I learnt how to claw my way up!

If Leena Nair, Executive Director, (Human Resources) at India’s largest FMCG company, had done nothing with her life after finishing her engineering degree, it would have raised no eyebrows in the little town of Kolhapur in Western Maharashtra where she grew up. That was the prevailing norm in the closed society around her and within her own large joint family.

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By Sudha Menon (In conversation...)

Published: Tue 14 Aug 2012, 12:16 AM

Last updated: Fri 3 Apr 2015, 9:50 AM

“There certainly were no female models for me to look up to or follow”, says Leena, who, despite all these stumbling blocks, has made it to the rarified air of Hindustan Unilver’s boardroom and the enviable position of being a key member of its global operations too.

Yahoo’s new CEO, Marrisa Mayer might have set off a little storm with her pregnancy announcement just a day after she assumed her post. And it is exactly these kinds of gender stereotypes and bias that Leena will work against and around, in her newly-assigned role as lead of the Unilever Global Diversity and Inclusion program, along with Unilever’s chairperson, Paul Polman.

The idea is to make the organisation more diversity friendly and these days Leena is constantly flying off to Unilever locations across the globe to work with teams to get this agenda going.

Looking back at her two decade long career with HUL and the times before that, Leena says that her engineering degree helped her immensely in understanding numbers and figures but more importantly, it helped her to understand and deal with the men. “It was 3,000 boys and 18 girls in engineering college and the four years there toughened me up, made me thick skinned and I learnt how to claw my way through a largely male dominated space.”

The 41-year-old Leena is a powerhouse of energy, was a runner in college and took it up as a hobby to spend quality time with her husband, Kumar who is addicted to running. Her husband is a very busy man and so is Leena who is in charge of the wellbeing of 16,500 employees of the FMCG behemoth .

Leena joined the company in 1992 as a summer trainee and has never looked for any other employer since then. Unabashedly ambitious, her goal sheet during the annual appraisals in the initial years always carried the same scrawl: she envisioned herself becoming the Executive Director of the company!

At 37 her dream came true and today she lives that dream, rubbing shoulders with the Unilever top brass and becoming a celebrated symbol of what Indian women can achieve.

“My aim is to inspire a million women to believe that they too can chase their dreams.” She spreads the message of hope and persistence, keeping up a relentless pace of speeches and presentations at gatherings of high-powered men and women.

“At each session I tell the audience that if they were inspired by me, they too should go out and inspire 10 other women. My goal of inspiring a million is then very achievable!”

In the years that she has been at HUL, she herself has done it all — taken time off from work to raise two children, walked the tightrope between work and home and survived to tell her story.

“Take a lot of time to think about who you will marry because you need a very supportive man to make your dreams happen. Kumar has been an incredible support in my career, I’ve endlessly sought his guidance and bounced ideas off him,” she says. Her husband, incidentally, commuted long distances to Mumbai, while his wife stayed back at one of HUL’s factories far away from the city.

Post and an engineering degree Leena joined the MBA programme at XLRI but fell in love with human resource management instead. Her parents thought she was wasting her life but Leena persisted.

That one act of standing her own ground has led her to two decades of hard-nosed bargains with trade unions, while trying to keep a humane touch to the discussions. A few years ago when HUL’s Ambattur tea factory in the southern-Indian city of Chennai which was to shut down, Leena visited individual families of the employees who would be affected and helped rehabilitate many with alternate income generation. “People are what make up large organisations and I try to never lose sight of that.”

As an HR professional, she played an almost pioneering role since there were no women in that position before her. She devised her own strategies to deal with trade unions and today deals easily with 96 trade unions that operate in HUL’s 36 factories .

When she worked at HUL’s Taloja plant away from any urban life, she had to use the men’s toilet because there were no women’s toilets and often stayed in shady hotels in small towns while travelling on work. “But instead of cribbing I suggested alternatives such as ‘safer’ hotels in small towns, for our female employees.”

At work and indeed, in life, the question of legacy, something she can leave behind for those who come into the organisation after her is a constant concern. At HUL, the stats are already speaking. When she joined, only 2-3% of employees were women. Today, roughly 25% of the workforce are women and about 18% of women are in leadership roles, including two on the HUL board.

One of her proudest moments at the workplace has been the recent introduction of Career by Choice, a project which allows women who have fallen off the talent pipeline, to rejoin the workforce.

India has some 1.5 million women who have given up their careers because of family pressures and most stay away because they don’t know how to return to the workforce after a long hiatus. More than 50 women joined the project in just the initial months of the launch.

“It is now entirely possible to sit in one location and do a very global job. One of the challenges of dual career families is that it has to make sense to both the people in the marriage and the kids too”.

Not surprisingly, she is proud of Career Break, her pet project that allows employees to take a 5-year sabbatical in their careers. “We are very clear that whatever we put in the work-life balance space, should be equally accessible to both men and women,” says Nair.

Her own life is based on very ‘doable’ philosophies: Dream big, be positive and not being afraid of trying out new things. “I think that it is impossible to have a successful life and career without having tasted failure.”

Her own career initially worked on 4-5 hours of sleep as she raised her two children but insists today that balance is important. “At HUL my constant refrain is reschedule meetings, rework your diary and commitments so that you follow a fitness schedule.”

She jogs 3-5 kms every other day, practises yoga, pranayam and meditation and believes, “Your children, mother, mother- in-law, husband, everyone is important. To follow only one aspect of life without investing in the others is a sure way to burn out”.

As Executive Director of HR at HUL, Leena is today in a position to impact the lives of its16,500 employees . “Success, to me, is making a difference to the lives of the people around me.


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