7 lessen van Unilever-veteraan Jan Zijderveld

What a 30-year international career at Unilever has taught me

  • Blog
  • 3 December 2017
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Jan Zijderveld is President Europe en Member of Unilever Executive Team. Op 1 januari wordt hij opgevolgd. Zijderveld heeft na 30 jaar Unilever besloten dat hij toe is aan een nieuw hoofdstuk in zijn carrière. Hij oriënteert zich op het moment op de mogelijkheden. 

Onderstaand Engelstalig stuk publiceerde hij eind november op Linkedin. Wij kregen Zijdervelds toestemming om zijn business- en levenslessen te delen.

As my days with Unilever draw to a close, three decades with the company that took me on a journey from being a young management trainee in New Zealand to becoming a member of the Unilever Executive Team and President of the 13 billion euro European business, the company’s largest cluster – has been nothing short of amazing.

I was one of the youngest people to join Unilever’s Leadership Executive but it was the impact we made as a business with our great brands to improve people’s lives that inspired me. And it was doing this with an amazing set of people with an entrepreneurial spirit that gave me the energy and motivation to race to work every morning.

That real sense of pride emanating from everybody I got to know – from the lady at the reception to the general manager, from the office to the shop floor and consumer homes – this has made it a truly inspiring and rewarding experience. Here’s what I’ve learned along the way.

1. Make sure you love what you do

When I joined Unilever New Zealand straight after university my plan was simple – stay for a few years to learn the ropes, then build my own business. But my love of the company and the FMCG industry quickly took hold and that was that!

Here I am today, 30 years later, having enjoyed the most fulfilling and exhilarating Unilever career I could ever have hoped for. One of the most valuable things I’ve learned is that you have to love what you’re doing or you won’t get good at it. You cannot have true passion for something if you don’t believe in it.

My passion for business, people and making an impact is what drives me. Being able to do this every single day in a company that has such a strong sense of purpose and is grounded in clear values has been both enriching and rewarding.

Taking the European leadership team on a trip

2. Start each job with your leaving speech and the end goal in sight

My Unilever career has taken me across three continents and seven countries, including seven years as President of Unilever’s largest cluster – Europe. Some of the highlights in that time included turning around the Unilever Nordics ice cream business, taking the Arabian business from good to great and driving some of the biggest years of growth in South East Asia.

I started each new challenge knowing where I wanted to go, a clear end in mind. You have to zoom out to see the big picture and the biggest opportunities. Next you identify the biggest levers of change, the game changers in the portfolio, capabilities and talent, towards a stretching and ambitious end goal.

Then zoom in to get the details right on the important big levers. Many people are detail oriented but it’s getting the details around the big things right that makes the difference – that’s where the magic is. “Chase the elephant, not all the rabbits in the field”.

Visiting a store in Indonesia

3. Surround yourself with the right people– look for the spark and co-create something special

One of the most enjoyable aspects of my Unilever career has been the opportunity to meet and work with so many great people. Ultimately, it’s the people who define the business and that is one of the most special things about Unilever – the unique blend of great talent it continues to attract and develop.

It’s a real privilege to be able to say that I have never met somebody I didn’t like in the company. Unilever’s timeless values of decency, responsibility and pioneering remain at the heart of the business and that is what unites us. I have started every new challenge with a new team of people – those who were already on the ground.

Success lies in agreeing an ambitious new destination and then co-creating a breakout plan together. Help people to see the big picture, raising the bar and the level of ambition. Get everyone involved to co-create and own the plan and continuously sharpen and fine tune it.

Discovering the real Italian ice cream experience

Appointing the right people for the jobs to be done and build a high performance team with speed, intensity, passion and good dose of fun and humility are some of the core requirements of a leader. I always look for that spark and character in our talent – somebody who wants to make a difference and change the world, because maybe they will...

It takes ambition, energy and courage to achieve extraordinary things and those attributes can come from anyone. The opportunity to really achieve something special is open to every person who believes in the end goal and decides to go after it.

4. Nail your strategy, be courageous and energize your people

To be able to start every new challenge with the end goal and work backwards, you need a strategy!

Even now the big strategies I have driven over the years and the results that ensued remain fresh in my mind. It’s not always easy, as change and transformation is often hard and sometimes painful, but the right combination of reflection and conviction, powered by perseverance in what you believe in pays off. When we initially set out to create the European Marketing and Innovation hub in Rotterdam, we had to convince many people about the vision.

It was a tough decision as it meant moving 700 jobs scattered across Europe to one central location in the Netherlands, but it has worked. The Rotterdam office is now a vibrant and creative hub that is home to 68 different nationalities, 60 percent of whom are female and with an average age of 30 years. It has become a real end-to-end entrepreneurial marketing and sales powerhouse that drives faster and better innovations with scale that the consumer, “The Boss”, loves.

It’s so important to keep people energized and excited by the strategy, as it needs to always live and be sharpened over time. Keeping that ability to zoom in and zoom out when you need to and always keep the lines of communication open so you take people on the journey with you.

Never forget that everybody contributes to the success – from the most junior to the most senior - and be sure to acknowledge that. Everyone has a role to play. Get to know them all and recognise the pride they take in the job.

Regular communication is critical. This is why we always do our monthly townhalls, talent lunches and weekly market visits.

Take the opportunity to interact and communicate progress on the strategy in an honest and uplifting way as often as you can. And above all get out of the office as much as possible. Be in the markets with consumers, customers and our people. The answers are hardly ever found in the office.

5. Keep the hunger and stay curious - Lead or Lose

“Be happy but never satisfied” – is one of my favourite catch phrases. And anybody who has worked with me knows how often I use it! I have a real passion for perfect execution of the important stuff.

I like to make things better and most importantly of all, I really enjoy instilling that same sense of curiosity and ambition in others. Try to get a little bit better every day.

Do this for 365 days and it makes a big difference over time. Unilever’s unique sense of purpose is another passion point. The values the company was founded on in the last century still hold true and guide us today.

Our purpose is to improve consumers’ lives with sustainable products that enhance their health and wellbeing a little bit every day. Doing this even better, with an innovative spirit, a sense of speed and urgency and an entrepreneurial way of working is the magic formula.

6. Choose your bosses and sponsors wisely but don’t forget to pay it back

I have been very fortunate to have had some great mentors along the way.

It never ceases to amaze me how just a few people can make a huge difference in your life. During my very first job with Unilever New Zealand, a senior manager there who was also Dutch happened to spot my name and took an interest. He helped me and encouraged me to start on my very rich and exciting international career I have enjoyed.

Everyone needs to define their own success by deciding what they want out of life. You control your own destiny and remember there is not one formula. Luck has a certain amount to do with it but there is no substitution for hard work and a hunger to learn and make a difference.

I have been offered roles based on the reputation I earned and the results I achieved in the last job. Seek out people you respect to help you and guide you. When you succeed, don’t forget to help others on their way. Honour your mentors, be grateful to them, and become a sponsor and mentor to others yourself.

7. Make family and friends a priority

Thirty years with Unilever has been a wonderful experience not just for me but for our whole family.

Moving on is not always easy but my wife Susan and I always prioritised making sure our two children enjoyed it by immediately highlighting some of the most fun and exciting things about the new country.

Every country has so many different and enjoyable things to offer and we lived in some amazing places – the food, scenery and people of Italy, ice skating in Sweden, living on the canals in the Netherlands or enjoying the warm sea and desserts in the UAE or the energy, ambition and warmth of the people in Asia.

Cycling through the city of Beijin with my wife Susan and son Sam

Socialising with other families has been a great way to form bonds with new people both inside and outside the office. We have made some fantastic friends for life along the way. I am grateful for all of it and want to thank each and every person who has made it such a wonderful experience. Those faithful friendships with so many friends and families is one of the things I will treasure most.

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