A little vulnerability can go a long way, says Unilever's global employer brand manager Hyren Peterson

Hyren's LinkedIn post, in which he admits to making many mistakes in his career, went viral. 

Unilever’s recently appointed global employer brand manager Hyren Peterson has been getting quite a bit of attention lately based a LinkedIn post announcing his promotion. In the post, Hyren (pronounced ‘hai-ren’) shares how he struggled with imposter syndrome and feelings of inadequacy in the early years of his career. He writes about how he had failed many times, making many big mistakes on his way to becoming a leader in his own right. 

"The post went viral, which was totally unexpected. I was only sharing my thoughts after reflecting on my journey but I had no idea it would appeal to so many. I mean, the post had 3,000 likes and over 400,000 people viewed the post, which is just crazy," says Hyren. 

"I think it shows that allowing one's self to be vulnerable can really make an impact. I didn't say anything overly personal other than the fact that I'm just an ordinary coloured boy from Upington who had been given the opportunity to travel the world for work and, although I had made mistakes along the way, I was being recognised for my hard work. And I think that resonated with a lot of people.

Hyren says it's difficult to be vulnerable. To step outside of one’s comfort zone and say to the world, 'even though my LinkedIn profile portrays me as this person who is in another country every other year and is working for an amazing company, I am not perfect'

When Hyren applied to the University of the Western Cape, he wanted to study Microbiology but he didn't get accepted for that and had to pursue his second choice, which was a B.Com degree. It was during those studies that he was captured by the field of Organisational Psychology, which he chose to major in and eventually studied at a Masters level. 

Importance of feedback

During his Masters, he was approached to join Unliver's management trainee programme, which appeals to many a Millennial because of the travelling that comes with being put on the development track at Unilever. 

Straight, out of varsity he went to stay in Durban and was admittedly overconfident in his abilities. 

“I came in super confident. Maybe even a little cocky. And the feedback I received knocked me off the pedestal that I had put myself on. My confidence took a huge knock and it took me over two years to get over that,” he says.

But after that, he learned that feedback was important for one's growth, whether it was good or bad, especially when the feedback regards one’s development. He started viewing failure as a data point from which to evaluate himself in the context of the leader he wants to become, and that mindset shift catapulted his career.

As an avid tennis player, he links the importance of feedback to reviewing one’s performance on the court 

“When you have a bad game, you evaluate where you dropped points. So if your serve let you down, you know you didn't practise your serve enough and, if you weren't able to keep up in the rallies, you know you need to work on your fitness...and it's the same with any profession.”

Living outside your country of origin

After four years in a variety of HR roles at Unilever’s Durban office, Hyren was seconded to Singapore to join the Global Procurement division as HR Business Partner. It was his first time being outside of South Africa and a huge culture shock.

“After the first six months, all I wanted to do was come back home,” he says, adding that, what took some getting used to, in particular, was the fact that common values of Ubuntu and collectivism in South Africa were in stark contrast to Singapore’s Individualistic culture.  “In the office, it was not the same warmth you would experience in South Africa. And in the apartment building I was staying at, sharing a lift was a very awkward experience because people just stand in silence whereas, in South Africa, people have entire conversations and even develop friendships that stem from those elevator conversations. It was only after a while that I learned that it didn't mean people in Singapore were rude or anything – it was just their way of life.”

During the following six months, Hyren really started to find himself and says this experience bears testament to the notion that, when one lives outside their country of origin, they get a better sense of self, because they are taken away from the environment that reinforces their pre-existing beliefs and are forced to interrogate those beliefs.

“It's a very stressful process because it feels like you have to challenge your own identity, and I think that's what was happening in the first six months.” 

But he emerged from that experience having a much better sense of who he was. After Singapore, he said to his manager that he wanted more experiences like that because he had realised how much that one stint had changed had allowed him to grow not only as a career person but as a more balanced individual as well.

Says Hyren: "I realised that the biggest driver of my growth was being put into situations where I don't know the culture or the people, and having to build the cultural and emotional intelligence that is required to be effective in those new environments. As an HR business partner, you are always met with a little bit of resistance from your partners and I enjoy the challenge of winning them over with good HR practices and being able to engage with them in conversations about people, challenging the stereotypes and perceptions of what HR really does.”

Landing the big gig

For the last two years, Hyren has been involved in Unilever’s strategy for developing the local talent pipeline in the Philippines. The company has been putting things in place to ensure that the individuals driving HR initiatives in that region come from there and it has been remarkably successful. 

Towards the end of the two-year secondment, he starting looking for a new adventure and growth opportunity. He saw the job post for the global employer brand manager role but he didn’t even think about applying for it, because, "It’s one of those roles where there was only one vacancy in the entire group. It is one of those jobs you don’t apply for because you simply don’t think you would be able to cut it."

It was only because his manager encouraged him to do so that he applied and eventually got that the job.

“That’s why it’s so important to have a manager that believes in you,” he says.  “When you get such a huge role, it is okay to be afraid and nervous, because that is what drives you to learn more. But you also have to be confident in your ability and your track record so that you can rest assured that your work ethic will drive you to add value.”

Hyren has no employer branding experience but is looking forward to the challenge nonetheless, saying that he had met the team and they had all had a conversation about the diversity of thought, which is enhanced by having someone with no prior employer branding experience. 

It’s a mantra that seems to ring true in his private life as well given that Hyren as a very small tight-knit group of friends - a doctor, a chef, an environmentalist, and entrepreneurs.  

“What I have learned about life is that every experience both good and bad serves your purpose in some way, this is why it was so incredible to see that what I have learned brought me to co-found an NGO called Reach 1 Teach 1 Send 1, aiming to eradicate youth unemployability through community upliftment’