Charting your leadership map at Unilever

Leadership is espoused by almost every organisation. But what do these businesses need to actually craft their own credible and thorough leadership development programmes? HRM profiles the leadership armada within FMCG giant Unilever

Try asking John Nolan, Senior Vice President, HR – Global Markets, Unilever, how his company – comprising of more than 174,000 employees globally – formulates its leadership development programmes and he quickly cuts you short.

“Even before that question, I think it starts with what your purpose is and what you’re trying to achieve,” he says. “What type of company are you trying to be, and therefore, what type of leadership does that require?”

Nolan explains that it is imperative to start the developmental construction of any leadership programmes or any people-development programmes through the lens of “what is it that you’re trying to do?”

For Unilever, a conglomerate in fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG) boasting of more than 400 health and wellbeing brands, this is “to do well and to do good”.

 “We want to do well as a business but also do good for the societies and the communities that we operate within,” says Nolan. “It’s not a corporate social responsibility (CSR) initiative; that’s who we are, and we are a purpose-driven and values-led organisation.”

Leadership development from scratch

There is no doubt that leadership remains a pressing issue among organisations around the world. In the Global Human Capital Trends 2014-Southeast Asia Report by Deloitte, 74% and 76% of global and Southeast Asian survey respondents respectively acknowledged that leadership was of chief importance in their firms.

In fact, below half (38%) of the respondents in Southeast Asia believed they were high in readiness in terms of the leadership roles within their organisations, implying a 38-percentage-point gap between importance and readiness, similar to the global gap of 34 percentage points.

According to Nolan, companies are trying to develop leaders who can fulfil the firm’s purpose and values, operate in what is a highly complex, volatile and ambiguous world, and allow their organisation to take advantage of the opportunities that will exist in this world of tomorrow – a world that is shaped towards the developing and emerging markets of Asia.

“The start point of your leadership should be where do you think you’re going to be and I think it’s one of the most important things about leadership,” says Nolan.

He explains that for him, one of the most important things about leadership is having a point of view about the future.

“So you try and develop people who are able to bring all of those things together and help you lead the business forward in a way that you like it to develop,” elaborates Nolan.

The birth of leadership in Unilever

Nolan takes pride in the fact that Unilever, a company that has been around the blocks since the 1870s, actually laid the pillars of its leadership development structure with the opening of its first leadership development centre in London in 1954.

He says the organisation was one of the first companies in the world to build a bricks and mortar management training centre, called Four Acres.

“You can only imagine – it was a few years after the end of the Second World War and it was slightly ahead of its time.”

According to Nolan, in the old model of leadership, companies may have had 20 or 30 years to prepare people for leadership roles.

Now however, he says the tide has changed and with the world moving at a much faster pace than before, leadership can emerge at any age.

“One of the things that keeps us awake at night is how do we develop leaders fast enough for the challenges of the future, and to keep pace with the growth of the business,” explains Nolan.

“So, starting with that sort of problem, we then started to think about what could be the potential solution.”

Revving up the leadership pipeline

One of the solutions is a leadership programme called Excelerator.

This programme is designed to take people identified as having potential to progress further in the organisation to leadership positions that will accelerate their development.

The year-long leadership programme consists of residential teaching and formal academic learning, on the job training, projects, coaching and mentoring, and feedback, and is all put together in a menu of activity which, over a year, accelerates the participant’s readiness to take on a leadership position at the next level.

“Business is moving fast and opportunities are developing around us, and there’s a shortage of talent and leadership,” says Nolan.

“So what we have to try and do is to identify the people we think have got that potential to be accelerated and try to give them formal development and leadership programmes which allow them to fulfil that potential.”

Pointedly, Nolan reveals that the Excelerator programme, which was launched five years ago, actually originated in China.

Whereas previously, the old model of leadership development programme was that things would be developed in the US and Europe before then being rolled out into Asia, Nolan says the company is now seeing this model in reverse.

While this particular programme was developed under the Unilever China initiative to address a specific problem of how to develop Chinese leaders faster, it was under the auspices of the global team that the pilot programme was rolled out in every market around the world, including in the US and in Europe.

“So we’ve almost reverse-engineered a leadership programme back to the developed world that was actually developed in China. I think that is how the world is actually going to go,” explains Nolan.

As Nolan frequently reiterates the notion of a dearth of talent and leadership, it should come as no surprise that Unilever pays heavy attention to the recruitment of university talents.

Globally, Unilever recruits around 800 management trainees each year from universities all around the world.

Each year, the company runs a global competition whereby students from all over the world compete to take part in what’s known as the Unilever Future Leaders League.

“This is about tapping into the leaders of tomorrow who are currently on campus today,” elaborates Nolan.

Students compete against each other in a simulated business case and the winners progress through to a final where they get to do a real-world case study.

Four Acres in Singapore

While London is regarded as the original Four Acres facility, Singapore is now looked upon as Unilever’s second leadership hub, following its official opening in June last year. Paul Polman, the company’s CEO, said: “Four Acres Singapore will support Unilever’s efforts to develop tomorrow’s business leaders.”

Nolan also reveals that Four Acres in Singapore allows Unilever to double its leadership training capacity. He says its location in Singapore was chosen for a number of reasons.

Firstly, Unilever has a significant presence in Singapore and it is the headquarters of its global markets operation.

Secondly, Nolan explains that Singapore sits at the nexus between the developing and the developed worlds, and has great communication capabilities, infrastructure and transport.

However, he believes the most important reason is that the Singapore Government has a very far-sighted view of the need to develop human capital.

“The Government is looking to bring together like-minded parties who are interested in the development of human capital,” says Nolan.

“My own view is that we all have a responsibility to contribute to the development of human capital and we shouldn’t just leave it to schools or to universities or to governments. I think corporates have got to play their part as well.”

In fact, the facility is used for all levels of learning and development at Unilever, from graduates all the way to the board and in between. Leadership meetings are held there, along with academic programmes and the consortium programmes that Unilever runs with other companies.

Nolan says one of the great things of having Four Acres in Singapore is that it allows Unilever to tap into the infrastructure here.

He cites the three major universities (National University of Singapore, Nanyang Technological University and Singapore Management University), other academic institutions that sit in Singapore, such as INSEAD and ESSEC, and a number of professional service firms.

Nolan stresses the Four Acres facility in Singapore is not a centre just for the Eastern part of the world.

“We have one global leadership development curriculum and it just happens to be delivered in two locations,” says Nolan.

He adds that possessing two leadership facilities in London and Singapore allows leaders globally to get a feel of the respective business challenges and experiences being faced in different parts of the world.

“We can expose them to some leadership thinking that’s maybe slightly different than the leadership thinking they perhaps get exposed to in their parts of the world,” adds Nolan.

“So it brings it all together and there’s a wonderful reason to locate Four Acres in Singapore.”

Leadership by education

With Unilever partnering with the crème de la crème of educational institutions, including Harvard and INSEAD, it is pertinently clear that the company places primary importance on bringing in the best academic thinking.

 “Whether it’s from Harvard, from SMU or from INSEAD, we bring in that academic thinking and that academic perspective as a core component of our leadership programmes,” he says.

A key leadership programme for the most senior people in Unilever is the Unilever Leadership Development Programme (ULDP).

The next iteration, called Unilever 2020, is about providing a framework where Unilever leaders can think about moving from what is their individual purpose as a leader, to how they can bring that purpose into some kind of impact on the business and impact on the community.

“For example, they work on PII (Purpose Into Impact) exercises and they have academic inputs and structured thinking, but they also have projects and they take their projects out into the business,” explains Nolan.

“These are the ways we bring together the purpose of the company with the purpose of the individual within an academic framework.”

In fact, Nolan adds there is a plethora of leadership programmes all the way through from the day an employee joins the company till the day he or she becomes the most senior staff member.

“There’s a full curriculum –we call it ‘from cradle to grave’,” he says. “Every few years, there’s a leadership programme and there’s a way you can improve yourself and get exposed to some new thinking.”

Leadership pointers

While Nolan says Unilever does not profess to have the answer for leadership, he is happy to share several aspects of leadership the organisation has garnered from experience.

Firstly, he says a company needs to have some very clear objectives of what it is trying to achieve from the leadership development programme, and it must be things it can critically evaluate.

Secondly, once a firm has identified what the core components of its leadership programmes should epitomise, working with quality external faculty will provide the company with important perspective and know-how.

Thirdly, it is important to also engage with people from different disciplines, different backgrounds and diverse cultural mixes and to include them in programmes.

Fourthly, Nolan adds that allowing people the time to reflect on themselves and to get some personal feedback on what their strengths are and where there are opportunities is also vital.

The fifth aspect he says, is that, wherever possible, there should be some output, or some activity that’s linked directly with business objectives.

“There should be some action learning projects when people go back into the workforce after they have been on a leadership programme, and this is something they then have to do on a continuous basis,” Nolan explains.

“I think for me, those programmes tend be more successful than what I would call ‘one-shot’ episodic programmes.”

“So the best programmes are integrated into the business and they have some continuity around them.”

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