comes back requesting: ‘I would like more coaching, or have a bespoke workshop focusing on a particular topic.’ We build the relationships; we don’t just want to be a vendor, we want to be their learning partner. When they next think of: ‘I need to address this challenge with this group of people’, they talk to us first,” says Ulrika. “It’s our door-opener in Asia but very quickly we are able to also engage with a bespoke learning solution.”
“We have for example, done a ‘Mentoring to lead’ programme for one client who wanted mentoring to be a way of life for its leaders. After rolling out the workshops which were both virtual and face-to-face they wanted to have a train-the-trainer approach. We then trained their in-house trainers to use the type of methodologies that Inspire Group uses: adult learning, contextualisation, experiential learning. So what we do is more and more focused, alongside leadership programmes, on different types of programmes.”
“Apart from the workshops there is a need to build more modules that support the learning through an online authoring tool, be it for assessment purposes, or to reiterate the learning from workshops. So that has really exploded as a market,” she adds.
“Another one is that some of the participants will need additional support. We then design a bespoke workshop as refresher, every three months for another year. So it grows organically, as sort of a natural step what they see the need for.”
“We also use e-Learning for example for onboarding and induction. It becomes like a marketing tool for the company to show this is what it’s like when you come to work with us and what you will experience. And that’s built on our own ‘Chameleon Creator’ or other online authoring tools,” she continues.
Chameleon their in-house fully responsive authoring tool is often used for a blended learning approach.
“There are others, but the focus for Chamelon is: easy, fast and beautiful. Anybody should be able to build their own modules to roll out content that needs to be made available on any device. With a blended approach we then not only provide an e-Learning module but also set up bespoke workshops, as reference guides, so that you have a whole series of touch points over a period of time to ensure that the learning sticks. Hence, we roll out a whole programme that may last for six months up to two years,” Ulrika elaborates.
For leadership programmes, starting with a communication tool to bring people on board and co-design with all the stakeholders is the make-or-break-it piece. “Group work takes place with certain groups of the organisation in different cohorts. After that you might have additional learning modules, to communicate the message and ensure that the learning sticks appropriately.”
The events of 2020 have also hugely changed workplace learning and development, with digital learning exploding across Asia, and in a smart way that aligns to how people now work and the platforms they engage with daily.
The CEO elaborates: “A big part of digitalisation, digital transformation, is very often to be able to do on-boarding or induction virtually. We’ve been doing this already for twenty years; for example the online authoring tools, where you actually build modules where the person joining will actually have the first induction done online. This is usually the first step in digital transformation, where people realise: ‘Oh, my goodness, we have hundreds of people joining us every year, how do we make this scalable now when we can’t get everybody to come to the head office?’ So that’s a natural first step; to use online authoring tools, like Chameleon, to build those modules to make the induction process work up to 80 % online. You still need to have some physical aspects in terms of receiving materials, the laptop etc. This has exploded in terms of the need to transfer the onboarding workshops that have always been done face-to-face to online.”
As for their leadership solutions, the motto followed is: ‘Leadership is a Way of Being’, with these three key beliefs: ‘Growth Mindset is essential’, ‘Direct and Inspire’ and ‘Lead Self before others’. Inspire Groups subscribes to that you cannot truly lead others with impact until you’ve mastered leading yourself with great awareness, drive and a growth mindset.
And in these challenging times, true leaders are defined even more by not just what they do, but how. “Why should you focus on making sure that your leadership is the best it can be? Because it impacts the well-being of everybody else in the organisation. Your leader, or boss, has a bigger impact on your well-being than your doctor. So it’s so important that the leaders understand the responsibility that they have during this time. It’s more important than ever that leaders can live up to the role they play in the organisation where they work.”
“At the same time you need to keep things simple and not overcomplicate things, because you have got to contextualise it and make it relevant for the people in the organisation. Because whatever you present to them, whatever you ask them to do, the questions is always going to be: ‘What’s in it for me?’ So if you don’t answer that I’m not going to be engaged if I don’t see how this is important; be it a learning programme or a task that I need to do in projects that I am working on,” Ulrika explains.
“So those three beliefs are what we focus on with all our leadership development programmes. And it’s based on doing this for many years and also knowing that it’s so important, especially now, to not over-complicate things. Contextualise it, keep it simple and understand the situation that people are in around you. Empathise, and don’t be afraid to be vulnerable. This is a huge challenge I think in Asia, maybe more so than for our clients in Australia and New Zealand, where leaders feel they have to be stoic and strong to be able to support their teams. They are putting this additional pressure on themselves during these times.”
“We at Inspire are now focusing on how can we support leaders to remember to also take care of themselves and not be afraid to say: ‘I am actually not O.K’, and to be able to be vulnerable and to actually have those conversations. If we don’t find a way to deal with this for ourselves, for our own well-being, how can we lead others?”
Covid-19 has also impacted the way Inspire conduct their business, having to cover the markets virtually.
“In the beginning of the year we had to quickly adapt all our face-to-face workshops to deliver them virtually. So we work in a very agile manner. The team in New Zealand designed all our workshops within three weeks to be virtual. Otherwise we prefer to run our leadership programmes face to face. We also do lots of coaching and that is more normal to do virtually so that has continued to grow throughout the region.”
The only other challenge in Asia compared to Australia and New Zealand is that off-the-shelf programmes, with a lot of focus on content, has been standard. It can be demanding if that’s what clients are used to , and then suddenly Inspired Group comes along presenting something very foreign and different, where we talk to you about contextualisation, co-designing together with you and you have never seen anything like it,” smiles Ulrika. “So we tend to work with companies that are used to having a growth mindset, meaning that they are prepared to try new things.”