How Unilever Develops Leaders To Be A Force For Good
As a global company whose products reach 2.5 billion people every day, Unilever has the potential to make a monumental impact on the world. It is using this power to be a force for good by delivering on a bold and game-changing sustainability plan and creating a workplace where 150,000 employees can discover and live their purpose. I recently had the pleasure of sitting down with Unilever’s Chief Human Resources Officer, Leena Nair, to learn more.
Rasmus Hougaard: Unilever has a vision for doing business in a new way, to deliver growth by serving its people and the planet. As Chief Human Resources Officer and a member of the Unilever executive team, how does that make you feel?
Leena Nair: It inspires me that we are trying to be a different kind of business. As a leadership team, we’ve made the central question of our strategy, how do we make sustainable living commonplace? That's our purpose at Unilever.
To bring that purpose to life, there are three things we want to be known for. First, we want to be the business that demonstrates to the world that sustainability makes great business sense, that high performance and high purpose go hand in hand. The second is to be a beacon for diversity and inclusion, and the third is to have a stable full of purposeful brands. Those three beliefs guide our every action.
Hougaard: If you had to pick one recent initiative that makes you particularly proud, what would it be?
Nair: There are so many to choose from, but with our new Positive Beauty strategy, we will stop using the word normal on all of our beauty and personal care brands’ packaging and advertising. This is just one of many steps we are taking to challenge narrow beauty ideals, as we work towards helping to end discrimination and advocate for a more inclusive vision of beauty. We are all unique. We are all beautiful. And we want to celebrate that. To support this, our brands are also banning digital alterations in brand advertising. It’s about creating an equitable, inclusive, and sustainable picture of beauty.
Hougaard: Potential Project and Unilever are partnering together to bring new standards of leadership to Unilever. Alan Jope, Unilever’s CEO, talks about this new approach to leadership when he says, “Now is the time to master the inner game so you can access the outer game.” Can you explain what this means?
Nair: Your inner game is your sense of purpose and service. It teaches you resilience and gives you the confidence that you will learn whatever comes your way. When the world is uncertain, it's really your inner game that allows you to be agile, to be flexible, and to say, what's needed in this moment?
Your outer game is your passion for high performance, business acumen, and results orientation. The inner game is what fuels the outer game. And the more you invest in your inner game, the more you get limitless resources to fuel your growth, limitless ideas, and limitless flexibility to do things differently.
Hougaard: The work we do together on leadership focuses on strengths like presence, compassion, curiosity, courage, agility, purpose and personal mastery. Why is this type of leadership critical for Unilever?
Nair: Leadership is central to achieving business goals. Leaders create the culture of a company. You can put whatever strategy you want on a piece of paper, but it's not going to get executed unless the leaders model the right behaviors.
I'm so thrilled to have words like “compassion” and “empathy” take center stage. Who would have thought that? You have introduced the concept of wise compassion, which is a beautiful way to say that you really need the wisdom of your intuition. You need the compassion that comes from your heart. I am really delighted to see these words becoming more mainstream in leadership, and more leaders recognizing why this is so important.
We must ensure that we are supporting leaders to be a force for good. When you build better leaders, you build better businesses. When you build better businesses, you build a better world.
Hougaard: How does Unilever’s purpose to make sustainable living commonplace fit with the many challenges we are facing in the world right now?
Nair: From my perspective, the two biggest challenges of our time are climate change and social inequality. On climate change, we’ve begun to see the tipping point. More and more businesses, more and more governments, have come out with commitments and pledges to address climate change. So, I do think people recognize the seriousness. They’re beginning to lean in.
But on social inequality, the same tipping point hasn't yet happened. We can all see the data. During and post-COVID, we know that the gap and social divide are only going to increase, but social inequality has not yet received the same level of focus as climate change. That's why I am pleased that as a company, we have made a wide-ranging set of commitments in this area.
And this, to me, is how it’s all related. When your inner game is strong and you have compassion and empathy for the people around you, you will reflect a sensibility for the entire ecosystem with your business decisions. You will realize that the planet is a shared resource, and that we have a shared responsibility to look out for the people around us. That's why we have recently made commitments to support the ecosystem in which we operate. For example, we have committed to ensure everyone who directly provides goods and services to Unilever earns at least a living wage or income by 2030, and to spend €2 billion annually with suppliers owned and managed by people from under-represented groups by 2025. We don’t even know how to count the people in our ecosystem. It could be 5 million or it could be 10 million. But that's the level of impact you can have on the people across your ecosystem when you make bold commitments like this.
Bringing humanity to the business is what a focus on the inner game does. And when you make it okay to bring your humanity to the workplace, it makes it much easier for people to acknowledge their strengths, their vulnerabilities, and their challenges.
Hougaard: What advice would you give your counterparts in other companies who want to cultivate courage and compassion in their organizations, like Unilever is doing?
Nair: There's not a company I know that hasn't created a purpose statement and put it up on their walls. But putting it up on the wall and making posters out of it is not the same as living it. So as a first step, I would encourage them to make sure the purpose is being lived by the people in their business. At Unilever, all 150,000 of our people are going through workshops to discover their purpose. And we’re encouraging our people to bring their passions, their causes, and the things they really care about to the workplace and their work.
And you've got to stay the course. We set some of our sustainability goals 10 years ago without being sure how we would achieve them, but we committed to them. You must be relentless. You have to expose your leaders to what it means to be a more human company. Leaders have to think about it, reflect on it, discover their purpose, stay the course, make bold commitments, and reach out to each other for support.
We’re all on this journey together. This is not a competition. This is our planet and everybody on this planet needs to lean in — all businesses, all institutions, governments, NGOs — to create a movement to create better leaders, better businesses, and a better world.