Need a little career inspiration during these tough times? Look no further. Unilever’s CHRO, Leena Nair, needs no introduction, given the several ‘firsts’ she has to her name, in a career of breaking down walls and shattering the glass ceiling.

In this interview as part of the Career Intelligence Accelerator series, and ahead of International Women’s Day 2020, we bring you three top career insights from Dr Tanvi Gautam's conversation with this prolific HR leader.

Since 1992, when she joined Unilever as a trainee, Leena Nair has had many firsts to her credit. From being one of the first female managers to opt for a factory stint to becoming the first woman on HUL’s management committee and its youngest executive director. She is now the first female and youngest ever CHRO of Unilever. Evidently, her career is an inspiration to many HR leaders across the globe.

But the interesting thing is that she didn’t start out in HR – after doing electronics and telecommunications engineering, she worked in a research lab, trying to create picture-in-picture televisions, a role that she didn’t enjoy at all, by her own admission.

Even so, she finds the silver lining: “In hindsight, I'm happy I did engineering because it taught me problem solving skills and gave me numeracy which is very useful in an HR leader’s job.”

She joined the world of HR all thanks to her first-ever mentor at her engineering campus, who told her quite frankly, that she’d make an average engineer, but could make a pretty darn good HR or marketing person because she was all about people.

Thus started Leena Nair’s foray into HR, armed with a degree from XLRI, she went on to fall in love with Unilever (or Hindustan Lever, as the Indian operations were known as) during her two-months summer training programme.

Speaking exclusively to Dr Tanvi Gautam, Nair explains: “I loved the people, how humble and honest they were. I loved the intellectual challenge of my peers. I felt that this was the place I wanted to work, so I worked very hard to get into the management training programme. I was selected from campus, and then there's been no looking back. It's been 26 years since!”

From a career so diverse yet widely successful, Dr. Tanvi asked Nair to share with us her greatest pieces of advice for advancing in our jobs and professions. Read on for the conversation excerpts below:

1. Play at intersections

Dr. Tanvi being a proponent of creating strategic networks for career success and a social media influencer herself was curious about how Leena had created and leveraged networks.

After beginning in engineering, Nair pivoted into production and sales, and then HR, as she passionately believes that today's world is about intersection and convergence. “When I told my dad I wanted to do an MBA in HR, he was so disappointed. ‘Why would you join a back-office function like personnel,’ he asked me.”

However, today the outlook has completely changed.

She goes on to explain how that decision has impacted her career: “Today, I've gotten so relevant, because suddenly technology and people are coming together in today's world. People very quickly realise that digital transformation is about cultural transformation.

"So I'm geeky enough to understand the technology, and I know people enough to get cultural transformation – so that suddenly makes me indispensable! So I joke about it with people, that 26 years into my career, I have finally gotten relevant.”

Tough jobs, tough stints, and putting up your hand – these really enhance your credibility with the business.

2. Get your hands dirty

Nair encourages leaders, especially women leaders, to put our hands up for difficult things – such as employee relations, negotiating difficult terms with the trade unions, signing settlements – as it really shows that we understand the business.

“Tough jobs, tough stints, and putting up your hand – these really enhance your credibility with the business,” she says. “In every job I've done, I've been the first woman ever to do the job, be in the night shifts or the production work. You've got to be courageous, not only embrace the trailblazing, but also bring your own take on it.”

Indeed this was the powerful message that Dr. Tanvi as well shares often in her global professional women and leadership programme that has run in Singapore for more than eight years.

3. Be true to your purpose and passion

Growing up in the small town of Kolhapur, Nair often fielded questions like ‘you’re a girl, what are you going to do with all this education?’ or ‘oh, your father's only got two daughters and no sons?’. And while these saddened her, they also helped her to build a thick skin.

“It made me resilient. I decided to use this anger and disappointment to fuel a determination to do something in this world.”

Given her own work and deep-expertise on purpose-driven leadership, Dr. Tanvi believes that this is the true differentiator of long-term success of a leader and so she asked Leena her purpose as a leader.

Nair defines her purpose as: "To ignite the human spark, in order to build a better world and a better business. To me, therefore, showing the importance of human capital, gets me out of bed. Changing the world is a mission for me."

What also makes a difference is the thought behind it – are you doing this for yourself, or in service of others? “The moment I got out of the spirit of saying ‘this is for me’ and thinking that ‘this is for the hundreds women who will come after me’ is when I gained even more strength and courage to my sense of purpose and service.

"Doing things in service of somebody else gives you extraordinary backbone and courage to fight for the things you know are right,” she reveals.

As Dr Gautam concludes, in this day and age of social media, for people who are aspiring to build global careers, we hope you find Leena Nair’s advice invaluable in forging your path forward.

The inaugural edition of the Career Intelligence Accelerator brought together 15 global speakers, including a New York Times bestselling author, former White House leader, CEOs & CHROs, social media influencers and many more. Organised by bestselling author and multi-award winning executive coach, Dr Tanvi Gautam, and Human Resources Online as the knowledge partner, the fully-virtualevent was held on 20-27 January 2020. 

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