Unilever CHRO Leena Nair on how to ignite the Human Spark

It's all about purpose, well-being, empathy and finding the best way to get your message across to fellow executives.

Leena Nair eats glass ceilings for breakfast. Since 1992, when she joined Hindustan Unilever as a summer trainee, she was the first female manager to opt to work for a time in a factory, the first woman on the management committee and the youngest ever executive director. In March 2016, three years after relocating to London, Leena was appointed as the first female, the first Asian, and the youngest ever Chief Human Resource Officer of Unilever, leading a “global people agenda” - as she calls it - that oversees 169,000 employees in over 100 countries.


As one of the most popular speakers at last year’s Workday Rising in Barcelona and at the World Economic Forum in Davos in January of this year, Leena is fast becoming a global icon of HR leadership.


With great power comes great responsibility, something Leena is experiencing on a daily basis, she says. “I have been fortunate to have been the first woman in a number of things. Being able to break so many glass ceilings is a privilege, but it is also a responsibility.  People look to me to do the right thing and I am well aware that should I do the wrong thing, then it may have a huge impact.  I have met this responsibility through a deep sense of personal purpose, and have set myself a goal to inspire a million women. I had a very humble upbringing and could not have dreamt of the opportunities I have today.  I want to inspire people and tell them: you can follow your dream.”




Out of whack

One of the CHROs’ most important tasks is to manage the well-being of employees that are trying to cope with a rapidly changing world, says Leena. “When I speak to other HR leaders, they all tell me that many employees are feeling overwhelmed and often their work-life balance is out of whack.”


Asked how she deals with those challenges personally, she mentioned one of her key values: purpose. “I want to ignite the human spark and I am very passionate about that being my purpose. I also have my little rituals for my own sanity and I jog at least once a week. You need to invest in yourself and look after your own well-being. Being involved in the World Economic Forum was about building my own capability and reminding myself of my purpose. That gives me an anchor.”


Tech vs humans

Leena sees technology as an enabler, rather than a threat, so the question was what her favourite new tech on the block is? “I like everything mobile,” she says. “I do try to introduce a lot of technology in the way I work, particularly ensuring we optimise our communication. I am also a big believer in sentiment analysis of external feedback, which I can now follow in real-time on a screen in my office, instead of doing this only once a year. I try to immerse myself in technology, but I am a constant embarrassment to my teenage boys who tell me I should do so much more with my iPhone.”


Part of employees feeling overwhelmed is their fear about technology and what it means for their personal future. CHROs have a big role to play to combat negativity, says Leena. “Everyone is a bit scared, and many people are anxious about the impact of technology.  A lot of the narrative has been negative. Headlines like ‘Robots are coming for your job’ sell newspapers.”  Leena says she wants to build a positive narrative around technology. “The first thing we need to do is talk about the opportunities technology creates, not just about the challenges. The second thing we need to do is what I spoke about earlier: make sure people have a purpose and an anchor. What gives you meaning in your life? We need to instil confidence.”


“What we need is a reskilling revolution,” she says, before citing some sobering statistics. Korn Ferry recently revealed that 67 percent of CEOs even believe that technology – not humanity – holds the key to the future of their companies. At Davos, Accenture said worldwide spending on cognitive andAI systems increased by 60 percent between 2016 and 2017, but only 3 percent of CEOs plan to significantly increase investment in training programs over the next three years. Leena doesn’t like it one bit, as she is nurturing a culture of ‘snackable’ (often and in small portions) learning at Unilever. “This research frustrates me.”



Leena names energy, creativity, empathy and collaboration as her most important values, but those are not always the trademarks of big multinationals. She says that CHROs need to “create a reason” for (fellow) board members to listen to what they have to say. “I have been very blessed to work for Unilever. I have a very supportive board.   As HR leaders we need to talk the language of business and be able to show just how critical our people are to our success by quantifying the value they create and using metrics to tell our story in an effective way.”


Leena then acts out an imaginary discussion with a CEO and CFO advocating empathy, but not getting through to the executive colleagues. “It is up to me to stand up and say: the productivity has gone up by so much because of the increased well-being of employees.  Thankfully, the availability of data and analytics allows us to do that. For example, my team is able to show how investing in increasing our spend on LinkedIn is saving us recruitment costs.  We are accountable for everything we do in HR.”


Looking at real business impact might also mean that traditional measures should be thrown out of the window, says Leena. “All companies measure attrition, but what is the point of it?” she asks, indicating that there is not a lot of value in producing numbers that describe what happened in the past. “Instead, we have invested in predictive analytics at Unilever and we are now 75 percent accurate in forecasting who is going to leave. That allows us to take proactive measures, save money and directly improve the P&L. My message is always: talk to the business about the impact and effectiveness of what you do.”


Factory workers

Leena’s history as someone who started working in a factory has stood her in good stead, she says, calling it “very, very important” that CHROs gain experience in the trenches. “I spent the first the first six years of my career selling, working from three different factories. I learned so many lessons. I don’t just talk about empathy with workers for the sake of it. I have worn a factory uniform. I have worn safety helmets and boots. I have done night shifts.”


Now responsible for employees in over 300 factories with nearly 1000 related labour unions, Leena says negotiations with staff representatives should always aim to create a win-win outcome. “One of the most difficult things for an HR leader is restructuring. As responsible businesses, we have to do that responsibly. We need to support people through it.  Our factories also need to have the highest standards. We genuinely care about everyone who works for us. Personally, I treat all people the same, from the CEO to the receptionist.  There is no difference in tone. I give them the same respect, the same empathy.”


Leena emphasises that finding purpose in work is not reserved for executives. “At the factory floor, we also try to help people understand why they do what they do. For example, we have people packaging soap day in and day out. We took them to villages in India where children were dying, because of lack of hygiene,” she says, referring to the 117-year-old soap brand Lifebuoy that runs a  rural hygiene programme promoting handwashing with soap to reduce diarrheal deaths. “We showed the factory workers that with this soap that they package, we can ensure that people are not dying. That changed the way people saw what they do every day. We need to bring meaning to everybody’s job.”