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My eight magical years in Unilever


Stan Sthanunathan has spent eight years leading our Consumer Market Insights function, immersed in – and helping create – Unilever’s unique culture. As he prepares to retire, he shares the lessons he’s learnt along the way.

Stan Sthanunathan, EVP, Consumer Market Insights, looking to camera

How it all began

The phrase, ‘time flies when you are having a good time’ couldn’t be truer for me and my time with Unilever. It started with a call from Keith Weed who was Chief Marketing and Communications Officer at Unilever at the time, and a ‘what about coming over and working for us?’ conversation.

I was with Coca-Cola in Atlanta and the prospect of leaving a company where I had built great relationships was daunting. But the infectious energy of Keith eventually got to me. I flew across the pond for a round of interviews with senior leaders – and meeting them made me fall in love with the company and its culture. My final conversation with Paul Polman – then CEO – sealed the case for me. His passion for creating a purpose-led organisation was palpable and I wanted to be part of that journey.

Leaving a city where I have a lot of friends and family was not an easy decision. I was convinced that I would last no more than two years in a company where the people had all grown up together professionally. My wife was happy about the time-bound decision that we were making. How wrong we were in our calculations! Two years became three and before we realised it, we had spent six years in London.

By April 2019, the pull to return to Atlanta and our family was getting too strong to ignore, and I told Alan Jope, our CEO, that I wanted to retire so I could get back. His immediate reaction was “these two decisions are not connected. Go to Atlanta and do your global role from there. Let us give it a swirl for a year and see how it goes”. This felt like a hugely empowering act, and made my resolve to make the arrangement work very strong. My last two years have been spent in Atlanta amid my family where I have been enjoying the arrival of our next generation.

I am retiring at the end of May. So this seems the right moment, after almost 40 years of working, to share my big learning: that it’s all about people…

Lesson 1: Trust your people

Unilever was not exactly a stranger to me. When I started my career in the insights industry back in 1985, Unilever was one of the first clients I worked with. But working inside Unilever was a whole different experience and I was given a warm welcome.

In my first month in London, in 2013, every senior leader came over to my desk and gave me invaluable tips on how to succeed in Unilever. Their tone was genuinely authentic, well meaning and at the same time challenging. Everyone encouraged me to radically transform the role of the Consumer Market Insights (CMI) function. I remember Nitin Paranjpe, who headed up the India business at the time and is now COO, challenging me to think about a CMI equivalent to Unilever’s vision of doubling the business and halving environmental footprint. That inspired a workstream within the insights function: ‘2x Impact in Half the Time and at Half the Cost’. And this audacious goal was delivered.

Based on my own experiences, I would define my first lesson as: Trust your people, treat them like adults and they will bend over backwards to deliver. Trust begets trust – I was trusted – and it worked.

Lesson 2: Set audacious goals

The global insights function consisted of some amazing thinkers and doers. The leadership team was steeped in the business and was eager and willing for a transformation. A clear and inspiring vision was collectively created by the leadership – a vision that was focused on business impact rather than on functional excellence. Against this background, you could afford to be ambitious. So my second lesson is: Set bold, audacious goals. Go for it with full gusto and you will achieve it.

The vision inspired one of our insights team members – Oslando DeSouza – to write lyrics based on the vision. An extended leadership team consisting of 80 professionals, including our key agency partners, recorded a song about the vision to the tune of ‘Here Comes the Sun’ at Abbey Road Studio No.1! This was a life-defining experience for most people and left them inspired and energised. Even after eight years, everyone in the function is still talking about the experience.

Lesson 3: Inspire people to take ownership

If you tell people to do something, you will only drag them reluctantly along with you. So my third lesson to others is: If you inspire people, they will take ownership and make stuff happen.

When CMI’s new vision, ‘Inspire and Provoke to Drive Transformational Actions’ was articulated, most people had a healthy dose of scepticism. They asked questions like ‘What does inspiration look like?’ and ‘How would I know if I have provoked someone?’ The solution is not just to explain what the wording of the vision means but how we – as leaders and in the work we do – can bring it to life.

Lesson 4: Don’t just tell – show

During the process of landing the vision, the depth and high quality of talent in Unilever became apparent, making the task so much easier. It was about providing people with a sense of purpose and direction. Refocusing them away from the ‘what’ of insights to a new emphasis on ‘so what?’ and ‘now what?’ became our primary preoccupation. Tangibly linking the new strategy to the growth agenda of the business really helped people to recognise the value they could bring to the business. This was when the virtuous cycle really took root.

So I’d say that the fourth lesson I’ve learnt is: Don’t just ‘tell’ – lead from the front and ‘show’ how it needs to be done.

Lesson 5: Let people see the real meaning of their work

I can’t emphasise enough the importance of self-belief. My lesson here would be: Help people see the real meaning behind their work. They will then figure out how to deliver great quality and impactful work themselves. And that’s what they did.

In travelling this path, CMI played a crucial role in articulating Unilever’s strategy of ‘5 Growth Fundamentals’. That included Unilever’s Fuel for Growth campaign which encouraged everyone to contribute their best ideas. Our contribution within the insights function was recognised by senior executives, which motivated everyone in the function and gave them a strong reason to believe that they could make a difference. Their self-worth and importance increased significantly. The stone started rolling and gathered momentum. The creative juices were flowing and new ideas for driving growth mushroomed around the world.

Lesson 6: Enhance self-worth

Our insights people faced challenges but they rose to the occasion. So I would say that my sixth lesson is: Enhance the self-worth of a high-quality team by lighting the initial spark and watch it grow.

When the 5 Growth Fundamentals were being introduced across the organisation, feathers were ruffled. Our insights teams were asked challenging questions, often by senior people, and responding politely but firmly was not always easy. We had to ensure the conversations were based on fact and not emotion. Frankly, it was the only option we had.

Lesson 7: Hire the best and lead wisely

Hire the best – ideally someone who is very different from you. Then provide clear directions and articulate freedom within a framework.

And lead with humility. Humble confidence is the need of the hour.

Lesson 8: Tackle the ball and not the player

After almost 40 years of work, my biggest learning is that it’s all about people. There is a human being behind every employee. Understand their hopes, anxieties and aspirations holistically – not just their professional aspirations. And don’t challenge them personally if you don’t agree with their views.

Respect your team. Praise in public and have your discussions in private. Defend and provide air cover to your people. If you point a finger at someone, remember others might be pointing back. Build relationships and nurture them – up and down the organisation.

And as you rise up the organisational structure, respect the people you pass. Galileo was right about gravity – you might meet them on the way down!

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