“When you look after your people, they will look after the business.”
Leena Nair told this to Fortune Magazine in 2021 after featuring in their annual list of powerful women. For the newly-appointed CEO of Chanel, this line carries weight. It’s a north star that has guided her through her 30-year career.
“HR is no longer a backroom department… It’s a vital part of running any successful business. And if you want to support your people, you need to understand how the business works…”
Nair’s widely praised for her people-focused approach. It’s one of the reasons she became the “first female, first Asian, youngest ever” Chief Human Resources Officer (CHRO) at Unilever in 2016.
As her story shows, though, her people-focused approach isn’t the only reason.
Born in the Indian city of Kolhapur, Nair studied electronics engineering, before pivoting into production and sales. She often jokes that she was a “lousy” engineer. Nair then completed an MBA in HR.
“I grew up in a very small town, and there was no proper school for girls there until I was about 6 or 7 years old. I always grew up having lots of norms, taboos, and barriers around me about what girls can do and can’t do…
“I liked math, physics and chemistry, so it made sense to do engineering… While I loved the intellectual challenge of engineering, I didn’t enjoy working as an engineer. Luckily, I had a mentor who was the professor who taught me management and engineering studies, who kept encouraging me and told me I had a talent for people.”
Her family wasn’t so encouraging of her MBA decision.
“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.”
Despite her dad’s concerns, Nair started her career as a management trainee at Hindustan Unilever. This was 1992. She held a range of roles, including becoming the first woman to work on the factory floor.
“When I went to the factories, there was never a loo for ladies because nobody had imagined a woman would come to their factory… My first job would always be to ensure that they built a toilet that I could use. Jokingly, all these loos that were built were called “Leena’s Loos.”
This is one of many initiatives that Nair has helped push through Unilever. During the pandemic, her people-focused approach was more important than ever. The company is aiming for all employees to have a future-fit skill set by 2025; has created online communities, including virtual tea breaks; and has given almost €100 million worth of hygiene and sanitizing products across the world; to name just a few. Nair has been at the forefront of it all.
“Hearing ‘this can’t be done because it’s never been done before’ is normally the start of a conversation for me, where I’ll reply, ‘It’s never been done? That’s fantastic. Tell me, how can we do it?’”
Nair’s quest to become a better leader is only just beginning. She regularly seeks feedback from her followers and has the humility to admit mistakes. One such mistake came after the birth of her child. She returned to work just six hours after giving birth. Her boss applauded her, but one of her younger female colleagues didn’t.
“She called me up and said, ‘what you’re doing is so bad.’ I said, ‘what did I do?’ And she said, ‘you’ve set an impossible bar for all of us, because this is what everyone’s going to expect… Everyone’s going to expect women to jump on emails six hours after giving birth.’
“Now, I ask myself, ‘how do I make it easier for those who come after me?’... As a leader, your shadow is long. Everything you do is talked about.”
Admitting to mistakes is one side to humility. Another side is being vulnerable. During a piece she wrote for Fortune, Nair talks about the uncertainty of the pandemic:
“For the first time, leaders didn’t have all the answers. With governments instructing people to work from home, I, like many leaders across the world, had to admit to my team that I was figuring things out as they unfolded…”
During this time, Nair came face to face with her own mortality:
“I was due to share our new hybrid working approach at our regular company-wide virtual townhall when I received the news that my mother had been hospitalized with COVID.
“I am a person who strives to always be composed and well-prepared, but I felt myself wobble and had to fight back tears. I couldn’t speak easily and was forced to be vulnerable with the thousands of colleagues on the call, informing them of the situation and that I wasn’t feeling my best. After the call, I flew to India to be with my mother, but she subsequently lost her 13-day battle and passed away…”
In the last days that followed, thousands of well-wishes were sent to Nair and her family. By being vulnerable and transparent, she’d helped instil a culture of psychological safety in her organisation.
“The soft stuff is the hard stuff. Don’t be afraid to show your human side as a leader. In turn, this will drive greater humanity in the world and create fairer, better environments in which to live and work”.
It seems Chanel is in good hands. Although Nair has no previous career experience in the fashion industry, her people-focused approach is likely to serve the fashion label well. She’s proven she can get things done, break glass ceilings, and do so in a way that inspires others.
The next chapter in her quest to become a better leader is about to begin.