Leena Nair – from Unilever people pioneer to CEO of Chanel
Leena Nair is a woman of many firsts. As well as being the first female, first Asian and youngest ever CHRO at Unilever, she was the first woman in nearly all roles she held at the consumer goods giant over three decades – including the first female manager to opt for a factory stint, the first to work a night shift, and the first in Unilever’s Management Committee in 90 years.
But the Indian-born British national wasn’t done trailblazing. After three decades with Unilever, five as CHRO, 53-year-old Leena was tapped, in January 2022, by Chanel for the French luxury group’s top job, a move that secured her two further firsts – the first luxury brand CEO of Indian origin and the first from an HR background.
While considered an outsider in the field of luxury fashion, Leena’s appointment as Global CEO of the storied French fashion house was seen as a master stroke by Chanel to drive diversity in an industry that has been criticised for its distinct lack thereof.
“Nair has built a global reputation for progressive and human-centred leadership, delivering significant business impact,” Chanel said in its statement announcing her hire.
It is certainly true that Leena took centre stage in the building of Unilever into a purpose-led, future-fit organisation – one that has become the employer of choice in more than 50 countries worldwide.
Leena Nair – achievements as CHRO of Unilever
With overall responsibility, as CHRO, for the company’s 150,000-strong human capital across 190 countries, Leena’s strong leadership, HR expertise, and passion for people was instrumental in helping to drive the continued growth of both Unilever’s profits (US$50.7 billion) and purpose.
Considered one of the world’s most socially conscious companies, scoring a best-in-class rating on S&P Global Rating’s ESG Evaluation in 2019, Unilever has been crowned industry leader in personal products with continued scores of 90+ in the Dow Jones Sustainability Index since 2016.
It is also one of the world’s most diverse; in large part thanks to Leena’s leadership, driving the diversity and inclusion agenda for the company’s workforce.
Under her tenure, as CHRO, Unilever achieved a 50/50 gender balance across global leadership with Leena leading a pioneering agenda with bold new social commitments, including recent pledges to pay the living wage across its entire supply chain by 2030, and equip 10 million young people with essential skills by 2030.
She created numerous projects, many of which were pioneering the future of global work. She spearheaded the Unilever ‘discover your purpose’ workshops, catering to 6,000 employees to date; pioneered the four-day week pilot programme currently being explored in New Zealand; instigated the U-Work program, which joins the flexibility of contract work with the security and benefits of an in-house role; and initiated U-Renew, a paid learning sabbatical programme to help workers upskill, currently under test.
Throughout her career at Unilever, Leena has innovated in the delivery of culture-rich programmes, having previously initiated the Career by Choice programme, as Unilever’s VP of HR for South Asia, designed to help women who've fallen off the career ladder re-join the workforce.
"Being the first woman in every single job I have done means I get to see just what it means to be in a job that feels built for someone else," she told Harper’s Bazaar magazine in 2021. "I always say, 'We're all in the same storm, we're not in the same boat'. My experiences have made me incredibly conscious of wanting the workplace to work for everyone and knowing that means catering to individual circumstances."
Leena Nair - how did she get there?
Leena arrived at the doors of Unilever in February 1992. After earning an MBA from India’s oldest business school (XLRI), she secured a graduate management trainee role at Unilever in Hindustan, where she worked her way up from the factory floor.
Cutting her teeth on a handful of managerial roles in employee relations and in HR, Leena landed her first leadership role in 2006 as general manager of HPC and Foods and Head of Management Development, where she led the move of the company’s Foods business from Bangalore to Mumbai and created a model for building capability that is now used company-wide.
Within 10 months, she was promoted, becoming the first woman on the Unilever South Asia leadership team.
Responsible for the firm’s growth in five markets with a business size of US$6.75bn, it was here that Leena embedded performance culture as a way of life for Unilever, improving productivity levels by 33% within two years and transforming employee relations into a proactive employee-centric function.
Flash forward six years, Leena was promoted to Global SVP Leadership and Organisation Development and Global Head of Diversity and Inclusion, where she was instrumental in driving the company’s employer brand to a record high and advancing the diversity agenda to industry leadership. She also spearheaded the creation of a world-class leadership centre in Singapore and was the lead on key technology innovations simplifying the firm’s core HR offerings.
It was in 2016 when Leena finally landed the top HR job. Relocating to London in 2016, she took the global HR reins as CHRO of Unilever and ran with it.
And why wouldn’t she? For someone whose purpose is to “ignite the human spark for a better business and better world”, Leena was certainly living her dream job. And she was recognised for it with HRH Queen Elizabeth II acknowledging Leena as one of the most accomplished Indian business leaders in the UK.
And now, in 2023, as human-centred leadership becomes increasingly critical to business success, Leena continues to bring her own unique brand of diverse leadership and passion for people and purpose to the business of fashion – leading the 112-year-old French fashion house, which employs 27,000 people globally and achieved revenues of US$15.6bn in 2021, into a more diverse and inclusive future, as it looks to tap into the Chinese and other global luxury markets.
“I am so inspired by what Chanel stands for,” says Leena. “It is a company that believes in the freedom of creation, in cultivating human potential and in acting to have a positive impact in the world.”
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