John Nolan, outgoing senior vice president of HR, global markets, Unilever, talks to Akankasha Dewan about the significance of empowering employees to believe they can make a difference through their work. 

VITAL STATS: John Nolan has been responsible for HR in all the country organisations in Unilever. He was also senior vice president, human resources for Unilever’s home and personal care business in Europe. His 28-year career has seen him working in a variety of roles including assignments in the UK, USA, Belgium and Singapore.

How do you think HR has evolved in the past decade?

The function has become much more strategic, and evolved in a number of ways. One is the way in which we are increasingly using data and analytics to interpret what’s going on in the business and organisation, and using it to advise the business to make better decisions and long-term strategic choices.

I also think HR business partners are more involved these days in helping businesses think through how to realise their strategic ambition, and analysing if the organisation is equipped to deliver it.

 Are HR practices in Asia different from those in the West?

Not necessarily, no. There are many similarities – especially in a global organisation, which are increasingly looking to maximise economies of scale, harmonise processes and procedures.

A lot of our countries operate with outsourced partners, and to do that effectively, you need commonality of policy.

A lot of our countries operate with outsourced partners, and to do that effectively, you need commonality of policy.

That’s not to say a unilateral, dogmatic one-size-fits-all policy, but I do think that in big organisations, policies are becoming more streamlined. However, there must always be leeway for local organisations to respond to the nuances of the market they operate in.

You mentioned an evolution in how HR leaders use data, but do they have the skills to use it effectively?

If I was advising HR business partners (HRBPs) today on the one skill they should equip themselves with to be successful in the next 10 years, that would be to become more fluid with data and analytics.

Because I think there’s a wealth of data available about the people in our organisation, and if we use that correctly, we can really improve the productivity of HR operations.

Secondly, we can also get insights into what’s happening in our businesses which will allow us to guide our business leaders and allow us, as HRBPs, to make better strategic choices.

Coming to Unilever, what are the biggest HR challenges?

We are continuing to develop our business in the emerging markets which continue to grow faster than the developed markets. The challenge is about finding talent that keeps pace with the rate of growth of our businesses. Certainly in Asia, although there are signs of slowdown, the rate of growth of many of our businesses is faster than the rate of growth of our people.

So what we have to do is to be much more strategic, long-term, anticipate what’s going to happen and plan for it, and invest heavily in the talent and leadership needed to help the business achieve its future ambition. But we must invest ahead of the growth curve otherwise there will be a deficit of the right people when needed.

Unilever wants to double its business by 2020 while halving its environmental impact. What kind of candidates are you looking for?

We’re looking for people who are excited by Unilever’s Sustainable Living Plan (USLP). It is at the heart of what we do, it is the bedrock of the business and it is the business model in which we operate.

We’re looking for candidates who are excited about the business, where whatever they do, however small or large, is a meaningful contribution towards achieving that ambition. They should be excited by the dual challenge of winning in the marketplace, but also doing the right thing for the communities we serve.

If I was advising HR business partners (HRBPs) today on the one skill they should equip themselves with to be successful in the next 10 years, that would be to become more fluid with data and analytics.

What then is Unilever’s recruitment philosophy based on?

It depends on the job level, and can vary all over the world, depending on legal requirements. We also want to make sure that in our selection processes, we’re giving people the opportunity to express what they can do, and also that we can see their individual qualities.

One of the most important parts of the process in our graduate scheme, for example, is our assessment centre. It is when we bring applicants into the office and give them a chance to experience what life is like in this company and our offices, and we get to see what they can do in a variety of situations and simulations. Most importantly, we see if there’s a good fit between them and the organisation.

Would you choose cultural fit or personality over degrees?

I don’t think it’s a black and white choice. You always need to look at minimum academic qualifications, for example, in our graduate schemes. But that’s not the only thing that matters. We’re not recruiting one type of candidate, we need different people who have different backgrounds and qualifications.

Some of our most successful candidates may come from traditional universities with traditional academic qualifications. But there may be others from design schools or institutes of the arts. Because they may be more suited to certain parts of the business or they may bring qualities we need in the company, for example, creativity.

The point is we need a diverse selection of individuals in our business that matches the diverse sections of the society we serve, and represents the diverse nature of our business.

Do you provide any training to your hiring managers?

We do train people on how to assess candidates, with their interview skills or assessment centre skills. It is important they are given this training before being given the responsibility of recruiting.

Labour laws have been changing in Singapore. Do you think local leaders have the skills to lead large global organisations such as Unilever?

Yes I think they do. Singapore has many talented individuals, and blessed with great schools, education standards and universities. We find the people we recruit from local universities to be first-class in the group of students we can rotate around the world. They have a wonderful work ethic and an ability to not only excel in what they do, but also an ability to work cross-functionally and in teams.

The only issue is that Singapore being a relatively small place, there’s a relatively small number of people to choose from, but there’s no reason why they cannot successfully lead large corporations.

How would you summarise Unilever’s employer brand?

On the one hand, we want people who are excited about the ability to do business. We also want to offer people an opportunity to work with some of the world’s best and most-loved brands. So we want people who are passionate about business, brands and our sustainability mission. Lastly, we want to offer people a great place to work.

All our offices are extremely modern, open plan and dynamic. We have an agile work policy where people are able to work how they like, where and when they like. People don’t need to come to the office every day, they can work from home or from anywhere because everyone is digitally enabled, which allows them to work in a style that suits them best. The most important thing is the value in the output people create, not the input.

We need a diverse selection of individuals in our business that matches the diverse sections of the society we serve, and represents the diverse nature of our business.

A lot of our offices have wonderful facilities, such as a gym, swimming pool and even a Ben & Jerry’s store.

All of these things come together to make an attractive employee value proposition, underpinned by the notion of a chance to create a brighter future for the world, which can be made by our employees in whatever role they have. This sits at the heart of what we offer to them.

What tips would you give a company who is trying to build its EVP?

You’ve got to find what it is about your business that is differentiating. You have to distinguish yourself from the crowded marketplace and what it is you do that allows people to feel like they’re contributing to a higher purpose and to society. This shouldn’t be limited to businesses. It also applies to schools, NGOs, government and public service.

In Unilever, are some jobs more difficult to fill than others?

Yes, from time to time. These things tend to be cyclical. For the moment, people with digital marketing skills are in hot demand, as well as those who understand e-commerce business models.

That is part and parcel of the business though, and you have to make sure you react and respond. You have to change your approach and get out there and find the people you need and attract them with an attractive employee value proposition.

The other side of this is that you need to be able to hold onto the people you’ve got. If you have got people with the skills you need, it’s important for you to know who they are. It’s important to take time to invest in those people and make sure they’re happy and engaged. The best way to fill a vacancy is not to have one at all.

Could you give us an example of how you develop such talent internally?

We have a range of initiatives to help our employees develop in three areas.

The first is functional skills, where from day one, there is a suite of programmes available for them to improve their functional or professional skills. We have a second range of programmes around general skills, that are needed by everybody to do their job every day.

Lastly we have the flagship leadership programmes of the company, which help develop future leaders, an area we are very committed to. An example was the recent opening of a new leadership development centre in Singapore, Four Acres, where we will bring leaders from all over the world to help them develop the skills they need to lead the company in the future.

We keep seeing reports of a gender gap in boards. What’s your take?

There are currently two women on the board of the Unilever executive committee. And 43% of our employees are women.

We’ve got women in extremely important roles at the highest levels of the organisation. We’ve got a female CEO presently running our Thailand business, our Sri Lanka operations, as well as the UK business.

The best way to fill a vacancy is not to have one at all.

We’ve got a strong pipeline with female leaders currently running countries, product categories and brands at very senior levels.

We pride ourselves on the fact that we’re a very diverse company. We’ve got 25 nationalities in the top 100, and 45 nationalities in the top 400. There is, of course, scope for improvement, and we will work towards that.

What are the biggest weaknesses the HR function is facing today?

I think there are not a lot of HR people who are financially astute enough to be able to partner in the true sense of the word, in making a strategic contribution to the business agenda. In some places, the HR function is too apologetic, and is still trying to fully establish itself and gain its rightful seat at the business table.

I think that discussion about being at the table was over 25 years ago. There’s nothing more important to a business than the people it recruits, the skills it has, the capabilities it builds, the amount that it pays to those people. I can’t think of anything more important to any organisation than this. So the role HR plays is not just strategic but critical.

In different organisations, HR is at a different stage of evolution, but all are on the journey to become a true strategic partner. My wish would be that HR people be more confident, that they can see themselves playing that strategic role, and don’t get called upon to comment only when someone mentions the word “people” in a meeting. They should be contributing to the business strategy and demonstrating to the CEOs what that strategy should be based on the capabilities the organisation currently has or that it can realistically develop.

I think we have made enormous strides in the past 10 years, and I just hope that continues.

Do you think this lack of confidence is due to how the CEO perceives HR?

I think it’s a chicken and egg situation. The CEO’s impression of the value HR can add is a function of the quality of the contributions that HR can make, and vice versa. You have to first establish the credibility of what you can do in the first place. In part, you can’t blame the CEOs.

In some places, the HR function is too apologetic, and is still trying to fully establish itself and gain its rightful seat at the business table.

In so many studies, CEOs all over the world say the talent agenda is one of the most important things they worry about. If that’s true, the door is already wide open for us to prove what value we can add.

 What does the future of HR hold?

It will evolve to be more strategic, towards a world where we’re more digitally enabled, and where we use data to enable more sophisticated decision making.

Secondly, my own view is that we’ve operated in a world with stark demarcations of what people do inside the HR function. In the future, we may see a slight blurring of the lines as people will be required to be a little more ambidextrous in doing more than one type of HR specialism.

It is possible that as organisations try to be more productive, there will be cost pressures and not a lot of them will be able to afford the sub-functions that exist within HR. The work done by talent management, and business partners, for instance, may overlap, and we might see them coming closer together.