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Rohit Jawa - Executive Vice President, Singapore

There are many paths to becoming a chief executive, but one thing is for sure; there will always be challenges and surprises on the way to the top.

Careers at Unilever

Throughout my career I have had to adapt my work practices and strategies to reflect my role, the local culture and market conditions. Doing this has allowed me to stay on track with my goal to become a valued leader.

To reach my current position of Executive Vice President, Operations of Unilever for South East Asia, and in my former role as Chief Executive for Unilever Philippines, I have tried to learn from the experiences of my predecessors, absorbed knowledge from dedicated Unilever colleagues, and embraced challenging steps to develop myself. In this article I will elaborate on these areas and outline what you can do to become an exceptional leader.

Find a strong mentor

Many can overlook the value of having a mentor, especially when starting out in their careers. But what better way to steer your career, than to enhance it with the advice and direction of someone who has already got to where you want to be? Throughout my time at Unilever, I have been fortunate to have access to many strong leaders who have imparted their vast knowledge and helped shape my leadership skills.

One in particular is former Chief Operating Officer of Unilever, Harish Manwani who retired in 2014.

His insights, developed over a long and successful career, helped show me what a great leader needs to ensure purpose is driven from the very top and how to look at a complex business in context. He encouraged me across all avenues of business and saw my potential to become an even better leader. Using his experience and insight, he was instrumental in identifying areas for me to hone and improve on, which in time has led to me picking the right path for my career.

In my eyes, a mentor is a key element in your career development – their experience and knowledge can help to guide you on your way to the top.

A good mentor is one who is inherently involved in your current or future career. It could be a line manager in your present work environment, a senior manager who has worked with you in the past, or someone in a field you would like to laterally move to in the future. Their experience will become invaluable in setting objectives and understanding the exact nature of what you need to do to progress. 

It is important that you choose a mentor who has your best interests at heart. They will need an inherent coaching mind-set, which will allow you to grow as a person and as a leader.

What every potential CEO needs to have

Leading people requires certain traits that often need to be nurtured to a greater degree. To some it comes naturally, but even the very best leaders may have areas they can improve on.

Every good leader needs to be able to look at issues in a strategic manner. The ability to ‘see around the corner’ is very important; predicting what is coming next and having a clear vision of where and how to lead their business in line with these forecasts. By clearly defining goals, you can help to ensure that the people you are responsible for move in this direction too.

However, direction is not the only important focus. Creating a compelling and engaging purpose that people can connect with emotionally is another key requirement. At Unilever our purpose is to make sustainable living commonplace. A simple, concise and aspirational target – yet it has the effect of binding us together and work for a single cause.

Your colleagues need to be bonded by a common goal or cause that drives them forward alongside you.

Chief executives are often required to give speeches and communicate complex strategic decisions in a clear manner, and this does not always come easily to everyone, including myself.

Emotional intelligence

I have definitely had to work on writing clear and concise presentations and then effectively delivering them. It has taken patience, practice and perseverance to get to improve my delivery; the old adage of ‘practice makes perfect’ absolutely applies here. While the above qualities are collectively important, their importance diminishes if you do not inherently care about people. If you are leading people, you need to be able to put yourself in their shoes and understand the challenges they may face and concerns they may have.

Throughout the years, I have had to exercise my emotional muscle - expressing clear and real concern so as to better connect with those I am leading. I am naturally quite reserved, so being expressive has not always been easy, but my ability to connect with individuals and ensure we are meeting their needs across the organization has always been a prime concern of mine.

Not every trait is going to come naturally to everyone. Many skills will need work, and professional development is an ongoing process. As a CEO you must be prepared to actively seek out feedback on areas to improve on.

Whatever area you want to improve on personally – whether it is communication, strategic thinking, or presenting – you are sure to find opinion and principles to follow from a plethora of experts in this field.

I am an avid reader, and feel this is vital for my personal development. I often read books focusing on the finer points of business across regions and industries, articles on global current affairs, as well as more general topics. This mix of sources and content really stretch the mind and allow me to draw on valuable experiences.

Feed your mind, body – and exercise

Besides nourishing my mind, I am also dedicated to nourishing my body with healthy food. I am a vegan, because I feel this is right for my constitution and I definitely feel the benefits. Everyone needs to do what they feel is best for their body.

In addition to healthy eating, I exercise daily. I take a 40-50 minute brisk walk every morning, and sometimes do other activities like yoga or weights. There is a tremendous amount of research available which highlights the benefits of exercise – not just for the body, but for the mind too.

Small actions can lead to big differences. Ensuring that your physical and emotional wellbeing are prioritized has clear benefits, and this is something we at Unilever recognize too. We are the recipient of the Global Healthy Workplace Award 2016 which recognized our investment into workplace health and well-being initiatives, and the fact that we view our employees’ physical, mental and emotional fitness as a genuine business priority.

Find an organization that you can grow with

Since joining, Unilever has given me the opportunities to realise my full potential. Whether through training, shadowing or experiencing a new working culture, there was always a next step to take to ensure I was growing in my career.

I have been given some fantastic opportunities in Sales and Marketing, as well as in Operations and General Management in cross-functional positions. Coupled with local, regional and global remits, having this depth of experience across a number of business units has given me an unprecedented level of organisational and industry knowledge.

Thanks to my extensive experience and appetite to utilise my skills, I have also been able to take on leadership roles outside Unilever that have huge tangible benefits to the communities and regions I am involved with.

In recent years I have had the honour of being the Co-Chair of the ‘Grow Asia Philippines,’ which is an initiative for inclusive business models focused on agriculture. I have also had the privilege of receiving the 2015 ‘CEO Excel Award’ by the Philippines chapter of International Association of Business Communicators for leadership in business communication.

With the combination of the opportunities presented to me at Unilever, determination, hard work and self-reflection I can truly say that I have grown as a leader over my career. By following this advice, you too can guide your career in your desired direction and become a focused leader with purpose.

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