Tim, give us an idea about your early life and career.
HR wasn’t in my original career plans. From an early age, my ambition was to join the Army, and I got an Army scholarship at school, followed by a cadetship at university, with the objective of becoming an officer. However, fate played a part here: I got injured in sports and it just didn’t heal. As you can imagine, I was lost, and I didn’t know what direction to take. I had a meeting with someone who changed my life, and later became my mentor. I remember he said: “Tim, when you choose your next career, you need to answer two questions: what do you really love and what do you want to learn about?” I remember walking away from the meeting, thinking, those are really brilliant questions”.
The answers came over the following weeks. I love people, our potential, our capability to make and shape what is around us, because of what is within us. Then I thought about the other question, “what do you want to learn about?” I had always been quite interested in politics and society, and I realised that what I wanted to learn was how we could create communities and societies that help people be the best they can be, so that the individual wins and the community wins. How do you get the full potential out of individuals and create cohesive and successful teams and communities? On a micro scale, that applies to a rugby team or a department in the workplace, and on the big scale… well, that’s what the world desperately needs to get right now. Simple questions and simple principles, but I have followed this all of my working life.
What options did you consider to take this aspiration forward?
I thought about getting involved in outdoor education and running an adventure training centre, to help people learn how to work together and how to lead. But I realised that first I had to get some work experience under my belt. So I researched some business organisations and one of which really stood out was Unilever. I knew people who worked for the organisation, and I knew that it was a great place to learn, a great place to do business with values. Twenty years on, I’m still here and I’m still following the answer to those two questions, but it has turned out rather differently to what I imagined in the early days. Unilever has been really supportive in giving me the space to get involved in helping young leaders to learn how to make the world a better place through their leadership, and releasing their talent. Every day, I work on how we, as a business, can increase our social impact through apprenticeships, work placements and skills training, as part of how our business competes and operates.
What were you like as an individual, and how well did you fit into the corporate environment?
On day one, I felt like a fish out of water; I must have been a nightmare to bring on board and manage. No work experience outside of the Army, I simply had no idea how a business worked in reality. I had done a Masters in HR to get a grounding, but I had it all to learn. As a trainee in Unilever, I got involved in as many different issues and areas of HR as I could, like training and development. A key step was working as an HR advisor, which was a frontline HR position. I was looking after line managers and teams, advising them on basic HR, the core role of the teams that I would be leading in the future. What Unilever does well, and for which I will always be grateful, is to really stretch people, take them out of their comfort zone and get them to gain as much diverse experience as possible. So I was presented with the opportunity to go and work in a factory in Holland.
Although I have Dutch ancestry, I didn’t speak the dialect, and because the reason for my secondment was to improve efficiency, I was pretty unwelcome. That was a real experience! Imagine a young guy from the UK, creating proposals for how an experienced factory team could run things better…I quickly learnt that business thrives on relationships and earning trust. I spent a lot more time in factories after that, and I learnt that the tougher the situation, the more critical it is to build relationships and get stuck in and, if you get things right and do things the right way, people start to trust you. What I love about HR is that in the workplace, raw humanity and business needs meet.
Focusing on driving efficiency though, is a bit of a blunt instrument.
Success in any organisation has lots of drivers; efficiency is one, and alone, yes it is a blunt instrument. High performance though is about more than costs and processes – it’s also about people’s engagement and belief. There are two dimensions in every change programme; the physical and emotional. As an architect and facilitator of change you have to make it accessible on a human scale. Just look at the amount of jargon businesses use every day. Successful change needs small steps, clear and accessible messages, real, tangible purpose and values. If you can’t explain the change at home, you probably can’t deliver it at work.
Give us an idea of when you realised you were making good headway and people were taking notice of you.
There was a moment, not long after I had finished my trainee period, and I found out about an HR manager post available at one of our factories. I asked my boss about it, and initially, he thought it was a bit too senior for me. But he must have asked the question for me because, two weeks later, I was interviewed for the post, and I remember walking out of that meeting thinking this is definitely for me, I was ready. This was a big break and my manager really took a risk, but his instinct was right, and I thank him to this day, for the trust he had in me.
The people I have interviewed from factory backgrounds, say it is a very unforgiving environment and peppered with potholes.
It’s an environment which is incredibly performance focused, lots of clear and measureable KPIs, but underneath all that, the “human factor” is still critical. From a leadership perspective, there’s no hiding place. Whatever it is you’re trying to achieve, you have to get people on board and believing. If you can’t communicate something that you know is going to be unpopular face-to-face, you shouldn’t be leading the change. And if it isn’t two way, it isn’t communication; you need to be ready to listen to other views and perspectives, and create a safe space for that. I worked in our factories for around three years and this led to a job in Europe. At that time, we had a European head office in Brussels, and I had a role focusing on talent development and executing our HR strategy across our companies in Europe. From there I moved to another European role, looking after the teams that were responsible for innovation in our brands and products, another completely different environment. I spent a few years focused on that, including a promotion to Vice President for the global teams responsible for brand and product innovation in our critical Personal Care business. Then I got the chance to be based in the US, responsible for HR in our Foods Service business in the Americas. Here I realised that what I love is transformation, building for future growth, solving entrenched issues and releasing potential. Whatever the context, I love that. So, when I got the chance to take a lead role in creating a new organisation within Unilever which would deliver all our business services, I jumped at it.
Unilever is of course a huge business. With this post, as VP of HR for Unilever in the UK & Ireland, your focus must have been completely different, on a much bigger scale. That must have been quite a shock.
Whenever you move into senior roles, you have to adapt rapidly, and yes you see things from a completely different perspective in each role, of course. But there’s a lot that doesn’t change in HR; the focus on our people means that you have to keep your feet firmly on the ground. And there are some commonalities throughout the business at Unilever that, despite working in different roles in different countries, make it always feel consistent. Unquestionably, one of these crucial commonalities is values. Unilever is a successful company, and it’s been around for a long time. Values have been central to that success and growth. If you look at recent business history, there have been too many examples of businesses that have not operated with a strong basis in purpose and values, and have destroyed social and economic capital. There are tough decisions to be taken and difficult issues to face in every business, but the key thing is to take those on honestly and transparently, supporting people through difficult times, staying true to your purpose and values. You need to get that right.
Unilever has some of the best known brands in the world in its portfolio, but what about the employer brand?
Your brand as an employer is precious. We need to realise that, in the moment, we’re just the stewards of a great organisation and what it stands for. It’s about understanding and nurturing your heritage, being conscious and mindful that what we do today will shape it for the next generation. That is a significant responsibility. For example, one of the first things I did in this job was to set up a volunteering policy, as engagement in the community has and always will be at the heart of the organisation and our heritage, and part of our business model which includes a commitment to increase our positive social impact. Last year we gave 2,000 employee volunteering days, and the feel-good factor and improved engagement made it a fantastic investment.
You spoke of sustainability, Unilever is such a huge organisation, how do you maintain growth and output and operate in an environmentally sound way?
In the long run, and Unilever is in this for the long run, the only way to create successful businesses and prosperous communities is through operating in a sustainable way. It is tough to do, but there isn’t any alternative. This commitment is articulated through Unilever Sustainable Living Plan, which is our business model. Not a CSR plan, but a business model. It is at the heart of everything we do; our brands, our products, how we run the business. It is a demanding model, and we still have a way to go, but it is that which lies at the centre of our strategy, double the size of our business, halve our environmental impact and increase our social impact. HR has to be a key player in this, bringing together the performance management and values I’ve talked about. Needless to say, it’s a competitive world but the business is thriving and it’s radically transforming.
What would you say are the biggest challenges to the business and what are the key focuses for HR?
The conversations in our leadership team are about how we can compete in the rapidly changing marketplace, how we must innovate with our customers in e-commerce and, as the consumer changes their shopping habits, how we react quickly and sustainably. For HR it’s about focus and simplicity in the organisation and it’s about getting the right skills to meet those demands. It’s always been about people and always will be. I think talent has a number of components, and though we have a strong “grow-your-own” culture, we are also focused on bringing in the best talent – last year Unilever was the number one FMCG graduate recruiter and the third most in demand employer on LinkedIn in the world (9th most in demand in the UK).
Another key element of building skills and attracting talent are our apprenticeship programmes, which are proving a tremendous success across the business, in many different professions – from manufacturing and R&D, to business administration and IT. Without question, apprentices are an important talent pipeline for the business. Once you have all that great talent, the next priority is making Unilever a great place to work for all our great people. We have a culture of agile working – people should be able to work where they need to, either at home or in an office – and we can see that this way of working is making a real difference for people, practically and emotionally. We’re also fully committed to creating a workplace that is family-friendly and in tune with people’s lives. For people with family commitments, we’re launching programmes which help with child and elder care, again to help make life a little easier.
And with the ageing workforce and abolition of the DRA, there will be needs to be met for older workers.
Agreed; I think one of the biggest strategic challenges for employers is the increasing length of our lives and within that, of our working lives. Realistically, we are looking at a working life of 50 years, and that will require strategic, long range workforce planning and a good deal of culture change, and a change to how we think about careers. Longer working lives also means we will need to focus more on health and wellbeing. We already provide health assessments every other year and we have gyms in our big sites, and we encourage people to use them, but there are other key areas that living longer demands. We focus on; for example, financial planning which is critical and, in partnership with our pension fund, we have been rolling out financial education programmes and tools to help everyone plan.
It is a challenge in terms of workforce and career planning, it will have an impact.
It is an unavoidable consequence of an ageing population. But look at all the changes that people and society have already gone through; it goes to prove that anything is possible. But we need to get our heads and hearts around this quickly, as there are a lot of issues we need to solve, from; career stages, elder care and financial sustainability – it touches a lot of areas of people’s lives.
What do you think is the next stage for Unilever as a business?
We have a clear strategy to double the size of the company and halve the carbon footprint, and increase the social impact. The world and our markets are changing rapidly, and we need to change with them. Fifty-eight percent of the business is in emerging markets, and that will continue to grow. But the developed markets will continue to be hugely important. Wherever we are, the key is our brands and products, which people trust, and that are part of a sustainable future. And HR is pivotal to the business and, as the organisation continually evolves, the core messages, such as our values and commitment to sustainability, will be crucial.
Do you ever wonder where you would be now, if the sports injury had not occurred and you'd stayed in the Army.
You can never know what might have been; I certainly don’t dwell on that. I try to live in the moment, and learn from where I am. I met some amazing people through the Army, and have tried to follow their commitment to service. I think when you live a life, where you’re fortunate enough to serve what you love, you’re a very lucky person.