How to promote progressive business practices at work

·5-min read
Photo credit: Josh Shinner for Harper's Bazaar
Photo credit: Josh Shinner for Harper's Bazaar

Leena Nair, recognised by HRH Queen Elizabeth II as one of the most accomplished Indian business leaders in the UK, is the first female, first Asian and youngest ever chief human resources officer at Unilever and member of the Unilever Leadership Executive. Though she initially trained as an engineer, she began her career in Hindustan Unilever as a trainee, working from the factory floor up, eventually becoming the first woman in the Management Committee in 90 years, heading HR.

Photo credit: Courtesy
Photo credit: Courtesy

Nair is also a woman on a mission, one she calls “igniting the human spark for a better business and better world”. Her progressive agenda and spirited desire for change is born from a deep empathy for those working at every level and facet of a company; one both sought after and inspired by her own personal experiences. Under her leadership, Unilever has achieved a 50/50 gender balance across global leadership and she continues to lead a pioneering agenda with bold new social commitments, including a commitment to pay living wage across its whole supply chain.

Here, she shares how to change business practices to actually make work a happier, fairer place to be.

You can't have a 'one size fits all' approach...

"Being the first woman in every single job I have done, means I get to see just what it means to be in a job that feels built for someone else. I always say, 'We're all in the same storm, we're not in the same boat'. My experiences have made me incredibly conscious of wanting the workplace to work for everyone, and knowing that that means catering to individual circumstances."

Understand your company at every level...

"I do think that empathy and compassion are really, really important. How you build empathy and compassion is by walking in somebody else's shoes, seeing their lives, their struggle - then you see why it's hard to get their work done. This is why I really spend so much of my time getting out on the front line and seeing exactly what the work situations are like for people in every department.

"I think what has also taught me is a huge sense of humility. A business runs because so many people have to put efforts together to make it done. So you don't have any inflated sense of importance because you are suddenly in the top office; you know that everyone's contributions are important to get the business working. To me, a business is about the ideas and passion of its people."

Listen to everyone...

"We have so many communication channels at Unilever, from anonymous to not, ensuring that we are always listening to our fellow employees at all time. That communication channel, however many you have and whatever form they take, must always be open. The key to making work feel fairer is ensuring that everyone working in the company feels seen and heard.

"You've got to ensure that you're going to be putting into place all the systems and policies that support men and women through the balance of life and work and kids and caring responsibilities. You've got to have a slew of progressive policies to support that, because everyone's needs are different."

Purpose is important...

"It is important for workplaces to understand what their purpose is and for individuals to better understand theirs, which will make them happier and more motivated workers. That is why I feel passionately about our 'discover your purpose' workshops. Roughly 6,000 people have been through those workshops and recent statistics show that those who come out have an estimated 42 per cent increase in motivation. But this is also vital for companies as, if you look at the current generation, 62 per cent of them believe that they will only work for a company that has a defined purpose, that knows what it stands for."

...so is happiness

"We spend so much time at work. So work should be fun, it should be meaningful, it should be productive. If you have happier, more motivated workers, you will get that productivity."

You can't change the culture without changing the numbers...

"If you just focus on culture and do a lot of unconscious bias training, but you don't shift the numbers of men or women or other identities and perspective around the table, it won't work. So you've got to focus on numbers and culture together; you've got to set targets in place, make it incumbent on leaders to do it. And you've got to invest in culture, and all the training that comes with this."

Keep going despite the odds...

"We're innovators, we're early adopters, and that comes with pushback. You need to keep going and make sure you've found the people who are engaging with the subject and care about it, and focus on them, build them as a coalition of the willing to help you make the change. The rest will follow. When things get hard. I'd go back and ask myself, 'Why am I doing this? Why am I getting out of bed to drive this change?' Reconnecting with a sense of purpose gives you an anchor."

Be committed to the long term...

"Change doesn't happen overnight. In 2010 we said we will be gender balanced as a company 50/50, and it took us 10 years. It was only just before the pandemic that we achieved it. That's what it took: 10 years of staying the course. You have to be patient and believe it will happen..."

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