Unilever CHRO Leena Nair: How to Thrive in an Upside-Down World

Artificial intelligence, machine learning, and automation are driving unprecedented change, and with great change comes uncertainty. How do business leaders manage uncertainty? By bringing the power of humanity back into their organizations, said Leena Nair, chief human resources officer at Unilever, who delivered the Customer Innovation Keynote at Workday Rising Europe.

“As human beings, we have the talent, ingenuity, intelligence, and knowledge to create opportunity from all this change,” Nair told a packed auditorium in Barcelona last week. “Those who really thrive in an upside-down world are those who can bring a more human touch to what they do.”

Nair defined an upside-down world as one where the pace of business and disruption have challenged our staple assumptions about the way businesses operate, how and where people work, and the way they are managed.

“Whenever I speak to other CHROs, everybody talks about feeling overwhelmed,” she said. “We believed in hierarchies, vertical progression—that’s gone. Tomorrow’s world is about networks, integration, and making things happen in a very different way.”

That includes rapidly changing expectations across the workforce. “Gone are the days of building long career development plans,” she said. “Today is about saying ‘How do I have the experiences that matter to me, that make me a better professional than yesterday?’”

“We have the attitudes, skills, knowledge, and experience to create opportunities for ourselves and for our businesses to change the world around us.”
—Unilever CHRO Leena Nair

So how can managers and executives best lead? The key, Nair said, is to practice humility and positivity. Leaders should avoid the increasingly irrelevant “superhero” approach to management and adopt a more humble style with their teams, whereby “I don’t know the answer to your question, but we’ll figure it out together.”

“When everything seems strange and unprecedented, we’ve got to work with our people to move from a survival to a thriving mindset,” she said. “We can change our language from ‘change is difficult’ to ‘change is something we are going to embrace because I can do something about it.’”

The Future is More Human, Not Less

Nair said it’s also important to remember that people, not technology, are what drive a successful business. “At the heart of everything we do—the creativity, the innovation, the empathy that our people bring—that’s what gives us the competitive edge,” said Nair. “We have the attitudes, skills, knowledge, and experience to create opportunities for ourselves and for our businesses to change the world around us. The future is more human, not less.”

Leena Nair, CHRO at Unilever
“Those who really thrive in the upside down world are those who can bring a more human touch to what they do,” said Unilever CHRO Leena Nair.

With 170,000 employees, Unilever is one of the oldest multinational companies in the world. Its 400+ consumer brands (Dove, Lipton, and Ben & Jerry’s, to name a few) are available in around 190 countries. Even with such size and scale, Unilever has adopted a change initiative designed to empower employees at all levels of the business.

“Connected4Growth is our project for transformation,” Nair said. “It is about making a large company like ours much simpler, much faster, and more consumer-centric. It’s about moving decision-making much more out into the markets, closer to where the consumer is. That means recognizing that the world is global and local at the same time, and that speed is the new currency.”

Connected 4 Growth (C4G) is a decentralization program driven by 240 cross-functional, entrepreneurial teams, who are empowered to make decisions within their countries and functions, and drive innovation through their own agendas.

“There is a great deal of work to be done, but I can see that transformation is dependent on whether people grab the power that is being offered to them—that they feel the confidence and have the thriving mindset to be able to empower people to make decisions, and make a difference to the business,” she said. “For too long there have been too many layers of decision-making, too much hierarchy. We need to learn how to push that down.”

Why Continuous Learning Matters

Nair also focused on the importance of continuing to learn beyond a university education, as the model of building a career based on skills achieved primarily from academia has long been broken.

“At Unilever we talk about snackable learning, or little and often, because, as a society, our ability to focus on tasks has reduced over the years,” she said. “So all of our learning is underpinned by what we call curiosity and focus. Invest 15 minutes a day in a TED talk, or having a coffee with a colleague to keep your skills sharp. When you feel capable you can thrive, so learning is the essence of thriving.”

Nair wrapped up her talk by circling back to the idea of being more human in an increasingly technical world.

“We cannot lose the unique human qualities of empathy and intuition,” she said. “How passionate are you? How curious are you? These will be much more important than IQ in the future. Being more human means constantly thinking more about our people, ensuring we put them at the heart of everything we do.”