Brenda Sugrue is constantly learning.
“I’m probably one of the world’s best learners and students,” she said. “I’m always learning. Every day is a new experience.”
As the global chief learning officer at EY, this is a good thing. Sugrue’s passion for learning flows into her job, where she’s responsible for expanding the knowledge of more than 210,000 employees.
This is a tough job because EY’s learning and business functions are global. By centralizing learning operations from various regions and service lines, a more cohesive and consistent learning function can be found. Sugrue is charged with transforming the learning function, and her background shows that she’s prepared.
“So I think that’s why EY chose me … because of my strong learning background.”
Sugrue said her career path took a lot of twists and turns. “I never planned my career, unlike the advice I give now, which is to be more planful. I took opportunities as they came, and I did my best in those.”
Learning has been a common thread throughout her life. “I loved learning from the beginning. I was a good student. I love school. I wanted to stay in school, so why not become a teacher?”
Sugrue is from County Kerry, Ireland, where she became a teacher for all subjects in first through fourth grades, despite the country’s competitive environment for that field, she said.
To further her education, she completed her master’s degree at Trinity College Dublin. After running an educational technology unit, she received a Fulbright scholarship to come to the U.S. and earn her doctorate at Iowa State University, working with a computer-based instruction research and development center.
She focused on pursuing an academic career, working as a researcher and part-time professor at UCLA. Through a tenure track, she moved to various universities, ending up at the University of Iowa.
She then had an idea for her own learning business, eLearnia, with an integrated online system called CaseLearn. The system allowed for the automation of authoring, delivering and tracking case-based learning. She left university life to work on her business for a few years. Then the American Society for Training and Development, now known as the Association for Talent Development, hired her as its director of research. In this role, she worked with many chief learning officers at various firms, which sparked her interest in corporations and led her to work with IBM Corp. and ITT Corp. With these companies, Sugrue was “applying science and research to really practical problems and issues in corporate learning,” she said.
Education company Kaplan Inc. then hired her to work on large-scale product research. After three years, she thought she would return to university education, but when someone told her EY was looking for a global chief learning officer to spearhead a major learning transformation, she went for it and became the first person in the role at the company.
Nancy Altobello, global vice chair of talent at EY, thinks highly of Sugrue. “She has found a deeply rooted connection between her life’s work and her life’s purpose.”
What interests her the most about learning, Sugrue said, is the science of how the mind works. But with EY adding 23,000 new employees in fiscal year 2015, it’s difficult to know how all of their minds work.
In addition to growth in staff numbers, she also must keep up with service expansions all while centralizing the learning operation. “The greatest challenge is actually maintaining and expanding the current learning operations to keep pace with the growth,” she said. “It feels like we’re rebuilding the plane while we’re flying it.”
EY’s 210,000 internal learners include about 170,000 client-facing professionals as well as 40,000 employees in internal finance, legal, information technology and other departments. All employees receive technical and leadership development.
To build personalized development plans, employees use EYU, an internal learning framework specifically built to accommodate a high volume of learners. The title, “EYU,” is a combination of the company, EY, and the individual employee — you. “We, the firm, and you are jointly responsible for your development,” Sugrue said.
EYU’s purpose is to help employees receive the right learning, coaching and on-the-job experiences to accelerate career development. An emphasis on providing exceptional learning and development for current workers has a dual purpose in that it promotes on the job success, and what they’ve learned will stay with them after their time at EY has passed.
“We say: Whenever you join, however long you stay, the exceptional EY experience lasts a lifetime,” Sugrue said. While employees are with EY, “we want it to be the most valuable time of their careers. Therefore, we want to provide one of the most comprehensive training programs in the business.”
She said partnering with other EY leaders to build this high-quality experience is very easy. People at EY are the product, so it only makes sense that the structure of the learning function mirrors the business. “We don’t see ourselves as isolated,” Sugrue said. “Everything we do is in the service of the business.”
To keep up with rapid changes in the global marketplace, learning leaders are constantly in conversation with business leaders. Therefore, if EY is investing in new services, Sugrue follows up by investing in learning programs to provide the right content for employees when, where and how they need it.
Altobello said EY is constantly on the lookout for innovative ways to deliver learning that is customized for individual preferences, regional requirements and global needs. “Brenda is energized by this mandate,” she said.
To invest in and develop herself, Sugrue uses a variety of approaches to stay challenged and ensure she continues to grow as a learning leader and as a business leader. For instance, she reads psychology and business books, as well as Harvard Business Review.
A big proponent and consumer of formal programs, Sugrue is also a vocal advocate for online, internal and even free learning programs. She said she does a lot of reflection and coaching, learning tactics that are also available at multiple stages of EY employees’ careers. Sugrue said she likes to have her own coach to help with personal and professional growth.
“Brenda’s indefatigable nature has reminded me that development never stops,” Altobello said.
That need and push for continual development is a sound learning strategy, as personal insight can only go so far. Shir Nir, the CEO of corporate coaching service Handel Group, said it’s important to use coaches because people can get stuck in various aspects of a job, thus limiting success. The problem is that “it can be hard for us to see what’s keeping us stuck,” he said. “What’s really in the way are our own patterns of thinking and behavior. … That’s where a coach comes in.”
Aside from using coaches, Sugrue also helps to develop them. Although the coaching practice at EY is separate from the learning function, they are designed to work together. Her team helps develop training for the counselors and coaches, creating formal online and classroom learning programs, along with toolkits and additional materials that guide each type of conversation a counselor might have with a counselee, including goal setting, career planning and performance reviews.
EYU employs a traditional balance of corporate learning, with 70 percent of learning occurring on the job, 20 percent from coaching and 10 percent from formal learning. And while Sugrue said she didn’t develop this system, she likes it. “For me, EY was the first firm where I really saw coaching be given such emphasis and structure and formalized in the way it is right now.”
Nir agrees. “Coaches are an essential and critical component to learning and development,” he said. “I think the whole concept of how we educate people needs to shift. You can have your employees learn a new concept and check off a box, … or you can have them on the edge of their seats, engaged and excited to take on new challenges.”
Engagement is important in any business, but at EY, it’s a focus that Sugrue’s job directly drives. To deliver exceptional client services, “our people have to be at the top of their game all the time,” she said. “The job of learning is to make sure that our professionals are the very best they can be in the industry.”
To accomplish this, EY deploys learning programs specifically designed to accelerate employee performance. The results Sugrue and her team have produced have led to increases in client opportunities, thus growing EY’s business.
“You cannot manage what you don’t measure,” Sugrue said. For example, one program, Building Sector Insights, involved a two-day simulation. The program was piloted with four sectors in 2014, and then scaled for 13 sectors in 2015, allowing all 4,000 newly promoted senior managers to take it that year.
By measuring its effect, EY determined the value of client opportunities. Participants in this program identified four times more valuable opportunities than those who didn’t attend. This information provided the evidence needed to mandate that every senior manager participate. Now, its success has prompted its expansion to other ranks at EY, Sugrue said.
While retention rates are not tracked in correlation with the learning function, Sugrue said, “Learning is definitely driving engagement, which has been driving retention.”
She has plans to simplify, standardize and globalize the learning function to make it easier to learn anywhere. When employees are away from the office or work off-site, it’s hard for them to get a full hour of learning at a time, she said.
So if they can absorb formal learning in smaller chunks, this can help increase learning delivery. Employees can then bring that knowledge to a flipped classroom where in-class time focuses on practicing what these corporate students have learned.
To gain efficiencies, Sugrue said her team is in the process of moving more learning to a virtual method, “which is going to significantly decrease our delivery cost.”
By reducing learning delivery costs and increasing employee access to formal learning, the business becomes more efficient. Sugrue said the associated savings lead to more funds for coaching or learning simulations, further developing EY’s fast-growing staff.
Other improvements include the transformation of talent operations at EY, combining talent processes with the learning function. Having a seamless experience for employees throughout all phases of their EY careers will elevate learning and work experience quality.
“We don’t want them going to one system for goals and development plans and another system to take e-learning,” Sugrue said. “We want everything to be one, seamless experience.”