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“HR should be laying the road, rather than filling in the cracks” — Our interview with Leena Nair

Author Guy Reading

"Dream big. Put your hand up for difficult and less glamorous assignments."

"Jobs are being reinvented everyday and the way a job was done five years ago is often irrelevant today."

"The ability to learn lifelong is going to be the single biggest differentiating factor for successful professionals and successful businesses."

"I passionately believe that HR needs to lay the road for the business, not merely fill the cracks after the business has gone ahead."

"Even the simplest policies need to be culturally sensitive so that they land properly."

"You have so much more power and influence than you can imagine. Speak up, stand up, show the situational leadership that you’re capable of."

As one of the most influential people in business in her role as Chief HR Officer at Unilever, you might expect Leena Nair to seem unapproachable. But during our time with her, what comes through most clearly is what an energising, charismatic and welcoming person she must be to work with and for.

Throughout the interview, she laughs and jokes, and even hugs us before we leave. When she asks a colleague to make a cup of tea and bring some nuts for the afternoon slump, she makes sure to share it with all of us.

Her personal charisma animates a clear-eyed, commercial and ambitious focus and vision about who and what make businesses tick. Our conversation ranged from what she has learnt about cultural sensitivity as a global leader to an inspiring story of situational leadership during the 2008 attacks in Mumbai, but centred around her ambitious determination to change the role HR plays at Unilever, and the importance of constantly learning in a changing world.

Key takeaways

  • The ability to keep learning will define success for people and businesses. The world is changing so fast that if you’re not willing to learn, unlearn and relearn constantly, you’ll be history.

  • HR needs to stay ahead of the curve. HR needs to play a proactive role in laying the road for business, but in order to do that it needs to understand the future trends that will affect businesses and employees.

  • Put your hand up for the less glamorous assignment. Work which teaches you the fundamentals of a business is often difficult or unfashionable. However, you’ll gain experience and grit that other people can’t match.

  • Show the situational leadership that you’re capable of. You have much more power and influence than you can imagine if you think in terms of what you can contribute rather than what your job title is.

How did you come to be the Chief HR Officer at one of the most important corporations in the world?

I don’t know! [laughs] From day one, I have always dreamt big. You have to start your career with an aspiration of what you want to do, the impact you’ll have, and the legacy you will leave. I fell in love with Unilever — which isn’t difficult — as soon as I joined. It’s a great set of brands and a good company, and I have always enjoyed working with the people here.

I encourage other people to be open to jumping into assignments which teach you the core of the business. Put your hand up for the jobs which are tough but will give you experience that others can’t match. I chose to work in three of our factories, stuck in the back of beyond with few buses or trains — something few trainees were willing to do.

I have always been open to feedback. Well, perhaps not from the start! After taking a few knocks along the way I realised that I needed to hear feedback so that I didn’t continue to make the same mistakes. Being open to feedback and learning helps you take risks and be flexible.

In fact, that’s the advice I would give anyone starting out on their career. Dream big. Put your hand up for difficult and less glamorous assignments. Be open for feedback. And always think more about how you can contribute rather than what your position or job is.

What is your vision for HR at Unilever?

When I came to the job, a key aim was a simpler, more impactful and more human HR. We have such a complicated life in HR. These performance management systems are such a waste of time — instead of discussing which box someone should fit into, discuss the person! We cut all that back — no labels, no lists, no boxes: just discuss people. Give them real feedback.

HR teams across the world have created such incredible bureaucracies. 40 page forms to fill out. Job evaluations — who cares? Jobs are being reinvented everyday and the way a job was done five years ago is often irrelevant today. Despite their quizzes and bureaucracy, old fashioned HR teams often can’t actually connect their actions and metrics to better business outcomes.

One of our key aims here is to try to show how we connect to the aims of the company and profit and loss. For example, we have predictive attrition tools which tell us, with a forecasting accuracy of about 80-83%, who is going to quit their job. If we forecast that x number of people are going to leave the business, that translates to a waste of, say, €200 million. If we can retain a certain number of people with active conversations then we’ll have saved €50 million for the business. We aim to encourage HR people to think in that way, and quantify what they do.

How are you creating a learning culture?

One of my key appointments here was a Chief Learning Officer. I wanted to indicate that I would be very driven in pushing the importance of learning. The ability to learn lifelong is going to be the single biggest differentiating factor for successful professionals and successful businesses. The world is pivoting so fast that if you’re not willing to learn, unlearn, relearn and reinvent yourself all the time, then you’re history.

That appointment focused the learning in the company under one umbrella, so that we now have a big team focused entirely on learning within Unilever. It’s a community of people who are enthusiastic and drive our learning culture.

We’re also encouraging peer to peer content curation. People learn best when they get snackable and bitesize learning frequently — particularly from someone who is going to give them the most relevant insight. We’ve invested in content generation technology and we’re also driving curiosity and focus. We want people to carve out 15 minute chunks every day in which to learn.

We’re already getting some beautiful data which is proving our hypotheses. We can look at the evidence and see that active learners get promoted, get better ratings, are seen as more inclusive talent and get better scores from their colleagues. That data helps us motivate inactive learners to get onto that active list.

What does implementing your vision involve?

I passionately believe that HR needs to lay the road for the business, not merely fill the cracks after the business has gone ahead. We can’t lay the road if we’re not out there, finding out what’s happening in technology, what’s happening to people, what is happening to jobs and employment. We need to be ahead of the curve, and see the trends that will affect the business and our people.

If I think about how I spend my time, most of it is not dedicated to running the HR department. I have fantastic and competent people around me in my HR leadership team, and they largely run HR. I spend a lot of time just visiting the countries we operate in, in order to get to know our talent, our customers and our brand teams there. I also spend time with our HR teams of course, but it’s never the bulk of what I do. I spend the vast majority of my time with the business as a whole, rather than just in HR. Listening to business leaders, understanding what’s going on, seeing what we can pull for in talent, organisation and culture in order to make a difference.

What does leadership on a global level really mean?

You have to adapt to every culture. Every message has to be tailored, because they don’t land in the same way in every country and culture. That applies to our marketing too — Dove’s Real Beauty campaign lands very differently depending on different concepts of beauty.

One of our biggest initiatives in regards to inclusion is flexible and agile working. On the face of it, that seems simple. You can work at the time of your choice, work out of home, come into the office — whatever works for you. Done! — Roll it out across the world!

It doesn’t work like that in practice. In Japan, people tell us that they don’t want to work from home, because their home is small. Furthermore, they don’t want to clutter it up with computers, satellite connections, Skype screens, etc. In Pakistan, people said that they can’t work from home because they live with their in-laws, and if they’re at home then their mother-in-law thinks they’re available for a chat at any time. Saudi Arabia — it doesn’t work there either. By contrast, it’s incredibly popular here in Britain because we have long commuting times, and lots of people live in houses with lots of space.

Even the simplest policies need to be culturally sensitive so that they land properly. You have to look at the intent behind them — and in this case, the intent is flexibility. But how that translates into each culture in practice is different.

What’s on your learning playlist?

I’ve just started this book by Iris Bohnet called What Works: Gender Equality by Design. This is the latest thinking on inclusion, and I’m actually meeting her to discuss it.

Homo Deus by Yuval Noah Harari is really good — it’s a brief history of tomorrow. I’ve just finished Scott Galloway’s book on the Big Four — Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google. It has huge implications for us as a business, because our consumers are all on those platforms, and we have to consider how we reach them and how that affects our brands.

I was listening to the Oprah Winfrey podcast the other day because I really identify with what she says about purpose. I went to a technology conference recently, and spent some time with Sheryl Sandberg, so I’m also reading Option B, on grieving and resilience.

Each year, I try to learn one new thing which will wire my brain in a different way. For example, I learnt to play the keyboard five or six years ago. I’m a lousy player, but I’m trying! For 2018, it’s Spanish, but I have completely forgotten what it was last year — it’s been crazy busy. I love dancing, so we shall do dancing in 2019. I don’t need too many lessons — my moves are pretty good!

I also believe in the power of mentors — I just reach out to people and ask to meet them. Niall FitzGerald, who was the chief executive of Unilever is still a mentor. John Stewart, who was the chairman of Legal & General, and Sara Matthew, who was the CEO of Dun and Bradstreet, have mentored me as well.

What was your experience of being caught up in the Taj incident in Mumbai in 2008?

When terrorists attacked the Taj in Mumbai, I was stuck in the hotel with the Unilever senior team and my spouse. It was the hardest, most difficult night I have ever been through. Debris was constantly falling, and you could hear gunshots and screams throughout the night. You’re hiding in a corner of the room, desperately hoping that you’re not found. But it was also one of my biggest leadership lessons.

The leader of the twelve staff who were with those of us from Unilever was a young woman called Malika. She was amazingly poised throughout that night given the circumstances. I’m sure nothing in her training had ever taught her what to do if terrorists started attacking.

She was continuously there for us, spending all her time and energy looking after everybody, holding people’s hands, and finding water. Her mother kept calling, and I could hear her telling her not to worry and that she wasn’t in the hotel so that she wouldn’t keep calling.

At six o’clock in the morning, we needed to find a way to escape because smoke had started filling the room. After moving through some rooms and a kitchen, the firemen outside eventually saw us and brought a ladder up to the window. We started climbing through one by one, and Malika said to us, ‘Guests first, staff next, me last.’ We all said that we should just go ‘ladies first, gentlemen next …’ and she said, ‘No, it’s my party of people and my rules — guests first, staff next and me last.’ We all managed to escape, just hoping that nobody would find us, and she was the last to come down the ladder.

In age, authority, experience, we were all far senior to her. But the influence and impact she had that night, her poise, was what helped us stay alive. It’s left such an impression on me. When I hear people say, ‘ I’m only this or that, what can I do?’, I just feel … oh my god, you have so much more power and influence than you can imagine. Speak up, stand up, show the situational leadership that you’re capable of.

After that, I thought very deliberately, ‘What do I want to get out of my life?’ When you come close to not knowing whether you’re going to be alive the next day, it gives you an immense amount of clarity about your life being a gift. I’m going to live my purpose as I’m meant to every single day. After some time, we brought everyone involved that night together, including Malika, and held a huge felicitation for the staff and thanked them all, and Malika particularly.

Author Guy Reading