With hundreds of food, beverage, cleaning agent and personal care products in its portfolio, there’s a fair chance that you encounter at least one of Unilever’s brands every day. Iain Hopkins talks to Danielle Van Den Broek
about working for one of the world’s oldest multinational companies
It doesn’t take much to lure a hardened magazine editor from the confines of his office and into Sydney’s rapidly growing northwest corridor, the heart of which is Epping. In fact, all it takes is the promise of a Magnum ice cream.
Although the average consumer may only be vaguely aware of the Unilever name, they are almost guaranteed to know the products that Unilever produces: Bertolli, Bushells, Continental, Lipton, Streets, Dove, Sunsilk, Omo, Surf, Domestos, Rexona, Lynx – to name just a few.
The Anglo-Dutch multinational consumer goods company owns over 400 brands and employs around 174,000 people globally.
With the Magnum setting a relaxed mood, Danielle Van Den Broek, vice president human resources
at Unilever Australia and New Zealand, opened up about the importance of purpose in business; why Unilever is still the ‘‘icon” for marketing graduates; and Project Half, an initiative that any massive organisation with layers of complexity and bureaucracy might care to borrow.
HR AT UNILEVER
Van Den Broek, a 15-year veteran of the company, has worked in the Netherlands, Singapore and now Australia. Each role, she says, has prepared her for the one she’s doing now. As a member of the Unilever senior leadership team in Australia and New Zealand, she holds overall HR responsibility for operations in those two countries and for some 1,700 people. Her HR team of around 20 members is divided into business partners, expertise teams, payroll and HR within the four factories based in Australia and New Zealand.
Globally, Unilever has outsourced part of its transactional HR activities to Accenture. In addition to standard ‘head of HR’ functions, Van Den Broek says she has two other focus areas: providing strategic direction to the organisation and building a “purpose-driven” organisation.
TYING HR TO BUSINESS STRATEGY
In the first of these areas, Van Den Broek works closely with CEO Clive Stiff and the other executives. When Stiff started in the role two years ago, he developed a long-term business strategy. Every year this is refreshed and tweaked slightly.
Unilever’s HR function uses a process and methodology called Talent and Organisational Readiness. All HR professionals are trained in-house on how to use the same methodology. Using the business strategy as its base, the HR team takes information gleaned from management interviews, research, internal and external benchmarks, and applies it to four key pillars: talent, skills, organisation and culture.
“We’ll then say, ‘If this is the business strategy and we look at our talent today, what are the strengths and what are the gaps to fill in order to execute this strategy?’ And we do the same for organisation, where we go into organisational design, organisational effectiveness, benchmarking and all the metrics around that topic. The same applies to skills and to culture. We get a robust scan of where our strengths are, as well as the gaps where we need to fill or bridge to execute the strategy.”
Van Den Broek admits this is an involved process. It takes several months to liaise with the various business leaders, and then report results back to the senior leadership team. “The really nice thing, a crucial thing, is the HR strategy is owned by the senior leadership team,” she says. “There are a few parts of the strategy that have my name behind it, but not many. For example, our vice president for customer development in sales is the owner of employer brands. He’s supported by someone in my team but it’s driven by him.”
CEO Clive Stiff is heavily involved in pushing the diversity agenda – gender diversity has been selected as the key focus area – and he is also strongly involved in building the Unilever employment brand by getting in front of students at university campus open days. “What we’ve learnt over the years is you can go to universities as HR, but that is less attractive to students than when a senior leader comes and talks about what we do.”
Van Den Broek says that although Unilever is still “the icon where you really learn marketing” for marketing grads, results in other disciplines are mixed. “Funnily enough, one area where I think we need to gain more traction with grads is HR,” she says.
Van Den Broek adds that such executive buy-in “changes the whole dynamic” because issues traditionally deemed to be solely within HR’s purview are opened up and carried by the entire business.
An additional benefit is that the HR team itself gets educated on all aspects of the business – a big plus in a complicated global corporation.
CUTTING THE RED TAPE
Like in any global business, red tape, bureaucracy and needlessly replicated policies and procedures have plagued Unilever. The company has actively tacked this problem through its global initiative called Project Half in which each employee and each team literally tries to halve the clutter and bureaucracy. Globally, 10 processes have been identified to take complexity out, and locally the leadership team has identified a further eight.
“It’s quite liberating, even the name Project Half gives people the right idea. It provides a pragmatic mindset,” says Van Den Broek.
MAKING GLOBAL-LOCAL WORK
HRD has talked about ‘glocalising’ recently – that is, taking global initiatives and adapting them to the local market. While this does occur at Unilever, Van Den Broek says, “Why reinvent the wheel? If we have an excellent employer brand strategy in Vietnam, why don’t we plug and play and use it here as well?”
She also notes with some pride that the bright ideas flow both ways. Global and local expertise teams – the ‘brains’ of Unilever – come up with state-of-heart processes, policies, interventions, solutions that are deployed by HR business partners on the ground.
“We do a little bit of local adaptation, but then we run with it,” Van Den Broek says. “We’ve become quite good at looking at the 80% that is relevant and can be used, rather than focusing on the 20% that may be less relevant. It does save a lot of time and energy, and it makes us a lot faster as well. At the same time, we sometimes pilot initiatives for the globe,” she says.
One upcoming pilot will be the Energy Project. This is a training program now running in companies in several countries around the world, concentrating on mental well-being and resilience.
“How can you tap into your own resources for energy and how you can balance your own energy levels in all facets of your life? This is something we’ll be piloting in Australia and New Zealand and if successful it might be scaled up to other parts of the world,” Van Den Broek says.
THE POWER OF PURPOSE
Unilever has a bold vision for the future: double the size of the business while reducing the environmental impact and increasing the social impact. Global CEO Paul Polman is very firm that this is not about CSR; it’s a business philosophy centred on sustainable living.
“Our philosophy is that sustainability is the only sustainable growth model,” says Van Den Broek.
This has resulted in a strong focus on environmental issues, including the sustainable use of materials and natural resources in the production of Unilever’s products, and educating consumers on specific environmental issues like water usage. “We want to ensure our leaders are driven not only by short-term goals but by something bigger,” Van Den Broek notes.
Alongside its global purpose, the local operation has recently rolled out its Australia-New Zealand purpose, which is about being Unilever’s frontrunner for a bright future. “Australia and New Zealand are the only developed markets in the Southern Hemisphere, which means you could think we’re always a season behind, but we like to think we’re a season ahead. It ties nicely to the two-way street – taking global initiatives but also piloting things on our end for the rest of the world.”
Corporate values are often empty, vacuous sentiments, but Van Den Broek says they have played a critical role in her 15-year attachment to the company. The company’s values closely align with her own personal values, to the extent that prior to the launch of Unilever’s Sustainable Living Plan, Van Den Broek was considering a switch to an NGO.
“Now I realise I don’t need to make that switch because I can do fantastic work and give something back by working within Unilever and supporting the USLP,” she says.
This feature is from HRD Issue 12.07. Download the whole issue to read more.