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Strategic CHRO

Strategic CHRO: Leena Nair of Unilever on HR’s Role: “We are the Business.”​

November 2, 2018

Strategic CHRO: Leena Nair of Unilever on HR’s Role: “We are the Business.”​

Next up in our interview series with executives who are transforming the role of the chief human resource officer is Leena Nair, CHRO of Unilever. She’s passionate about making sure the function is seen as a leader at companies, rather than just playing a supportive role. Stay tuned for more interviews with other HR leaders.

Q. What does being a strategic CHRO mean to you?

A. To me, there’s no other way to do this job than to be strategic. In order to be a good CHRO, you have to be ahead of the curve and thinking of changes before they happen. I get annoyed by all these articles that say HR is in service of the business. That’s such a regressive way of looking at it. We are the business.

HR should be leading the business to the right place instead of running behind the business and filling the cracks. HR has to be central, front-facing and literally lead the transformation of the business, because so much of what we do can impact culture and the right behaviors and mindset to take the company forward.

Q. What are the biggest challenges in your industry?

A. Everything about our sector is changing. There’s a huge fragmentation of consumers, and you can’t see them as one big mass entity anymore. Consumers are basically saying, “I want what I want when I want it and where I want it, and if I don’t get something I need on Amazon Prime in two hours, I’m already annoyed.”

“It’s about thriving in an upside-down world. Everything we’ve believed about how work is done is being challenged.”

Media is so fragmented. In yesterday’s market, you could create fantastic 30-second advertising. It’s so irrelevant today. If you can’t create a three-second ad that captures the attention of consumers when they’re scrolling on their phone, you’ve lost the battle of the brand. The way consumers engage with our brand, and the way they engage with brand content, has changed enormously.

It’s about thriving in an upside-down world. Everything we’ve believed about how work is done is being challenged. And what a great time for CHROs to transform companies into that new reality.

Q. Given that context, if you were talking to a group of CEOs about how to get the most from their CHROs today, what would you advise?

A. My first piece of advice would be that people have to be central to your agenda. It can’t be lip service. So I would say to CEOs to stop telling me that people are your greatest asset and show me how much of your time is spent on people and how much of your money is spent on people. Then we can start talking.

The second thing I would advise them is that they must bring the CHRO and CFO together, because so many decisions of financial capital are made without any consideration of human capital. Both these have to be done together. If we see a business opportunity in Thailand, for example, do we have the people we need, with the right experience and skill set? The business opportunity that you’re investing in is not going to work if you don’t have the organizational readiness to make it happen.

“There are so many articles questioning the real contribution of HR that it has created a generation of CHROs who are too apologetic.”

For every financial decision you’re making, you must look at the human dimension of it, and for every human dimension you are making a decision, you must think of the financial dimension.

My third piece of advice would be to truly bring your CHRO to the center of the table. The reason I say that is that many CHROs I meet are under-confident. There are so many articles questioning the real contribution of HR that it has created a generation of CHROs who are too apologetic about what we need to do and about justifying the business case for doing good things for our people. We can’t be seen just as Mr. or Mrs. Nice Guy.

Q. Unilever is in how many countries?

A. We operate in 190 countries, and we have more than 160,000 employees, and more than half of them are millennials.

Q. What is your best insight about managing millennials?

A. Purpose is key if you’re going to attract a millennial. They have to believe that this company cares about much more than making profits.

They need a sense of involvement. The future is much less about hierarchies and command and control, and it’s much more about integrated networks. They like having a voice, they like having influence and impact. They care about self-development more than any generation I’ve seen. They’re aggressive about ensuring they’re learning all the time, and companies that continuously invest in them and their skills will attract them.

Q. What do you consider the most important leadership quality these days?

A. For me, it’s curiosity, openness to change, learning agility. Potential is beginning to trump experience because what you’ve learned in the past is not relevant for succeeding in a world that’s changing so fast.

Q. What is your best job interview question?

A. I ask about embracing failure. When did you fail and what did you do after you failed? What were the biggest lessons? If you’ve never failed in your life, that’s not a good thing in my book. That means you never tried hard enough.

Q. Where does your drive come from?

A. I grew up with very little in a very small town in India. We didn’t have a public school for girls in my early years, but I was in the first group of girls to attend school when we opened one. I never thought I’d get the opportunity to do what I’m doing today. I didn’t know what to dream about. I didn’t have much exposure to the world. Television didn’t exist in my town until I was 20.

So it comes with a deep sense of responsibility. I had opportunities that so many didn’t and I owe it to myself and to others to make this world a better place for those who come after me. I want to give back. The drive definitely is there to make things better for as many people as I can. Some of it comes from the profession I’m in. It gives me great joy to see people getting the opportunity to be the best versions of themselves and to contribute.

Q. What have been some of your key leadership lessons?

A. I have a spine, and speaking truth to power is an ability that HR leaders need to have. No matter what happens, you are the person who has to be able to stare into a CEO’s eyes and tell him that he’s doing something badly. It takes real moral courage to walk into a leader’s office and tell them what they need to do differently.

That courage didn’t come overnight. I had to practice it and learn to be skillful at it because you also want to give them feedback to make things shift for the business, and not to make them feel bad. It’s about the courage to take risks and to try something new. That’s linked to being able to embrace failure because they go together.

Follow Adam Bryant and Merryck & Co on LinkedIn to see more.