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Mohamed Mekki - HR management trainee, UAE

I compare working across different job roles to sampling ice-cream – you taste different flavours but one eventually stands out.

Careers at Unilever

I am a Human Resources management trainee, as part of the Unilever Future Leaders Programme. Spanning three years, I work across different “rotations” (or what we call “stints”) representing different functions and regions. My career journey has enabled me to experience several pillars of HR with responsibility for various projects within each. From my experience, this has only made me a better professional as I’m constantly expanding my career growth.

Here is how gaining experience in different roles is important for both your personal and professional development, leading to improved interpersonal skills, a more defined career path and a brighter future.

The value of meaningful assignments

I joined Unilever in June 2014 as a management trainee. As soon as I joined I had several rotations: in Customer Development i.e. Sales, Leadership and Development and across HR business partnering roles, also working on a myriad of cross-regional projects. It was during my last rotation in leadership and development, in North Africa and the Middle East that I found myself running the same student competition that secured my place on the Unilever Future Leaders Programme.

It was very touching for me to lead on the programme, especially on a larger scale and across a massive region. I was able to add so much value – not only as both a previous student and a Unilever employee but also having walked in the participants’ shoes just a few years back. It was the most successful year-to-date, with a significant increase in the number of applications and engaged zealous students compared to the year that I was involved.

My favourite thing about working in different roles and teams? The opportunity to collaborate with great people and teams. Working in my last rotation within leadership and development, I was involved in numerous projects. These projects were started from scratch, which is usually what happens at Unilever – you find an opportunity and take action to make it happen.

To see all these projects start life as simple ideas to becoming something that senior leaders and the whole HR function appreciates will always stand out as a career milestone. It is the greatest feeling to know that what you are doing is benefiting and adding value to the company. At Unilever, we believe that all small actions can make a big difference.

As a HR professional, we have a framework in Unilever of the related skills someone needs to attain. The quality of the experience and skills usually comes from learning on the job. So working in different roles will only give you more skills. Having worked on various, memorable assignments, I can certainly attest to that.

Gaining regional experience

In my current rotation now, I am based in Morocco in Casablanca. Though I have worked with people from there, I myself had never been. Now I’m the HR Business Partner for Marketing and Finance for the whole North Africa Maghreb region: Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia.

Most of the communication in these countries is done in French and Arabic. As a non-French speaker, this is a challenge for me but knowing I need to cope and adapt, I have taken the initiative to learn the language. This will also broaden the range of countries I can work in in the future.

Other than the language, you are exposed to people from different cultures to your own. If you’re always in the same area with people of similar mindsets, you may be susceptible to “group think”. The former not only provides you with a more “out the box” viewpoint, it also strengthens your communication and network skills – vital for any role.

Responsibility across projects – and countries

Unilever is a great example of providing its people with levels of responsibility that may take years to obtain elsewhere. When I joined the company I had relatively no work experience; I was soon leading on projects impacting the business, the HR community and people outside the company – and on a regional scale. Managing between these and my core daily tasks has only made me more efficient.

Knowing I’m trusted by senior leaders has made me more responsible as a result. In fact, they are my biggest form of guidance and motivation. In meetings they really value your opinion. I’m always asked the question “What do you think?” The autonomy that’s given to me is something I highly appreciate.

I was particularly inspired by my manager in my last L&D role, Assaf AlQuraishi, Unilever HR VP, North Africa Middle East. He’s also my mentor, helping me to showcase my leadership and take those values to the next level.

I recall a particularly successful meeting with him – I never thought my manager would chance bringing in a recent college graduate to brief and pitch, but he trusted me with that opportunity. The project was approved and when we left the room, he gave me a mini fist-bump. That’s something I’ll always remember.

Networking across teams

Often you are dealing with people with different ways of thinking. That’s why it’s so important to meet people across your function. While based in Dubai for my last role, my stakeholders were scattered across Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Bahrain, Oman, Turkey, Egypt, Lebanon, Sweden, US and the UK. To get the job done, I needed to get to know them and their ways of working. I find this only makes you more collaborative and understanding.

Projects here are usually team based. One of my assignments I led involved working very closely with the marketing department. I learned that marketeers at Unilever are very innovative, creative people. They always have ideas and solutions of how they want a project to unfold. It almost makes you think in the same way. Thus that helped me to be more creative and visionary as a result.

A recent study by Deloitte suggests that companies are overhauling their organisational structure and shifting away from hierarchical, functional business models toward cross-functional “networks of teams,” in an effort to become more agile, collaborative and customer-focused. My experience has taught me this is certainly the case.

A company dedicated to personal development

Though I attest that the best learning anyone can do is on-the-job, it helps to work in a great company that fosters your self-development. The coaching and mentoring Unilever provides is extremely beneficial for someone who’s just starting their career. They also have numerous courses that anyone can enroll on online via our internal learning portal. There’s always a way to increase your knowledge.

After my current assignment in Casablanca, I will likely work across other regions, still discovering different pillars of Human Resources. By the time I’ve completed these three years under the Unilever Future Leaders Programme, I’ll be well-equipped to be a HR manager with all the necessary expertise.

Knowing I’m trusted by senior leaders has made me more responsible as a result.

My favourite thing about working in different roles and teams? The opportunity to collaborate with great people and teams. It’s within trying all the “flavours” of HR that the relationships you make can turn out the sweetest.

Sometimes it’s tough to change rotations because I get so used to the group. I not only make colleagues, I make friends as well. As challenging as that is, it’s also a blessing – and just another benefit on my path to a meaningful career.

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