Developing global leaders in Asia a challenge: Unilever COO

Companies need to find effective ways of grooming global leaders in Asia to address the talent shortfall here, said the Chief Operating Officer of consumer goods giant Unilever.


To develop purpose-driven, values-led leaders, companies need to make the first step by standing for something bigger, said Harish Manwani at the 2014 Asian Human Capital & Leadership Symposium in Singapore.


“Companies must be anchored by a larger purpose,” said Manwani, giving the example of how Unilever’s first CEO, William Hesketh Lever, saw his work as raising hygiene standards and saving lives in Victorian England through making and selling bars of soap.


A report by McKinsey Global Institute predicts that 45 percent of Global Fortune 500 companies will come from emerging markets including Asia by 2025. And according to Human Capital Leadership Institute CEO Kwan Chee Wei, this leads to the question of where these leaders from Asia are going to come from.


While many companies traditionally brought in American and European expatriate leaders, there is a question today of whether companies can continue with that model, Kwan said. If Asia is where bulk of the population is, there are hidden talents there that are the cream of the crop. “Many companies aspire to be Unilever” in finding and developing them, he said.


To develop more leaders, Unilever set up a global leadership development centre in Singapore last year. Named Four Acres Singapore, the US$64 million centre develops and teaches Unilever’s own brand of leadership.


“Our top 650 people go through authentic leadership programmes, living and learning together here on campus. It gives them the space to reflect on how their personal principles and motivation can align with Unilever’s vision to grow our business while creating positive social and environmental impact,” said Betty Lau, Global Learning Director of Four Acres Singapore.


To attract leaders in the first place, companies need to build a reputation as an employer of choice, said Manwani. “Key factors making Unilever the top employer of choice in at least 17 Asian markets include a structured global training program giving leaders international assignments early in their careers and investing disproportionately in Asia,” he explained.


Manwani also emphasised the importance of retention. “Creating a culture of inclusion and diversity is critical to retention (because) what attracts people is a culture that understands people in different markets,” he said. He added that gender balance is essential, citing that in Japan, Unilever has six times as many female managers as the average company.