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Unilever’s Sumeet Salwan: ‘Pick your battles’

Thursday, July 31, 2014  
Posted by: Barbara Francella
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"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.

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