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As in 2021
French luxury group Chanel has named Leena Nair, the chief human resources officer (CHRO) of Unilever, as its global CEO. This makes Nair, born and brought up in Kolhapur, the second Indian-origin woman to take over as CEO of a large global company after Indra Nooyi (PepsiCo).
Incidentally, Nooyi happens to be Nair’s mentor. Nair’s appointment is not only a big leg-up for aspiring women leaders, it’s also a major thrust to the HR function, to bring CHROs to the forefront of leadership candidature.
A Chanel statement said Alain Wertheimer (the owner) will move to the role of global executive chairman and Nair, 52, will assume the role of global CEO based in London, UK. The new partnership “will further ensure long-term success as a private company, believing in the freedom of creation, cultivating human potential and acting to have a positive impact in the world”, it added. The $10-billion Chanel competes with luxury firms such as Louis Vuitton, Hermes, Gucci, L’Oreal, Michael Kors, etc.
‘HR not backroom dept, it’s vital cog for success’
Nair said in a post on LinkedIn, “I am humbled and honoured to be appointed the Global Chief Executive Officer of Chanel, an iconic and admired company. I am so inspired by what Chanel stands for. 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.”
“I am grateful for my long career at Unilever, a place that has been my home for 30 years. It has given me so many opportunities to learn, grow and contribute to a truly purpose-driven organisation. I will always be a proud advocate of Unilever and its ambition to make sustainable living commonplace,” she added.
In a statement announcing Nair’s decision to leave the company in January 2022, Unilever CEO Alan Jope said: “Leena has been a pioneer throughout her career at Unilever, but no more so than in her role as CHRO, where she has been a driving force on our equity, diversity and inclusion agenda, on the transformation of our leadership development, and on our preparedness for the future of work. She has played a critical role in building our purpose-led, future-fit organisation, which is now the employer of choice in over 50 countries globally. I am also especially grateful for her leadership over the last two years, and how our HR teams have helped Unilever manage through the many challenges of the Covid-19 pandemic with great care, compassion and professionalism.”
Under Nair’s leadership, Unilever moved the needle to attain a gender-balanced workforce.
Although it’s rare to find a CHRO taking over as CEO, the announcement opens up such avenues for HR leaders, given the rapid shifts taking place after the pandemic. People management and thus HR now is central to organisations. HR leaders, by the nature of their function, would embody some of the emerging traits required in a CEO today — empathy being the key trait that is gaining traction.
A gold-medallist from XLRI Jamshedpur, Nair is a much celebrated HR leader globally. Recently, in a post on LinkedIn, Nair said: “I always tell HR people they need to walk with swagger... HR is no longer a backroom department, it’s a vital part of running any successful business. If you want to support your people, you need to understand how the business works, and you need to be visible within the business.”
Commenting on her appointment, Keki Dadiseth, who was the chairman of Hindustan Unilever (HUL) when Nair was a rising star, told TOI: “She was always very competent and very ambitious and most importantly, did better with increased responsibility. She richly deserves her success.” In past interactions with TOI, Nair had mentioned how she proactively went up to her former managers and leaders like Dadiseth to get guidance on her career. She highlights this quality as one of the reasons behind her success.
Nair’s career trajectory provides a perspective on why doing what one is passionate about is important. She often speaks about her purpose being “to ignite the human spark to build a better business and a better world”. This year, Nair also figured on Fortune India’s Most Powerful Women List. Nair is breaking several stereotypes not just with respect to gender but leadership traits as well. While the world has mostly seen and preferred the command and control kind of leaders, Nair, on the other hand, is vocal about traits such as humility and empathy. Recently, she even said how leaders would not become weak if they revealed their vulnerable side, or by admitting to making mistakes.
Nair is also a non-executive member of BT plc, a member of the board of the Leverhulme Trust, and was a non-executive director in the UK’s department of business, energy and industrial strategy (BEIS).
Nair is married with two sons, and her interests include reading, running, and Bollywood dancing.