Unilever CEO Nicole Sparshott: How to practice responsible management

Nicole Sparshott, CEO of Unilever ANZ and global CEO of T2, discussed the importance of leveraging outside resources and expertise to achieve internal responsible management goals.

| 25 Nov 2021

In 2010, Unilever unveiled its Sustainable Living Plan of over 70 bold environmental, social and governance (ESG) initiatives with a new goal: to double the growth of the business while halving its environmental impact. Twelve years later the organisation continues to work toward many of these goals under the Unilever Compass that launched in 2020, better aligning the company’s aims of doing well and doing good.

“It brought our Sustainable Living Plan and our business plan into one inextricably linked vision and strategy for our organisation,” Nicole Sparshott, Unilever ANZ CEO and T2 Global CEO, said during the AGSM @ UNSW Business School 2021 Professional Forum: Responsible Management in an Accelerating World

“The Unilever Compass really made it quite hardwired that actually, to be a force for good and to have a company the scale of Unilever, it's our opportunity, our imperative to not only deliver profitable growth, but do it in a way that has a regenerative impact on the planet and contributes to being a fairer and more socially inclusive world.”

But Unilever can’t accomplish these responsible management goals on its own. During her conversation with Professor Nick Wailes, AGSM Senior Deputy Dean and AGSM Director, at the Professional Forum, Nicole talked about the importance of looking outside of the business to help create real change within. And how a willingness to do so has helped the company follow the Unilever Compass. 

Leaders must have a willingness to learn

Nicole has been working in the consumer goods industry for over 25 years, including the last 15 years with Unilever. Before that she spent time with Coca-Cola and Procter & Gamble. 

Nicole has seen how stakeholders’ priorities are shifting and changing the industry – and how adopting a different mindset is important for solving the problems companies are facing today. 

“I think about myself, and the 25 years of experience I bring to the table can be my biggest strength. But it can also be my biggest blind spot, because I think so many of the challenges that we're facing can't rely on the solutions of the past. They often require alternative and lateral ways of looking at solutions today,” Nicole said.

To find those lateral solutions, she said it’s important to have a “beginner’s mindset” – the willingness to put aside what you think you know and be open to different, fresh ways of viewing problems and solutions.

“We're really big on getting an outside-in perspective to supplement our internal views,” Nicole said. 

“At least once or twice a month, we try to bring someone in from the outside. It can be from another organisation or industry, it can be a writer, it can be consumers coming in and sharing their experience. I'm always amazed at how much transferable knowledge there is out there. And it’s the notion of a problem shared is a problem halved.”

Responsible Management must be a wider responsibility

Nicole said to maximise responsible management outcomes, this attitude needs to be embedded throughout the entire supply chain – not just among Unilever employees.

“We're not an island – we work deliberately with suppliers who have made similar ESG commitments to the ones we've made,” Nicole said. 

“It’s important to surround yourself with an ecosystem coalition of the willing and able. There's plenty of expertise in NGOs, in other industries and companies – there’s a bucket load of generosity out there as well.

“One of the biggest learnings we've had is to set the ambition high, even when you don't always know how you're going to get there, and then get the right people to help you operationalise that ambition.”

During the Professional Forum panel discussion: How Sustainable is Your Business Model?, Frances Atkins, Co-Founder of Givvable, (AGSM MBA Executive 2019), spoke about how the Givvable platform assesses ESG impacts of suppliers to help organisations make better partnership decisions. In this way, the platform can help build more sustainable supply chains – something Nicole said is key to staying true to responsible management ideals:

“Any business is only as good as its weakest link,” Nicole said. 

“We are so interdependently linked to many of our partners and suppliers across the value chain. Whether it’s sustainable sourcing of ingredients and the quality, right through to the manufacturing process and how safety and quality combine to produce amazing brands.”

In addition to COVID-19, Nicole pointed out that climate change had also had a drastic impact on Australian supply chains in recent years. She says that the drought, flooding and bush fire experiences, shared by organisations and people up and down the supply chain, only heightened the importance of working together to deliver for consumers – responsibly.

See also: The Business of Climate Change

“We partner really closely with our suppliers, not only to set really high standards around the expectations we have, but also to learn from them and to share generously with them what we have learnt during the process. There's a lot of expertise that sits in the Unilever organisation, and we've made it really clear that we want to partner with people that have the same values as us.”

Nicole also said that Unilever forms strategic alliances and shares expert knowledge to co-create the vision of what success looks like.

“Some of our best ideas come not from Unilever, but from the partners we have in our ecosystem.

“Unilever is one of the world's biggest consumer goods companies. We have about 400 brands that we sell in over 150 countries around the world. They include brands like Streets ice cream, Magnum, Ben & Jerry's, Dove, TRESemmé, Sunsilk, Omo. The list goes on and on,” said Nicole.

Find your future responsible managers

Another part of adopting that beginner’s mindset is seeing what actual beginners – or at least those with less experience – think. Nicole said the next generation of business leaders is already having a huge impact on how Unilever operates.

“What I love about the younger generation is they have strong conviction in this area,” she said. 

“They've got some really clear views on what constitutes a good business. They're prepared to vote with their feet, with their voices, with their wallets. They're making choices differently to the way we perhaps made choices around our careers, and I think they're also bringing new ideas to the table.”

Nicole said Unilever draws inspiration from, and accesses the talents of, this new wave of workers in different ways. This includes everything from hiring them as full- or part-time employees to developing relationships with them to become “friends of Unilever.”

“Inevitably, there's always new players coming into the market – there’s so much to learn from start-ups and new technology. You want those partners to be open to alternative, new ways of solving problems in creative, value-creating ways.”

On being asked by Professor Wailes what advice she had for those wanting to lead, do well, and do good at the same time, Nicole had three pieces of advice:

“The first thing I would say is don't get hung up on the debate of should you, shouldn't you. You absolutely should, so focus all of your energies on now how? How to do it in a way that makes sense for your organisation, your function, or the business that you're in.

“The second thing is set the ambition high, even when you're not 100% sure how you're going to get there, because once you set that ambition high, you will create a real group of people that will galvanise around you and with you to enable that to happen, and there is a lot of expertise out there that you can tap into.”

“The third thing is, it's a real opportunity for us to pause now and say, is it good for business? Is it good for society and the planet? When you can find that sweet spot of both, then it only serves to make, not only each of our individual industries better or businesses better, but it creates a much better Australia.”

To watch the on-demand recording of the AGSM 2021 Professional Forum: Responsible Management in an Accelerating World, click here.