HR needs more swagger, says Unilever CHRO Leena Nair. I couldn’t agree more

3 minute read

It is HR’s time to shine but the profession needs to massively disrupt itself to make the most of the opportunity

Sian Harrington

HR growth mindset

HR needs to junk the self-doubts and walk with swagger and confidence, says Leena Nair, chief human resources officer at global consumer goods giant Unilever.

“We are damn good at what we do and if we have the tools, the technology and the mindset we can do it,” she told people analytics expert David Green in a fireside chat at the CogX Festival of AI and Emerging Technology in London.

But, she added: “We have to disrupt the s**t out of HR. We need learning agility. What I learnt in HR five years ago is irrelevant today.”

Nair is one of HR’s leading lights. Indeed, I would argue that the work she is doing at Unilever is setting the standard for HR leaders everywhere.

Take the major investment in listening through natural language processing tools such as Unabot, the chatbot built in partnership with Microsoft. This continually-learning bot is the first port of call for all Unilever employee questions and is able to filter and apply information based on whom it is speaking to, such as geographical location and level of seniority in the company. In fact, jokes Nair, Unabot is now more popular than the CEO among employees.

Or there’s the investment in artificial intelligence to help the company process the two million people who apply to Unilever every year. Candidates play neuroscience-based games on a Pymetrics platform and, if they match the requirements of a position, they move to an interview using a HireVue video platform that analyses keywords and body language. Successful candidates are then invited to a discovery day at Unilever. All of which is transparent on the Unilever career site.

This has an immediate, and appealing, business benefit: cutting costs (some millions a year) and saving 100,000 senior leadership hours, let alone general recruiter hours. However, more importantly, it has improved diversity, says Nair, and adds to Unilever’s employer attractiveness. As she says: “It is not about making it easier for us, it is about making the process more human. Everyone gets feedback – whether they are a fit with Unilever, what their biggest strengths are, what would be a good career for them.”

But what is important about Nair that I have often found missing in the many HR leaders I have met and talked to in my decade plus of writing about the sector is that she totally role models what she says. There’s none of the “I would love to invest in my learning but I don’t have the time or budget” in Nair.

Take social media. She is a relative newcomer to this world, joining Twitter just two years ago. “I forced myself to be on social media,” she says. “It’s been a massive learning curve, especially revealing the personal. I sometimes cringe.”

As someone who has been on Twitter for 10 years and is used to being a ‘face’ for my media brands, I totally get this. Dropping the ‘professional’ veneer and showing a more vulnerable side is not always comfortable, especially for women who may have climbed up the ladder by suppressing this side of them in the working environment. I am still in awe of younger colleagues who find this so easy (then again, I did grow up with former UK prime minister Margaret Thatcher as the female role model of my era).

Then there’s her fabulous Learn with Leena series of blogs on LinkedIn, in which she is sharing her Year of Learning challenge. An insightful, practical and fun read.

Nair is inspirational on so many levels. She’s the first female, first Asian and youngest CHRO at Unilever. She is a LinkedIn Top Voice. She is making a serious business contribution to the business.

But more than that, she is an aggressive learner who is happy to share this learning. She is curious and open to new ideas. She is comfortable with experimentation and making mistakes. And she loves her business.

I constantly hear that there has never been a better time for HR to prove its value to the business. People are THE competitive advantage. CEOs are taking notice. I passionately agree. But, as Nair shows, this is not just about being ‘good at the job’. We all need to invest in ourselves: in our learning and unlearning, in our resilience and in our personal branding if we are to be future fit. It’s time we step up, take action and seize that future.

Unilever CHRO Leena Nair pictured with David Green, executive director at Insight222, at CogX

Leena Nair, CHRO Unilever, and David Green

Published 12 June 2019

We have to disrupt the s**t out of HR. We need learning agility. What I learnt in HR five years ago is irrelevant today

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