Unilever CEO Alan Jope - building a diverse, digital and dynamic future for the business

Stuart Lauchlan Profile picture for user slauchlan June 14, 2019
Unilever has over 400 brands that touch on the lives of billions of people around the world. It's also got some powerful digital and diversity goals.

Unilever logo

Regular readers will know that championing diversity is hardwired into the DNA of diginomica and that we’ve focused a lot over the past 6 years on tech firms strategies, policies and leadership in this area.

We have perhaps paid rather less attention to non-tech companies, an omission given that every organization is in some form of digital transformation - or will be. That being the case, my eye was caught by remarks made by Alan Jope, CEO of global conglomerate Unilever, at the Deutsche Bank Global Consumer Conference last week.

Jope is a Unilever veteran. Thirty years on from joining as a marketing trainee, he became CEO at the start of this year. It’s fair to say this is someone who knows Unilever inside-out. Now he’s in charge, he has a positive mission statement:

I want Unilever to be recognized for being a diverse and inclusive organization, a beacon of diversity and inclusion that is also digitally-skilled and with the organizational flexibility needed to keep winning in an ever-changing, more dynamic world.

This isn’t a new objective, some following of fashionable business thinking to tick the diversity boxes. The firm has been talking about diversity as a key business imperative for a very long time. With over 400 brands focused on health and well-being, Unilever touches the lives of billions of people around the globe. With that reach comes responsibility and Jope clearly intends to embrace that:

So, we want to continue to attract the very, very best talent and we want to inspire the passion and commitment, not just of our employees on the payroll, but also the far wider network of people who work across our expanded value chain and through the many partnerships that we have.


Leaving the digital aspect to one side for a moment, Jope can already point to a strong track record to build on. The company’s 12 non-executive directors are evenly split, male and female. Women account for nearly half (49%) of wider management, up from 38% a decade ago.

There are also some powerful stats around ethnicity with the non-executive director board boasting nine nationalities. Locally-representative management is a priority, with 80% of country leaders being indigenous and 90% of managers in regional markets. Jope says:

I really want Unilever to represent the societies that we do business in. Unilever where people can bring their [wholesales] to work, regardless of age, gender, nationality, race, religion, sexual identity, and so on. This is important for our business and it’s important for me personally.

To achieve this, as already noted, Jope wants to leverage digital capabilities, but this in turn requires the right talent to be in place with the right skill sets:

To get the most out of that talent we need the right skills across the organization. We’re upscaling our entire workforce in digital. Yes, of course, our marketers, but whether it’s new analytics tools in finance or Robotic Process Automation in our factories, where we already have hundreds up and running, digital is the way we're working and it is the future.

And the type of organization he envisages needs some structural rethinking:

Our cultural needs to evolve from being hierarchy led to network. Frankly our traditional organization of rigid hierarchies, fixed boxes, reporting lines and inflexible resourcing, that model is drawn from the military and has been around for 100 years [and][ is reaching its end of its useful life for us at Unilever. What we want to do is assemble the right network of people with the right skills to work on an opportunity. When the opportunity is realized, they will disband and move on to the next assignment.

We see a future of work that’s more inclusive. It engages our expanded teams across the value chain more. It’s much more flexible and frankly this we're working as a lot more fun. We’re already doing it. People are loving it. They’re having a ball. I should go on and on about that. So, winning in the future is going to require us to have an organization that’s fast and disciplined in execution is efficient at the right cost and is absolutely digitally-native.

Senior management is also being tapped for its tech and digital expertise. Jope points to Unilever’s largest division, Beauty and Personal Care, as a case in point. It’s just appointed a new head of division in the shape of former Amazon staffer Sunny Jain, with his digital and e-commerce credentials flagged up as a major selling-point to support a growth agenda.

Jope explains that a new digital marketing model will play a big part in delivering that growth:

It replaces interruption based advertising with a new model that’s built around purpose, content, and massive distribution at scale of using digital techniques.

That ambition is replicated in other areas of the business and will be an ongoing program of change to meet not only the corporate goals, but also  Jope’s personal goal:

I would like to lead forward the diverse, digital and flexible organization, truly inclusive and fit for the future.

My take

Digital, diversity, dynamic - a very diginomica exemplar. Unilver has a proud heritage and from Jope’s remarks, potentially an even prouder future.


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