Unilever’s Sumeet Salwan: ‘Pick your battles’
Thursday, July 31, 2014
Posted by: Barbara Francella
"Would it be okay to say that I’m nervous?” Sumeet Salwan asked
the more than 300 mostly women senior leaders at the NEW Executive Leaders
Forum. "Because I do represent diversity in this room, so you all have to be
kind, inclusive and help me get to my potential.”
Salwan, senior vice president of human resources, North America
for Unilever, shared life and career experiences during his keynote address, "Change
Agent: How to Lead Real Transformation,” July 30, at Terranea Resort in Rancho
Palos Verdes, Calif.
"I’m not going to give you a model for change,” Salwan said. "I’m not going to
give you universal truths. I’m just going to share with you my personal journey
and a few lessons that resonated with me.”
Salwan revealed why he’s chosen to stay with Unilever for 22
years, after joining the company as a summer intern. "Seven out of 10
households in the world have a Unilever product in it. The company genuinely
thinks of the fact that we are touching 2.5 billion people every day.”
This consideration on a human and global level, creates an
ideal platform for transformation. "A small change that we can make in these
interactions has an effect all around the world,” the industry executive said.
"I’m probably not qualified to have a conversation about
change,” Salwan joked, noting that despite being world-traveling leader,
husband and father of two, he left his home country of India for the first time
at age 28, for a visit to the United States.
Back then, the young professional and his wife, also a human resources
professional, were enjoying thriving careers in India when a move to the
Netherlands presented a career opportunity. "Why did we do that? Because it was
a counter-intuitive risk,” Salwan explained.
More such risks moved the self-described "confidence player”
and his family to the United Kingdom, Singapore and the United States, with
ever-increasing stature in his field.
While taking chances has served him well, Salwan cautions against being too
bold. "If there’s one thing I’ve learned about impact, you can’t take a really
wide plow and try to move 50 things at a time. You have to pick a battle.” Exercising sound judgment can help bringing about change on
a company level. "Let’s pick one thing and get the organization behind it, so
they can see and get behind it.”
Salwan’s efforts to change and expand diversity goals at Unilever helped shape
his outlook on speed and effectiveness. "I’m normally a confidence player, 50
percent facts and 50 percent gut. ‘You gotta shake this tree — slow and steady
normally loses the race,’” Salwan shared. But after falling short of year-one
goals set by his team, he learned change takes time.
But, he said, "it doesn’t take that much time. [Change
occurs] somewhere in the middle.” While shaking up the organization may not
have produced quick results, it did put diversity issues on the agenda.
Still, despite gender-equity progress in the cpg/retail
industry, bringing more women into leadership roles still presents an uphill
battle. "Nobody comes to my office saying, ‘I have very few women in my office,
please do something about this.’ They say, ‘We don’t have enough locals on the
board,’ They still don’t say, ‘We’ve got to do something about women.’”
"Change is hard,” Salwan reminded attendees. "Power is not
magical, it’s just power. There’s going to be a big price, but focus on the
prize. Don’t worry about the price.”
During a question and answer session, one NEW Forum attendee asked Salwan what advice
he would give children about using power and influence. "My first advice would be to be comfortable with it — it’s
not a bad thing. My second advice [is] to be responsible with it. Third, try
and change the world.”
"Power is not magical. It's just power," Unilever's Sumeet
Salwan told NEW Forum attendees.