Last December, global luxury goods powerhouse Chanel announced that Unilever's chief human resources officer (CHRO) Leena Nair would become its global chief executive officer. Nair is an executive with an MBA from XLRI Jamshedpur in India and spent three decades at Unilever, per LinkedIn.
At Chanel, Nair manages a workforce of around 28,000 people globally. Though it is not unusual for executives from consumer goods companies to join luxury brands, Nair’s career is packed with uncoventional moves.
Nair comes from a rather conservative community in Kolhapur, where women were educated to a certain level before being married off. A graduate of electronics and telecommunications engineering from Walchand college in Sangli, she remembers how the small-town culture wasn’t conducive to women harbouring big dreams, particularly big corporate dreams.
“Boys talking to girls, their classmates in school and college, was also a big thing. There were barely any good schools for girls till I was almost seven years old. There were so many taboos and norms that women had to adhere to. You most often heard about things you could not do, rather than things you were allowed to do. There were other questions you dealt with, questions such as, ‘What will you do with so much education?’ Or ‘How come your father has only two daughters and no sons?’ I would get upset, angry, and I used that anger to fuel my passion and ambition.”
Nair’s love for math, physics, and chemistry convinced her parents, particularly her father, to encourage her to study and become an engineer. Also, much like medicine, engineering was seen as a ‘viable’ option for a decent job.
And yet, Nair says, she wasn’t a great engineer. “One of my professors, my mentors at the engineering college, noticed my talent for HR. He said, ‘You may not be a great engineer, but will make for a very good HR professional’.”
He was referring to her people management skills, her understanding of what makes humans tick, which is what got her to one of the biggest jobs in the luxury industry now, one of the few HR heads to scale up to CEO.
Nair did work in a couple of factories after graduating as an electronics engineer, and at a research lab on a project to create picture-in-picture televisions but knew that a professional switch had become necessary if she wants to climb up the corporate ladder. Her father wasn’t too impressed. “When I told dad that I was going to go into HR, or personnel as it was known, he was rather shocked and disappointed. He wasn’t sure why an engineer would want to work in a back-office function.”
She, fortuitously, decided to follow her instincts and ‘purpose’ by choosing to do a management course in human resources at XLRI, Jamshedpur. “I got offered a place, but it took a while to convince my family, especially my father.” Travelling alone to a college in a city 48 hours away by train was an idea that the family found difficult to grapple with.
Reflecting back, she credits the time spent in the management college and her work at HUL for her evolution, personally and professionally. “At XLRI, I was out of the small-town, protective bubble for the first time, and in an environment that was creative, democratic, and liberating. I experienced so many new worlds such as my exposure to live music and to bands, which I had never encountered till then. My passion for music, particularly live music, is due to my days at XLRI.”
She also credits her liberal worldview to the several discussions with fellow students and teachers on politics, philosophy, and human relationships. “They taught me the importance of people and community.” Ideas, Nair says, that have helped her to shape Unilever’s HR policies based on “equity, diversity, and inclusion”. “It has been a sharp learning curve as a woman,” she says. “When you are the first Asian or the first woman at something, both your successes and failures are amplified many times.”
Nair is credited with several firsts: “I was the first woman to do sales at HUL, the first to visit a factory. I feel I have been privileged to receive opportunities to break several taboos and glass ceilings.”
By the time Nair left Unilever last year, women represented almost 47% of the company’s management. “We implemented several systematic (changes), transforming the cultural framework," she adds.
She has several well-thought-out ideas to offer to women entering the corporate world. For one, she says, women must emphasize emotional intelligence, an important leadership skill. “It will help create an inclusive workspace. For instance, at Unilever Pakistan, when we hire women for the shop floor, we invite their families to come and stay with them for a few days and experience how the shop floor works. This ensures that they are at peace about the safety of their daughters. Putting such policies into place is more the play of EQ.”
As Chanel’s Global CEO—a role the luxury world dubs ‘rarest of rare’, given the heritage brand’s standing—the challenge lies in working on making the business more sustainable and more ‘inclusive’ by changing the rigid norms of what beauty means while steering the century-old brand out of a stormy pandemic-induced slump.
Nair has another pre-occupation. As a woman who made it right to the top, how can she make the road easier for the next generation of high-profile women managers/CEOs/Executive Directors?"Women who have grown in the ecosystem should make the path easier for the women who follow. I am very mindful about how I can make life easier for the other women, and men, working in the organisation," she says. "So many of the facilities I put in place at Unilever, such as day care centres for children, came out of my own experience.”