Hi! Managers: Leadership wisdom from Unilever CEO

Economy February 22, 2012 00:00

By Jean-Francois Cousin

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Seeking pearls of wisdom from senior leaders in Thailand will be our mission for this column over the months ahead. Bauke Rouwers, Unilever Thailand CEO, is inaugurating our series, in the wake of a phenomenal success at the helm of the iconic company.

What is your purpose as a leader? And how does this show up in your work?

As a leader you need to have a strong sense of purpose, to get through the things you try to achieve. It inspires the way you work with people. It is the source of your energy. It gets you through tough times and builds what you need to reach in good times.  It is about knowing your authentic self and a deep understanding of your own motivations. For me, this is about spreading a little bit of happiness to many people. At a high level, in our industry, our products make a little contribution to people’s well-being. They can give them a smile or help them to a good job in their home or take better care of their health and beauty. Individually, these are small little things, but if you multiply them by the number of products we sell, it does have an impact.

--How do you practically go about “instilling a little bit of happiness all around Thailand”?

It is about taking lots of small actions every day that help to do things a little bit better for our consumers, customers, employees and the community. If we do a good business in Thailand, our products will deliver better benefits to Thai consumers or give them access to things they did not have before. And with that comes a little bit of satisfaction and happiness. We are building a sustainable business model were aggressive growth is combined with aggressive environmental impact reduction targets, taking into account the life-cycle impact of our products.

--What are you passionate about as a leader?

I am passionate about building “strong human teams” where people can be their authentic selves and grab many opportunities, with little room for bureaucracy. To make this happen, our key role as a leader is to be a coach and help people realise their purpose as individuals and in teams.

--What else is getting you up in the morning?

Besides what we do for consumers – which I really like – what I wake up for is interacting with my team, and building and executing creative and exciting plans. That’s fun.

For example, the floods were a very tough period in Thailand. So we decided we needed to do something unique and meaningful for the people, and we came up with our “Take U Home” campaign, aimed at welcoming 1million Thai people back in their homes. That was really exciting and fulfilling. We built and executed it with a small team in only nine days. And that campaign was inspired by our company purpose. We were one of the largest donors, but we ensured primarily that what we did was meaningful for the receivers.

--What advice do you give to young managers?

Start searching for your own purpose: what does it take for you to become an authentic leader? In our company, we spend a lot of time and effort in helping our leaders discover and grow their own personal purpose. Building a career is not just about a bigger title or a bigger paycheck the next day; that doesn’t drive happiness in the long term. If you work from your purpose and you find your sweet spot there, then your career will actually go faster. From that perspective, young leaders need to be authentic, really care for people and invite other people in, to help them realise their dreams or their purpose as leaders.

It is critically important for young managers to get opportunities to lead. I try to give them as many as they can take, and tell them “go and do it, don’t hesitate”, give them confidence that they can achieve much more than what they think they can.

--What quote particularly inspires you?

“Impossible is nothing” by Muhammad Ali. That is linked to my core values: humility, caring for people and optimism. Sometimes a challenge may feel daunting or too big. Then reminding yourself of this quote can give you the extra spirit to go for it. It is even more powerful if you share this with your team. In my experience, you will always succeed.

--What do you find most inspiring in the Thai workplace?

Hard work and aiming high for achievements go well together with having a lot of fun. Quite a unique combination I haven’t seen anywhere else in the world. We are building a new work place that should embody that unique Thai spirit. 

--What will define competitive advantage in the business world going forward?

Two things which we are trying to do at Unilever: develop new business models that are sustainable, where we reduce the impact on the environment and truly make a contribution to society, and a team of leaders ready to compete for this future. I believe those two things will deliver our purpose and bring a competitive advantage. Consumers may not ask for it yet, but it will happen. Natural resources are getting scarcer. We need to act. It looks daunting, but again “Impossible is nothing”. Once we started looking, we found many opportunities and do better business as a result. Redefining what sustainability could be, where good economic growth goes hand in hand with a sustainable world where you want to live. We have a saying in our company purpose at Unilever where we say “love our children and we want them to experience the beauty of Thailand as well”.

Jean-Francois Cousin is an accredited executivecCoach (www.1-2-win.net) and the former managing director of a Fortune-500 company in Thailand. Follow his articles in Hi! Managers every fourth Wednesday of the month.