Unilever Africa's Mechell Chetty on the pursuit and power of purpose

For her, it is the key to unlocking human potential in order to drive meaningful business success.

Hardship is commonplace in Africa. It takes various forms, from economic challenges in Zimbabwe to political uncertainty or violent conflict, such as in Eastern DRC. In the wake of Cyclone Idai, thousands were killed and millions left without food, water, shelter and critical infrastructure across three countries. It was one of the worst ever natural disasters to hit the Southern Hemisphere.

Mechell Chetty, Unilever Africa’s HR Vice President, recently visited Beira’s accommodation centres in Mozambique; where tens of thousands of people find refuge, having been displaced by the devastation.  She was among a team of executives who visited these disaster relief camps to understand the struggles of the people on the ground and how Unilever can best help in such situations.  Mechell was deeply moved through connecting with so many who have been robbed of their dignity. She says the trip was needed to reaffirm Unilever’s commitment to the people on the African continent.

We don’t see our business as separate from our communities. Whether you are in HR, marketing, or operations, everyone in the organisation is committed to our collective purpose as a business, which is to make sustainable living in Africa commonplace,” says Mechell.

“Hygiene and nutrition were compromised to such an extent that, as a business whose products are consumed by every citizen, we had to react.  Our teams in South Africa worked overtime to ship donations; our front line businesses, led by Gerrie Kapfizde in Mozambique and Hilary Muzondiwa in Zimbabwe, were active from the start, and our global teams arranged support to the NGOs.”

From an HR perspective, Mechell says one of the first priorities was to contact employees and their families to be sure all were safe.  Thankfully none were impacted, although some had serious damage to their property.

The commitment to purpose was clear with so many staff stepping forward to work weekends and spare time to help recovery and colleagues across Unilever Africa donating money to the international relief effort through payroll giving and mobile donations organised by the company.

Business has to take a step back

Unilever also recognised that, in the cyclone’s aftermath, the organisation had to take measures to mitigate the indirect factors that can adversely affect employees. Whether that meant introducing flexible hours or adjusting performance targets, it was important for leaders in Mozambique and Zimbabwe to know that, from day one of the crisis, they had the freedom to deal with the situation however best they saw fit. One of those decisions, for instance, was to change office hours in Mozambique, because the damage to infrastructure was so vast that getting to work was a real struggle.

Mechell says: “As an HR leader that has been working across Africa for many years, I have to be aware that I am managing people in an environment where most of them are dealing with extreme hardship. Particularly in a situation such as this, where the entire country is in mourning. Simply going back to business as usual was not an option. Not only would it have been bad for business in terms of the impact on organisational culture, it would have been completely at odds with the values and purpose that Unilever adopts.”

Purpose over everything

At Unilever, Mechell discovered and defined her purpose as ‘Unlocking Dignity for Africans by mobilising our voice for change.’ It guides her every decision, as she works towards building African leaders. It is also one of the main reasons for remaining in the organisation for more than 20 years.

While not every Unilever employee is able to fully articulate their purpose into a slogan, the goal is to help them get as close to that point as possible. 

“Purpose is everything, not just in business, but in life. It is bigger than KPIs, targets and goals because without it, you’ll never unlock your true potential,” says Mechell.

Helping someone find their purpose is much easier said than done. Sometimes it’s a fruitless endeavour but, for Mechell, it is one that the company will relentlessly pursue.  When asked how Unilever goes about helping employees answer one of life’s most difficult questions, Mechell says they run regular workshops with a slot reserved for storytelling, where people get to share their personal stories. She has found that, by allowing people to openly talk about themselves in a safe space, where they can reflect on their successes, failures and the moments in their lives that have shaped them, you may pick up on something about them that even they may not have been conscious of.

“It’s about listening to people attentively to find out where their passion, talent and strengths lie; because it is where those things meet, that you will find the key to unlocking true human potential.”