Unilever's HR chief: The future of work requires this key skill - and it's the hardest to master

Leena Nair, Chief Human Resource Officer, Unilever

Leena Nair, Chief Human Resource Officer, Unilever Image: Unilever

Linda Lacina
Digital Editor, World Economic Forum
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This article is part of: Centre for Health and Healthcare

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  • Meet The Leader is a fortnightly podcast from the World Economic Forum that features the world’s top changemakers, showcasing the habits and traits effective leaders can’t work without.
  • Unilever's HR chief, Leena Nair, talks about the future of work on this week's Meet the Leader, spanning 4-day-work weeks and why soft skills like vulnerability are the hardest to master, but will be the most critical in the decades ahead.

Leena Nair is Unilever's chief human resource officer - the first female, first Asian and the youngest ever person to hold that post at the company. Nair has often been the first female in the roles she's held and that background has given her a special perspective on pioneering - and the skills workplaces need to adapt for the future.


Shaping the future of work

Meet The Leader caught up with Nair to talk about new programmes Unilever is experimenting with, from a 4-day work week in New Zealand to programs like U-Work, a model that joins the flexibility of contract work with the security (and benefits) of a traditional in-house role. With U-Work, employees don't have a fixed role but plug into assignment-based work. Between assignments they can work on projects that are important to them.


That programme was initially created as an option for those approaching retirement as a way they could transition out of a classic 40-hour week. However, Nair said the programme has seen surprising appeal with a cross section of workers. Around a third are approaching retirement, yes, but another third are juggling caretaking responsibilities for older parents or children. The remainder include younger people looking for flexible schedules that allow for opportunities such as travel or study.

Another programme being tested is U-Renew, which helps workers upskill. This program is structured similarly to a paid learning sabbatical and Unilever provides financial support and time for relevant training. Sabbaticals - and time off to learn - are common in fields like academia, said Nair, but will be seen more frequently across traditional workplaces as the current approach to educating workers just once at the beginning of their careers doesn't fit current needs.

"That model is broken," she said. "The half-life of a skill is two or three years. You have to continually relearn, unlearn, reskill yourself."

She added: "Companies have to pioneer and experiment with models like this so that we can come up with a bouquet of options for employees. We can pioneer and create and innovate new ways of work."

Developing new leadership skills

Our new work future will also require a new mastery of soft skills - of vulnerability, transparency and the type of empathy that ensures everyone can truly have a voice.

"Show your warts, your problems, your challenges. Be a human being. This is the time for human beings, not human doing."

Have you read?

According to Leena - mastering those soft skills will be the hardest task of all. "The soft stuff is the hard stuff," she said. "Authenticity and vulnerability? All the stuff that makes us truly human is what makes us better leaders."

Nair shared how she models this vulnerability and authenticity, at Unilever, why she keeps a gratitude journal and how a dramatic experience in Mumbai changed how she looks at leadership. To learn more about Nair's approaches and lessons learned, check out this week's episode.

Articles on inclusivity and the future of work by Leena Nair


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