MUMBAI: The new world requires a new kind of leadership. With a sharp focus on creating relevant leaders, the $63-billion Unilever is redefining its standards of leadership, which is currently being rolled out in India as well. In addition, the consumer products giant has simplified its performance management system and has done away with the contentious ‘bell curve’ to assess its employees. Instead, it is adopting a more ‘human’ approach and making large investments in employee well-being, skilling and people development, while also embracing technology in a big way to reduce recruitment costs.
The new standards of leadership at the British-Dutch transnational consumer products company has two aspects — the inner game and the outer game. The inner game includes a sense of purpose, learning agility and a personal mastery on resilience to cope with challenges, while the outer game covers attributes such as passion for higher performance, business acumen, consumer love and being a talent catalyst.
In an exclusive interaction with TOI, Leena Nair (49), the first woman — and also the youngest — chief HR officer of Unilever, said, “We believe your inner game is going to matter as much, if not more, than your outer game. When you are faced with a difficult situation, the person with a learning agility and resilience is going to find the answers. When times are tough, it’s the inner game that is going to come through strongly. We are assessing leaders on these factors.”
Unilever, which spends around $100 million on leadership development and skilling, is running workshops in India as well to roll out the new standards of leadership for all its senior leaders.
Nair, who is on an official visit to India, which is one of Unilever’s top markets, believes while access to financial capital is becoming easier, access to human capital is getting tougher. “In today’s world, if a CEO is not spending 50% of the time on people agenda, there’s a real problem. The soft stuff is the hard stuff for the next 10-20 years. The only competitive advantage a company has are its people — their ideas and creativity,” said Nair, who reports directly to chairman Paul Polman, and travels extensively to cover 119 countries where Unilever operates.
Nair, who believes looking after people makes real business sense, walks the talk as she presents statistics on how Unilever’s healthcare costs have fallen by 18% over the last few years following consistent wellness initiatives, which have resulted in healthier employees and better productivity. “For every dollar we invest in wellness, we get a return of $2.44,” said Nair.
What’s more, Unilever is treading swiftly on the digital path on the people front. The company receives 1.8 million job applications from across the world. It uses technology to make a shortlist, thus drastically reducing the number of man-hours that were earlier spent on the process of conducting interviews. Nair, an engineering graduate, had taken up HR as a career stream by choice. She is now finding it fascinating how HR is changing with the combined power of digital and human. “We have to bring the field of human capital and financial capital a lot together. We use standard measures to ensure we get the best talent from the best places. We measure the mood and morale of people with data analytics. With predictive attrition, we are able to predict which employees we may lose. That has saved us 200 million euros, the cost of unavoidable attrition,” said Nair, who was heading HR at Hindustan Unilever (HUL) prior to moving into a global role.
On gender diversity, too, Unilever has managed to move the needle and has improved its balance to 46% women in the workforce from 36% five years ago. While the number is 37% at HUL, Nair said it’s way ahead of the country’s average number of women in the workforce (27%). This is a huge improvement from what it was way back in 1992 — at 2% women in management cadre — when she joined the company.
Nair attributes practices such as offering greater flexibility at work, day-care centres, maternity leave and programmes to fight unconscious biases behind Unilever’s achievement to become gender-balanced. Unilever is now offering a paternity leave of three weeks across the world. The next plan of action for Nair is making Unilever inclusive on disability. The company is pursuing this under a pilot programme called “Differability”, with India being one of the piloting clusters.