Companies need to be more human to be more successful: Leena Nair

Ayesha Kabir | Update:

Leena Nair, Chief Human Resources Officer (CHRO) of Unilever. Photo: Dipu Malakar

Leena Nair is the first woman, first Asian, and youngest Chief Human Resources Officer (CHRO) of Unilever.  Based in the UK, she is responsible for the human capital of Unilever which operates in 190 countries. She was awarded as one of the accomplished Indian Business Leaders by Queen Elizabeth in 2017, appeared on the Financial Times Top 20 list of BAME (Black, Asian, Minority Ethnic) leaders and has been on the Business Today list of 25 most powerful women in business for seven consecutive years. During a recent visit to Bangladesh, Nair spoke to Prothom Alo on breaking the glass ceiling for women in leadership positions, on diversity and inclusion, on re-skilling to meet emerging demands in the professional world, and much more:

Dream big. Be ambitious. That is the advice Leena Nair gives to women, and men too, when it comes to achieving their ambitions. And who could be in a better position to give such advice than Nair, the first woman CHRO of Unilever and the youngest too.

“Growing up in Asia, the social conditioning is not to be very ambitious. So I would encourage women everywhere, men and women, to dream big,” says Nair.

Secondly, she says, it is about having the confidence and the courage to choose to do difficult projects. “When I was starting my career,” she says, “my first three assignments were in different factories where I was a production manager in a factory, personnel manager in another factory, did a stint in sales, and it was hard. Doing grassroots jobs is how you learn the business. As a woman, when I did the night shift in one of the factories, they all said a woman has never come into the night shift. Instead of getting discouraged, ask the question, ‘What if I am the first? Let me set the pace.’

Last but not the least, is the power of mentors, says Nair, the power of networking, to reach out to other men and women who are successful and ask for their advice and help to navigate your own career.

Leena Nair recounts her own experience. “I grew up in Kolhapur, a very small town in India, where there used to be no schools for girls. I was in the first batch in the first girls’ school that opened up in town. I faced the typical challenges. My mother would say, ‘Why are you studying so much? Who will marry you?’ The battles I fought with my family were only about education. Focus should first be on education.”

And it is always good to have a thick skin, contends Nair. “We are trailblazers and so people will ask, ‘Why are you working?’ ‘Does your husband not have a job?’ ‘You are a woman, why are you working in a factory’ and so on. So you need to be a less sensitive about these things and ask yourself, ‘What do I want to do, what impact do I want to have?’ When you are successful, everyone will be happy for you. My mother is so proud now and can’t stop telling the while world!”

Moving on to the topic of gender inclusion in Unilever, Nair points out, “We are 46 per cent women in Unilever globally and and our goal is get to 50-50.” She talks about focussing on both numbers and the culture. Focussing on numbers, when the appointments are made, there are ‘balanced slates’ - if you have two talented men on the list you should have two talented women on the list two. We make sure our head hunters who bring candidates to us, are sensitised to bring balanced slates.

When it comes to culture, Nair says, “We have an initiative called ‘un-stereotype’, where we educate all our people about the prejudices we have, the assumptions we make, how we stereotype people. And we are working hard to un-stereotype.”

Change happens at three levels, Nair continues. You have to support the women through leadership development, through mentoring, through role models. You have to support the men by helping them understand how they can drive change. Men are in influential positions today so they have to lead, showing the male leaders of companies why inclusion and diversity makes business sense. And the organisation must be made very flexible too. So change has to be on three levels - you have to work with women, work with men and make the organisation flexible.

There is a general perception that there are lesser qualified women in the job market, but Nair doesn’t agree: “There are plenty of qualified and talented women out there, it is just about managing to find them.”

Unilever is realistic when it comes to working mothers, and fathers, creating flexible options. Women coming back after maternity leave are given flexible hours. There is a facility called job sharing where two persons can share a job - half a week each. These are all practices to support women and encourage them to come back to work and still be able to balance their lives. There is also a paternity policy for men, and other innovative practices.

Re-skilling is another important part of Unilever’s policy, Leena Nair points out. “We have a lot of investment in re-skilling. We have two dedicated training centres, one in London and one in Singapore. Day in and day out we are working on leadership development. We have invested in a lot of technology projects. In one of them, there is constantly curated material for people to learn. We have close to 90,000 hours of learning material open to any person in the organisation and our challenge is to make sure they tap into it despite their busy schedules. In Unilever Bangladesh they have a ‘10-minute school’ where in ten minutes you are explained an important concept -- how   to sell better, how to negotiate better or some such thing. If this idea works here, I’d like to take it across with me. We are into snackable learning, bite size learning. You need it in small does because attention spans have become shorter. This helps people to stay skilled. We want people in Unilever to spend 40 hours in learning every year - on the Net, watching a tech-talk, attending a workshop, and so on. Active learners perform better.” 

In every industry jobs are going to change and people will have to be re-skilled to do the jobs, Nair points out. In European countries e-commerce and online sales and marketing is becoming big. “We have to plan accordingly in Bangladesh or India, such as training frontline sales people to understand what it takes to sell on the internet. You take note of the changes and re-skill people accordingly.

We have to work with governments to ensure education systems stay relevant, the curriculum remains relevant, that there is adult learning focus so people can go back and learn skills. Public and private sector companies have to re-create re-skilling maps about which are the jobs going to go, which are the jobs being created, we have to teach people new sets of skills, such as e-commerce.” 

Nair says that corporates will have to will have to be more human. Unilever has the privilege of always being very human, she says. Even the factories it created a hundred years ago had high safety standards. Unilever has always been a business that does good. It has always been a force for good, whether in Bangladesh or any country where it operates. Unilever has always had a strong human face. “That’s our heritage, our DNA. And I am convinced that all companies will need to be more human to be more successful in the world that is changing so fast.”

Unilever’s CHRO is proud of the company being the most sought-after employer, number one employer of choice in Bangladesh for the last six years. Unilever globally receives 1.8 million applications a year. In Bangladesh, Unilever received 7000 applications in Bangladesh this year.

“Seeing the talented population in Bangladesh makes me very happy,” Leena Nair says, “I am always inspired by Bangladesh.”

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