Baptism by virus: becoming CEO during a global pandemic

Baptism by virus

Nicole Sparshott, CEO Unilever ANZ & Global

As my children kicked off Term Two from home this week and I enter into my second month in the role as CEO of Unilever ANZ, I have been reflecting on the extraordinary circumstances we find ourselves in right now. Instead of the usual morning flurry of bag packing and discussing the after-school pick up , we have been using that time to have breakfast as a family before we go into our virtual classrooms and work spaces (and negotiate who gets priority on the Wi-Fi - I don’t always win!)

It is strange times indeed and if you had said to me three months ago that I would be leading a company virtually from Day One, I would never have believed it. Yet, here we are and I have been amazed by what we have been able to achieve. While there are many challenges - and indeed, loss - coming from a world with COVID-19, it has also forced a reappraisal of possibility. The adage of necessity being the mother of invention could not be more true. Alongside the natural anxiety and fear that exists, there also sits sheer determination, creativity, ingenuity and dare I say it, greater genuine connectivity. I’ve been heartened to see colleagues reach out to each other to leverage expertise, ask for help, and simply share stories and experiences - all in the name of experimentation and learning.

Leading a business without the opportunity to meet everyone in person has been a weird feeling for me. I like to get into our factories, immerse myself in the market, reimagine opportunities with partners and talk with our consumers. I get enormous energy from this. Interestingly whilst I have not been able to do this face to face, I have perhaps been given an even greater gift. The opportunity of meeting team members in all their guises, not just their work selves. As home and work boundaries blur, I have been invited in their homes virtually, met their children and partners, and shared their experiences of juggling multiple hats in a very real way.

I have caught up with those living alone during this time and we have enjoyed the connectivity of a meeting over a cuppa. I have led Town Hall meetings for the whole company where drilling from the neighbours starts at an inopportune times or one of my own children has popped their head in, not realising there were hundreds of people watching. Rather than only some parts of the organisation being able to join as is the case with face to face engagement, technology has allowed for more of our teams to participate, and we have all been able to feel part of a bigger family. Whilst our social bubble outside of work has become smaller, I can’t help but wonder if our work friendships may have become that little bit stronger.

The challenge, of course, is that the days can feel a lot longer and it is hard to disconnect when your work can be done from the kitchen bench. Boundaries become important to carve out. Fortunately, Unilever has been embracing flexible working for some time now, so the transition has been smooth, and I truly believe there are going to be significant, long-term benefits from the rapid, global shift to a more flexible working culture.

Embracing a true spirit of inclusivity will enable team members to choose how they want to work and will place more of a focus on output and impact - with the freedom for people to decide how best they can deliver. Personally, there are a lot of elements of my new working from home lifestyle that I want to continue when we come out of this. I am loving having breakfast each morning with my family and using my commute time to get some ‘outside in’ inspiration from podcasts and people in other industries. I am a huge fan of shorter, more frequent meetings where decisions are made with imperfect information but strong alignment. I have embraced ‘walk and talk’ meetings and feel I am activating neurons that haven’t come to life in a long time.

My focus in the first month has been on keeping people safe and the business running continuously to supply our brands to our consumers during this time. As we start to turn a corner in Australia and New Zealand, we are shifting our attention from surviving the crisis to playing an active role in the recovery. We cannot predict the future, but we are committed to focusing our teams and resources to creating a more positive one.

A focus on serving the community, having a regenerative impact on the planet, and innovating our brands to be better than ever before are at the top of the agenda. Being a force for good has always been part of Unilever Australia and New Zealand’s DNA and this time has reminded us that we can now do that from wherever we find ourselves - at home, in the office, in our factories, in the field. We all have a role to play in making the future bright.

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