Leena Nair Bio

Leena Nair has been Global Chief Executive Officer at Chanel since January 2022. 

Chanel is a private company and a world leader in creating, developing, manufacturing and distributing luxury products. Founded by Gabrielle Chanel at the beginning of the last century, Chanel offers a broad range of high-end creations; it is dedicated to ultimate luxury and to the highest level of craftsmanship. Leena is highly respected as a visionary leader whose ability to champion a long-term, purpose-driven agenda is matched with a consistently strong track record of talent development and business outcomes. 

Prior to joining Chanel, Leena spent 30 years at Unilever, serving as the company’s Chief Human Resources Officer (CHRO) and a member of their Executive Committee from 2016 to 2021. She built a global reputation for progressive human-centred leadership, delivering significant business impact. 

Leena is a member of the Board of the Leverhulme Trust, a charitable organization focused on supporting education and research. She previously served as a non-executive director at BT plc and the UK Government’s Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy department. 

February 26, 2024

Global CEO of Chanel Leena Nair: Finding the Courage to Lead

Despite the decades of progress women have made in the workplace, they remain underrepresented in leadership positions at companies across the globe. Leena Nair, CEO of Chanel, is working to change that.

Reflecting on her journey from rural India to London, Leena discusses how she developed the confidence necessary to usher Chanel into the future – one led by (many more) women.

Transcript

Ranjay Gulati

There are few luxury consumer brands more iconic than Chanel. The Paris-based fashion house was founded in 1913 by Coco Chanel. She was a young, French working woman who opened a tiny hat shop…and then grew the business into a global phenomenon. Coco Chanel revolutionized women’s fashion in the 20th century. Her designs rejected the uncomfortable, corseted clothing of the times for more a simple and relaxed look. She pioneered the “Chanel women’s suit.” She championed the “little black dress.” And she unveiled a namesake scent.

 

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For the first time, a perfume created in 1921 is still the best selling and most famous fragrance in the world. No. 5 resists the whims of fashion and the passage of time, as if Mademoiselle Chanel had found the formula for the feminine eternal.

 

Ranjay Gulati

Hello everyone and welcome to Deep Purpose, a podcast about courage and commitment in turbulent times. My guest this time is the leader the legendary House of Chanel. Leena Nair became Chanel’s CEO in 2022. Leena is a native of India, my home country. She began her career at the giant consumer brand firm, Unilever. Over the course of three decades at Unilever, Leena rose to the post of Chief Human Resources Officer…leading a worldwide workforce of some 127-thousand people.[1] Leena achieved her extraordinary career success by pushing past the abiding, conservative social expectations of girls and women in India.

 

Leena Nair

Ranjay, I grew up in a small town, as you know, Kolhapur, only famous for Kolhapuri chappals. And there was very limited access to role models or opportunities. I mean, a very loving background and loving upbringing, but very limited understanding of what I could do. And I was very ambitious. I was very determined to learn. I was very curious, all the time asking questions. Remember, we didn’t even have TV these days TV came to my town when I was 20 or something. So I was ambitious, knew I wanted to do something with my life. But I had no understanding of what that would look like. And if somebody had told me that then that I would be in a world that was certified so sophisticated and luxury, I would have been stunned, I would simply have not believed that could be true.

 

And my mother was perpetually scared. She would say, “You’re so ambitious, who’s going to marry you?” And oh, that was a constant refrain every time I said I wanted to study more, do more. And people around you always ask the questions, which is pretty common in small-town India, which is “Oh, your father has only two daughters. He doesn’t have a son. How sad is that?” Or that “You’re so talented. You should have been a boy, then you would have had opportunity. Now you’re a girl. It’s not going to happen. Girls are not supposed to be ambitious. They’re not supposed to have careers. They’re not supposed to study too much, not supposed to wear trousers, not supposed to be anything but traditional rule-following.” So, I found I was very determined, very curious, resilient because, at some stage, I said, “Okay, I’m not I’m going to stop listening to this. I’m just going to keep going. I’m just going to do things I love.” I love studying, I loved math and science. I wanted to do engineering. A couple of other institutes where my father was very clear, “we’ll only send you to engineering if it’s a place that’s really close by to Kolhapur. So okay, Sangli [a city] it was, and I did have great four years. Went on to XLRI Jamshedpur to do my management studies.

 

You know, I felt the privilege and responsibility of being the first “everything.” The first woman to do this, the first woman to be in this job, the first woman to do a night shift because, in my 30 years in Unilever, I started across all aspects of business, I did sales, I did supply chain, I worked in four different factories across all parts of India. I did marketing, I did many roles that taught me everything about business, how money is made, how things are done. What are the levers of growth and profitability in a business? How do you galvanize and inspire people? How do you listen to a broad range of perspectives and make up your mind?

 

So I think through all that, a sense of determination, a sense of feeling the privilege and responsibility of being first sense of humility and curiosity is what kept me going. And, you know, “lift as you climb” is very, very important for me. Why say that, Ranjay? It’s not just simple words that you do good stuff for other people because you reached senior position. It’s not that I reached a senior position and I said, “Okay, now let me make it easier for those who come after me.” No, no, no, no.

 

So, from day on… like I was in sales, and I was put in a hotel, which was not safe for women, I felt that from the day I went in. So I went back to the team that did the administration and said, “Hey, these hotels are not safe for women, we need to make it better.” Because I have experienced it, I can tell you, we need to do a better hotel for women in sales in this part of India, and so on, so forth. So this “lift as you climb,” about making it easier for others who came after me, was a fundamental thing because it gave me courage to do the right things. It’s harder to fight for stuff for yourself. It’s easier to fight in your brain when you think that I’m doing this for the many women who come after me.

 

Ranjay Gulati

Tell me in this journey, were there people or moments that really helped you? You’ve said there were no role models growing up. Did you have to just look within or were there any support systems around you?

 

Leena Nair

Oh, a lot. I remember my father being a strong sponsor. I remember when I said I wanted to go to Jamshedpur to do an MBA. And imagine this is a family already worrying about, you know, this woman who’s studying so much. And my father said, “Yes, you can go, but I will choose the man you’re going to marry. So make sure you are really focused on studies and making a difference. And he did go on to choose the person I want to marry. That’s Kumar, and I did have an arranged marriage. But Dad was a sponsor. By and large his logic was, I don’t know if she’ll have a chance to have a career or not. But I’m going to support her to study because she’s bright clearly and I should help her to study.

I remember the network women, I grew up in a family with many cousins, 16 cousins, and I remember the women in the family, my cousins being so supportive, some of them had done home science, some of them had not studied much. But they were all like “Let Leena get the opportunity. She’s intelligent, she’s talented, let her.” So I remember this network of women supporting me all through. And then when I was in Unilever, I’ve had so many mentors, guides, I particularly remember [a professor] in my engineering days, who’s the one who encouraged me to look at management. So I’ve met many, many mentors in my life. And one of the things I’ve liked to do Ranjay is to reach out to people and say, “will you mentor me?” Nine out of 10, early in my career, they would say “no,” they didn’t have the time. But the one person out of 10 who said “yes” would go on to be someone who was regular in my life. So there’s so many people I’ve learned from and been mentored by.

 

Ranjay Gulati

Most of us face crucible moments in our professional lives when we are tested…when we are challenged to draw on deep sources of courage that come from the very foundations of who we are as individuals. In my many conversations with business leaders across the globe, I’ve found this to be a frequent and compelling theme. Leena Nair told me about one of many times in her career when she drew on her own reserves of courage: when Leena was a young businesswoman, she had to tangle with a legendary Indian labor leader named Datta Samant.

 

Leena Nair

And here I was like 23 years old, sitting across the negotiating table with him and trying to negotiate a difficult settlement. And it was tough, because first you get brushed aside, you know, they think you’re a secretary, you’re somebody who just came in, and then you’ve got to tell them no, no, actually, I’m the boss. And I’m coming to negotiate with you. And then you’re underestimated. So it’s like, “Oh, God, I’ll be going to waste our time with this when the real deal could happen? Is someone really going to negotiate?” So you see this every step of the way. You’re always an outsider, you reach a team, when you’re the only woman in every team you’ve been day after day, month after month, week after week.

 

Ranjay Gulati

So tell us more about that story. Finish that story. Finish that Datta Samant story. So you walk in and you’re sitting with and he was an imposing figure. Even I remember that. Right?

 

Leena Nair

Yeah. And he’s sitting, and he is basically writing you off. [inaudible] Have the courage to stand by your point, your principles, your point of view and negotiate a settlement. We went on to get to know each other well and became friends etc. But this constant burden of being the first means your successes and failures are amplified hugely. So you’re already carrying that burden of being the “first.” Everyone’s looking up at you. Half of them are hoping you will succeed, half of them are worried that you will fail. And then you carry the burden of being underestimated, having to shout more to be listened. You know, feeling this burden of almost proving yourself every time, so those are moments I felt once in a while. “Oh my god, this is tough. Do I want to do this?” You know, my husband’s been hugely supportive. So it’s always been good to speak to him. Kumar has been a huge, huge anchor in my life. Mentors – sit with them, speak with them and get courage, have a diverse perspective. And then being very rooted in my own purpose, being rooted in why I do what I do, being rooted why I must persist, why I must go on. And then at the end of the day, I’m an optimistic person, so few tears, a night of bad sleep, and then you wake up, even the flowers follow the sun. I really believe in optimistic, and then I find, “Okay, let me find the reasons for why this was a good thing to happen and how I’ve grown and developed from this.” So I would then switch to being more optimistic about my situation and say, “Okay, someone’s underestimating me? Okay, let me show them how I can do this even better.” Et cetera, et cetera. So, but it does take a little bit of self-talk. It does take talking to mentors to build confidence. It does take talking to other peers you trust. And sometimes a few tears have helped along the way to say, “Okay, this is hard, but I’m going to persist. “

 

Ranjay Gulati

You know, we talk a lot about effective mentoring. We don’t talk enough about effective mentee in how do you be a good mentee? We give lots of advice to mentor saying be a better mentor. Yeah, listen, coach. You had some remarkable mentors along the way. But you were a remarkable mentee. That’s something I remember about you. What allowed you to be such a remarkable mentee who people wanted to mentor?

 

Leena Nair

A huge sense of curiosity and humility. And I carry that… I’m not judgmental at all about, you know, things that have happened in the past, or what others have done before me, I never criticize my predecessor. So get into a role, I get into something. And I always think about the future. What’s the legacy I want to leave behind? What’s the world going to be in 10 years? So I’m very curious and humble. I’ll go out and talk to as many people as I can to figure out the future. I’m very sincere as a mentee, I will set up the time, I will come prepared, I will come with a list of questions, I will consider it an honor for me to share what I am learning along the way. Because I think for mentors is equally important that you open their eyes, you give them a nugget of wisdom, they haven’t thought about. You tell them something that they hadn’t reflected on. So I would do my preparation, I would ask the questions. But I would also leave behind what I had learned what I was seeing what I was seeing differently, walk in their shoes a little and try and understand what they’re going through. You know, I have a mentor Nigel Higgins, who’s the chairman of Barclays. And he tells me that when he finishes a session with me, he feels like he’s been the mentee. And I’ve been the mentor, because I’ve always bought some insight and wisdom, because it’s an investment of their time, you want to give them something you’re learning. So the curiosity, humility, the future-fit mindset, optimistic mindset, and bring some learnings into and follow their advice and tell them when you have done it, that it worked or didn’t or don’t follow their advice and tell them I reflected on it. And I didn’t think it was going to work for me. So close the loop with them. It’s little things like that, stay in touch, stay connected. It’s things like that, that help you to have a good mentoring relationship.

 

Ranjay Gulati

Can you think of a moment where a mentor really made a difference in your life? There have been so many mentors, you’ve had so but just pick a moment that was really a dramatic moment where “Wow, that mentor’s intervention really made a difference”?

 

Leena Nair

It’s a really good question. You know, I remember talking to Indra [former CEO of PepsiCo] and I was on this journey of considering moving from HR to putting my hat in the ring for a CEO role at Unilever and beyond. And I was in this moment, of course, it was a moment full of confidence and self-doubt both. And I remember having a brief conversation with Indra, ex-CEO of Pepsi and an incredible person. And I remember saying, “I don’t have this, I don’t have this, I don’t have this. I don’t have this. I don’t have this network capability. I don’t have that capability.” And she said, “Do you know what you bring? Like, can you please list out everything you bring?” Oh, yeah, I’ve been a global leader of a very large company understand scale size. I’ve run huge transformation programs. I’ve looked after 150,000 people, I have yet been on very big mergers and investments. So that was an important moment that stopped thinking about what I don’t bring and think about all the huge strengths that bring and then the language to myself changed after that.

 

And you know, one of my mentors when I was moving to Chanel said, Remember, you’re doing a quadruple jump. And I said, “What do you mean?” And he said, “You are changing sectors – public to private -, you’re changing from an Anglo-Saxon, Anglo-Dutch [heritage] to a French heritage, and you’re changing from HR to CEO. It’s like quadruple jump. Most people in the careers don’t do quadruple jump. So how are you thinking about each of these transitions? Don’t think about transition in general, think about each of these transitions and have a plan for it.” Which is great advice to say, ”Okay, I’ll be more intentional about thinking about transition along all of these dimensions.”

 

Ranjay Gulati 

So on that note, you know, after 30 years at Unilever, you made this big leap. And I remember talking to you as well, at that moment, what have been some of the more challenging aspects of transitioning from you making this quadruple jump? And what did you see as opportunity?

 

Leena Nair

That the jump is gonna stick.  You know, to be fair, it’s been an amazing couple of years and Chanel bits gone quick. Our brand is loved, I love Chanel brand, but it’s been fantastic to discover the company to discover Chanel people. And I must say it’s been everything I imagined it to be and more. It’s been everything I hoped for – and more. And it’s been everything I dreamt about and more. So I really feel happy and feel good and can see the impact that I can continue to have in this business.

 

Ranjay Gulati

In her long and successful career at Unilever, Leena Nair helped lead a global firm known for every-day goods like soap, soup, ice cream and skin cream. And there’s an acronym for these products: FMCG, or fast-moving consumer goods. When Leena took the top job at Chanel, it placed her in a new universe, one of luxury products: fine jewelry, fragrances, handbags and Haute Couture.

 

Leena Nair

The transition is a lot it’s been exciting to unlearn and relearn. Because FMCG and luxury are different than ends of the spectrum. FMCG is all about mental and physical availability be everywhere mass, and luxury is precious, rare. Not so available, not so accessible, not so visible. So it’s completely different. And FMCG is industrialization. Our factories, make billions of products. Here. It’s not like that yet, it’s about human creation. This jacket is handmade, it’s taken 200 hours to do this intricately. It takes 180 steps to make a bag. So it’s all handmade, it’s the other end. It’s expert craftsmanship. It’s valuing what we do with our hands. So it’s been an exciting journey for the last couple of years unlearning relearning, learning something new. Fascinating.

 

Ranjay Gulati

I hadn’t thought about that. But now that you said, it’s a very different rhythm, the product is different. The whole orientation towards understanding what you’re selling is completely different.

 

Leena Nair

So there’s been learning now coming to Chanel, for how do I see the future? You know, if you’ve been to the we’re near Exhibition in London, you see the story of Gabrielle Chanel. And here was a woman 110 years ago. At the time women didn’t have the world women couldn’t participate in the Olympics, there were hardly any visible signs of equality. And here was a woman, at that time, who redefined what women wore. Taking off of corsets, bringing fabrics that could help women move, that allowed people to ride a horse, ride a bike, challenging trousers, reinventing the little black dress, bringing convenience, movement into women’s clothes. And by transforming the way women wore clothes, she revolutionized the way women saw themselves and supported women to be and become whoever they wanted to be. It’s just absolutely fantastic to see it.

 

And to me, that is the inspiration. 100 years from now, I want people to say that what Chanel did today, what we – team Chanel – did today continues to inspire the world. So I would like Chanel to be a beacon of inspiration for everyone for the next 100 years. I know they’re lofty words, “beacon of inspiration,” “100 years,” but I really want to underline the spirit of inspiration that that brand gives people, women in particular will be and become whoever they want to be and become because of what Chanel means in their lives. That’s what I want to happen for the next 100 years. So if I distill it into “what does it mean to do that?” “To be a beacon of inspiration for the next 100 years” is three things. One is positive impact in the world. I’d like us to be exemplary at sustainability. I’d like us Chanel to lead the luxury sector and role model in social and environmental sustainability. This means, you know, investing in circularity restoring nature and climate, supporting the autonomy of human dignity and respect for everyone in our extended value chain beyond our walls. A lot of things, but I want us to be exemplary in the luxury sector. The other part of positive impact to the world is what we do with philanthropy and Fondation Chanel. We are one of the largest philanthropic organizations in the world working for women empowerment and girls, we set aside [$]100 million a year working with 238 partners across 57 organizations. And I really want to continue fueling that and having an impact for the 1 million women and girls we touched today, but the broader levels that we’re going to do.

 

The second thing to be a beacon of inspiration is, in the world of AI. I would like us at Chanel, to champion is human creators, human creation, human relationships. I told her everything is handmade, it’s human creation at its finest hours and hours of craftsmanship. This year, in fact, we welcomed King Charles the third and Queen coming out to “le 19M,” which is a place where we’ve housed all the artisans who works on things like pleating embroidery mill, no work skills that are being forgotten skills that are not being valued, we would really invest in that. And along with the prince’s Foundation, we are training up 1200 people a year and investing a lot of money in valuing these human creators and these human skills. So I want us to champion for that.

 

And I want us to champion for human relations, which comes naturally to me where I come from, but it’s about, you know, a boutique is a very important place where the relationship between the client and the boutique assistant is what cements the relationship with the client with our house with our brand. And I want us to value that relationship and not forget that it’s that deep, unique human bond that strengthens our company. And I want to continue the work on human relations when we think about our partners and suppliers. Because the way we work, we have relationships with our partners and supplies that go down to two, three, four generations because many times we are working with entrepreneurs who are creating embroidery and entrepreneurs who are working with fabric. So I want us to continue doing tha to build this relationship.

 

And the third thing is always being part of what’s next, which was our founder’s DNA. Gabrielle Chanel was always ahead of the curve, she was always engaging with everything that was a one God, which Chanel believe in, pushing the surprise, twisting everything having a little bit of dare. So we want to be part of what’s next. And we do that in many ways. And I’ll give you a couple of examples. We believe that artists know where the world is going. So we invest in films, dance, music, theater, game design, every form of creativity you can think of… Investing in the next generation of talent, because we believe they know where the world is going and working with them. We will learn where the world is going. And the other thing we do… We have an open innovation team where we invest in startups, incubators, innovation companies, thought leaders, academicians… We had an innovation festival two weeks ago where we exposed our top 300 leaders to everything from space exploration to water fabrics [inaudible]. So it’s really about saying we want to be obsessed with what’s coming. We want to be thinking of what’s coming, we want to always be there, you know, into the future, leaning into innovation. So those are the three things that I want us to do so that we stay a beacon of inspiration for the next 100 years.

 

Ranjay Gulati

Most business leaders concentrate much more on the future than looking to the past. But some great brands, like Chanel, use their rich corporate histories as a reference point for thought and action. Truly understanding a company’s past can help its leaders uncover opportunities…leveraging history to push the business forward. This is certainly Leena Nair’s way of leading Chanel.

 

Leena Nair

That’s exactly what I’m doing.

 

Ranjay Gulati

Yeah.

 

Leena Nair

It’s inspiration of our past to project it into the future.

 

Ranjay Gulati

You’re inspiring the next leaders of the world. Leena, I think you’re speaking to the “Leena” today: an eight-year-old, sitting in Kolhapur, and giving her a chance to say, “I could do that one day.”

 

Leena Nair

I hope that Ranjay I would feel very satisfied and delighted to have more women and little girls, especially all over the world, but in India, I definitely felt that year I was really overwhelmed when I got so many letters, emails, messages when I moved to Chanel.

 

Ranjay Gulati

Yeah. Leena, one word you’ve used every time that I want to just pick up on is “courage.” And you know, for me, I’ve come to realize courage is not the absence of fear, courage is taking action in the face of fear. Absolutely. What have you what are the practices and lead inspirational people that you have seen that have taught you the art of courage?

 

Leena Nair

Courage is so important, you know, one of the [pieces of] advice I always give young women is be unafraid to express your ambition, dream big, go for big things, it doesn’t matter if you don’t achieve them, at least going for the moon, and shows you land in the stars. And I don’t say this lightly, because I know how the fabric of our world is where men find it hard to be ambitious, but women particularly so. And if you walk into any corridors of power – it doesn’t matter: in corporate companies, in politics, wherever the corridors are filled with portraits of senior men who have been CEOs in the past have been chairman in the past to have been, you know, leading companies leading politics -, you do not see portraits of women. In a very insidious way, a lot of the messages you get every day as women as girls is that somehow leadership is not for you. I mean, you go into toy shops, you see dolls for the girls, LEGO toys or science experiments for the boys. It’s not your parents, your parents might be encouraging you family might be encouraging you. But the myriad of ways in which you wish your everyday that leadership is not for you. I mean, I was devastated to read about an experiment done in UK where children, as young as five, were asked to draw astronaut, business leader, nurse, teacher, all girls and boys drew men for all professions except teacher and nurse. Largely.

 

So that’s the world and therefore courage, to me, the first tip in courage is the ability to dream big, the ability to recognize you have ambition, and be unafraid to express it. Because you don’t have the muscles, you don’t have the skills, and you don’t have the support from society to be ambitious. So courage, to me first, has been unafraid to say what’s on your mind how far you want to go. You know, when I used to look at appraisals of senior leaders, hundreds of them, almost all the men would say “I’m so ready, I want to be CEO.” And all the women would say “I just want to do my current job well,” in their own aspiration paragraph. So you see this playing out all the time. So courage to me is express your ambition, be unafraid.

 

Courage, to me is about being able to have your point of view, deepen it be coherent in your heart, mind, body, soul, be purpose led, to be able to have the impact you want to have. And courage to me is about opening your mind to listen to diverse perspectives to really put people at the heart of everything you’re doing to listen to multiple voices. So you can be sure of your point of view, having been shaped by listening to more and more diverse perspectives. Does it come easy? It doesn’t. You’ve got to spend a lot of time on yourself. What are your assumptions, beliefs, triggers that are coming in the way of being courageous? You’ve got to make sure you’re taking feedback all the time from people, you know. Talk to people find out what you’re doing well. What’s landing? What’s not? have that sense of humility in everything you do. How can I be better? You know, one of my favorite lines is “My best is yet to come.” Because I really feel I’m not a finished product. I have a million miles to go. I have so much to grow in so many dimensions to better in. To keep that going.

 

Ranjay Gulati

Leena Nair says that one agonizing life experience that now gives her courage was being trapped in the Taj Hotel in Mumbai in 2008 during a terrorist attack. In a siege that lasted more than two days, gunmen murdered hostages and set fire to the landmark building.

 

Leena Nair

And when you have faced death, when you’ve been through something life changing, when you’ve been given a second chance at life, you do go through saying do I really want to waste my time saying things I don’t believe in? Do I really want to waste my time doing things that I don’t think are gonna have an impact? And the answer is pretty straightforward. No, I want to use my life meaningfully, purposefully do the things that are meaningful to me make the impact I want to make. Because this is precious, the chance I have to make a difference that I’ve got is precious. So it’s always that that is courage.

 

Ranjay Gulati

Wow. And Leena, just to clarify, I want people to understand, in 2011 during the terrorist attacks in Mumbai, you and your husband were in the Taj Hotel, where the Unilever global event was happening welcoming the new CEO. Yes, and the departure of the old CEO and you guys were locked into a ballroom the whole night. So that was a scary moment to remind you that my last question for you Leena is as you would look back one day, ou feel you’re ready to hang up your boots? What would you hope is your legacy as a leader? As a leader? What do you hope that you will have accomplished, that others may learn from in their journey as they embark on becoming a leader?

 

Leena Nair  30:16

For my brand, my company, my hope would be that we are a beacon of inspiration as I’m dreaming with you today for the next 100 years. And that would continue that would be the biggest legacy I would be proud of. I know the world at large seems a very lofty word. But I would love to believe that I’ve played my role in showing that you can be a leader who has empathy, who has kindness, who has benevolence. It’ll have many role models of leaders, having many other qualities, but there are not enough who say people are the most important thing to me, I want to listen to diverse voices, I want to put people front and center. I want to value humanity, I want to value human relationship. I want humanity to be important. When did you [last] praise someone, Ranjay, for being kind to each other? I mean, we praise people for seeing the future, [for] being disruptive in innovation, for generating a billion dollars of whatever it is, or having market capitalization, but what if we praised leaders for being kind for bringing humanity to the workplace. And I hope the legacy I leave behind will be that human beings are important than being people centered makes a difference, that humanity is all we’ve got. And that’s how we connect with each other. And that is widely important in leadership. And let’s not ever forget that.

 

Ranjay Gulati

One of the perennial questions that Leena Nair and other women business leaders get is how they manage work life balance. Can a woman have a family and a high powered career? Can she have it all? Frankly, it’s a question that should be asked of anyone in a leadership position.

 

Leena Nair

Ranjay, it is so so important to have this conversation because there’s not enough role models. I remember going to Davos and this panel discussion and there’d be three men [and] me and the men would get all these questions on, “How’s the economy doing? And what do you think about the geopolitical situation?” And I would get a question from the audience, which was, “How is your work life balance? How do you make this all work? Who looks after your children?” And I used to get a bit annoyed? So why do they ask all these beautiful, wonderful, intellectually challenging questions to the men around me? And I get all these, “How did you balance your work life? How do you manage your children?,” till one of my friends made me realize that there’s so few role models, people are not asking out of any desire to trip me up, they’re asking because they really don’t know, they don’t see enough role models. And that made me a lot more empathetic and sympathetic to these questions. And since then, I’ve never hesitated to talk about my life, my family, how hard it is, how easy it is, how difficult it is. And what I want to encourage women, in addition to being unafraid to express their ambition, which I spoke about, because if they can’t even express to themselves that they’d like to be a CEO, they’d like to be head of a function, they’d like to be a political leader, they can’t express it to themselves, or to people that care about or their bosses, how will it ever become a reality? So that’s that.

 

The second is build a network of people who can support you, I’ve been so fortunate and having family friends have supported me. The day I have an important meeting is the day my son will have a temperature in the morning. And that’s exactly the time your husband’s traveling or something like that, you know, you can call a friend and say, “Hey, can you step in for three hours? I really need to do this meeting.” You’ve got to build that network of family and friends. Behind every successful man that definitely is maybe a couple of women, a woman or two mother, daughter, sister, whatever. Behind the successful woman, I can assure you, there’s a network of men and women, more likely a lot of women who have leaned in to help and be there. So I would say please make that work.

 

You know, I would advise women to go for what you think is right, forget all the noise. You want to have a doll, fine, have a doll. I mean, I have my father staying with me and my father has dementia and job which you know, it’s a blessing to have him with us. But it’s also hard to see him deteriorate. And I can get through because my husband supporting me. And my sister was a teacher decided to retire early. So she could fly into London from the US as many times as I needed when I was traveling to be there for my father. So you must invest in this network of family and friends, get them on-boarded into what you’re trying to do, what you’re trying to create. And ask for help to be able to get through wearing all these hats and being successful at what you do.

 

But I would encourage women, forget all the noise. Ask yourself, “what do you want?” and if that is about doing something in the world, having a voice in the world. Being, doing. I would encourage you to find a way to have it all. Whatever that “have it all” means to you, it might not be what the traditional definition of “have it all” is what it means to you. And the only thing I can say around you once more, I must say this. There are so few women leaders in the world, the percentage of women leading companies, women CEOs [is] still small, getting a little better, but still small. Political leaders still small climate negotiators, climate Leadership, small numbers. We need more women leaders in the world in every aspect, in politics and business and climate, in everything that’s important for this world. Therefore, I would urge women to find a way to be ambitious and try and make this work. Not believing this is all easy. But believing that with the right level of curiosity, humility, asking for help, having mentors, having networks, you can do it and I will be there to cheerlead every woman who needs me, on the way, no, “lift as you climb” each other. Because that’s important. We can help each other share our stories, and then move forward together.

 

Ranjay Gulati

Leena Nair is the global CEO of Chanel. For more of my conversations with leaders in the business world navigating the 21st century business environment, visit my Deep Purpose website. While you’re there, you can also find out about my book titled Deep Purpose. Companies that are serious about establishing and working towards a deep purpose find that it delivers game-changing results for the workers, the shareholders and the larger society, so visit with me at deeppurpose.net.

 

This podcast is produced by David Shin and Stephen Smith with help from Craig McDonald and Jennifer Daniels. The theme music is by Gary Meister.

 

I’m Ranjay Gulati. Thanks for listening.

 

[1] https://www.unilever.com/our-company/at-a-glance/