Unilever's Sue Garrard: an agent of radical change

Sue Garrard, Unilever's comms supremo, is also in charge of implementing the firm's revolutionary Sustainable Living Plan - but as a woman in a senior position her "power of purpose" is creating ripples far beyond her immediate sphere.

Sue Garrard "the worst thing a woman could do is to turn into a female-man"
Sue Garrard "the worst thing a woman could do is to turn into a female-man"

When Unilever launched its audacious new green business strategy in 2010, few people had any idea of its implications and ramifications. The goals set out in the ‘Sustainable Living Plan’ were both ambitious and disruptive: to double the size of the business, to reduce its environmental footprint and to ­increase its positive social impact.

Recognising that such profound change was a comms issue as much as anything else, last year sustainability was put under the remit of the comms function. Now as senior vice-president at Unilever for sustainable business and comms, Sue Garrard is responsible not only for global communication, but also for embedding the sustainable business programme across the organisation. It seems that Unilever is not only pioneering a new business model; it is also changing the face of PR.

"We want the whole company to own the plan. This is a huge change programme that needs to be infused gradually into the business. It means conquering hearts and minds as much as building a business case, so you need to understand the soft levers of change and comms people are brilliant at it," explains Garrard. "We also have knowledge of the issues, which comes from talking at a very granular level about them, and we drive the internal narrative. It has been a natural fit to bring these two roles together."

Marrying growth and sustainability was initially the vision of CEO Paul Polman. When he took the helm of the company in 2009, he recognised the risks of running a business in the food, home and personal care sectors in a world of finite resources, an expanding population and growing inequalities. But he also saw the market opportunities.

Hence the Sustainable Living Plan. The strategy was designed to help more than a billion people improve health and wellbeing through hygiene and high quality nutrition, halve the environmental impacts of sourcing, making and using products, and enhance the livelihoods of millions, promoting fairness and new opportunities throughout the supply chain.

A woman’s job
It is as profound a change in the way business works and the way it engages with society as we are likely to witness this side of the revolution. And a woman seems the perfect fit for the job. Several studies have emphasised the role of women as agents of change. A study of Fortune 500 companies, for example, found that women are more likely to be promoted to CEO at times of crisis or radical change.

Another survey by the Pew Research Center in the US found that in business, women are considered better than men when it comes to being honest and ethical. Garrard is one of the few women in senior corporate positions (just 19.5 per cent of senior roles across the top City employers are held by women, according to the Financial Times) and she is quite relaxed about it. She never felt that being a woman was a complication: "In fact, because we bring fresh perspectives, often men who have not worked with many senior women before find it quite stimulating." She is convinced that "the complementary roles that senior women play within organisations are incredibly powerful".

So why is it so difficult for women to climb to ­senior roles? In her view the explanation is to be found in history and in the nature of the work: "It takes a lot out of personal life. In fact, it is a life decision, not just a career decision, and the reality is, no matter how much anybody wants equality, only women can be mothers." She adds: "I could not have children. I have no idea if I would have been doing this job if I had kids, but I know that many women do not have my flexibility on how to spend their time."

Reinforcing childcare and support services would help, but there is another caveat: "Women are keen to do everything. We care too much to compromise and too little about some of the trappings. We spread ourselves too thin and this is a recipe for feeling like a failure."

Among its sustainability targets, Unilever wants "to build a gender-balanced organisation with a focus on management". By the end of 2014, the percentage of women at senior and executive level was 20 per cent, compared with 15 per cent in 2012. Five out of 14 board members and 43 per cent of employees at manager level or above are women. "In most cases," Garrard explains, "bringing women to the top means building from the talent base as hiring from outside can be risky. What I would hate as a woman, however, is preferential treatment, because that means hiring the wrong person who will not perform well and will take the cause backwards rather than forwards."

She is also conscious of the need for role models as "the worst thing a woman could do is to turn into a female-man".

Garrard is undoubtedly an important pivot in Unilever’s transformation. She joined the comp­any in 2011 after moving between the private and public sectors. Educated at Malvern St James girls’ college in Worcestershire, she started off in the civil service before joining advertising agencies Young & Rubicam, Abbott Mead Vickers and PR agency Fishburn Hedges. Later she became director general for marketing, comms and customer strategy at the Department for Work and Pensions.

Her first task at Unilever was to create a single global comms function aligned with the company objectives. "The priority was to think how to best support the business and what the needs were across all markets," she says. "A second layer of change was to take a campaigning mentality and drive big spikes of activity internally across the organisation at the same time as externally. We campaign strongly on issues such as deforestation and universal access to hygiene and sanitation."

Employees on board
Among the core disciplines covered globally, a fundamental one is employee engagement, a function that Garrard resolutely will not call internal comms. "That’s the classic old-style, Big Brother approach, when we actually try to create an internal movement," she argues.

Public affairs, media relations and issues handling are the other key areas allowing Unilever to reach out to governments, non-governmental org­anisations, academics, journalists and commentators. The novelty is that the knowledge of opinion formers is brought into the organisation, with events to discuss long-term issues key to the business. "It was one of our big experiments; we built it from nothing," Garrard explains. "It is about driving business outcomes but done in a campaigning way and it is powerful because it activates people."

Garrard’s team operates alongside a unit pushing the advocacy agenda internationally, especially given the landmark decisions expected this year (the UN Sustainable Development Goals to replace the Millennium Development Goals and the agreement to succeed the Kyoto Protocol).

Yet another key area deals with incorporating sustainability in Unilever’s portfolio of more than 400 brands, including Persil, Dove, Knorr, Lipton and Ben & Jerry’s. "We are asking 8,000 marketers how to connect with consumers in a world that is changing," she adds. "Clearly our role is not to tell people what they ought to do, but we can use the relationship with our brands to help them consume in a more sustainable way. For example, we sell a fabric conditioner in third world countries where women wash by hand using large quantities of water. That conditioner reduces by two-thirds the volume of water they need. We do not tell them to buy it because it is better for the environment, but because they have to carry less water from the nearest well."

All brands are going through a process of incorporating the sustainability message: "It means creating new skills, identifying the brands to lead with and the individuals or teams with the energy and passion to experiment." This is new and if the message will filter through, the potential will be huge.

"Every day two billion people use one of our products. If we get to a point where 70 to 80 per cent of our consumer brands feature some sustainability benefit, it will mean starting to shift the motivation of a large portion of the global population," she says.

Existential problems
Building an advocacy team, creating an internal movement and running issue-based campaigns sound like the approach of an NGO rather than a big business. It is a point Garrard half concedes. "Our agenda in many cases is in tune with NGOs," she says, "but the skillset and the ability to make things happen is at a different order of magnitude."

There is an element of activism in the ambition to create ‘followership’ among other companies. This is pursued with systematic participation in interest groups, think-tanks and international events. "When we talk about our vision, we hope that others will join us. Unless you believe every scientist in the world is wrong about global warming, we have a serious existential problem that most businesses are not planning for. The nature of our progressive position means we look quite ­different from most of the traditional big corporates and that is because we are actively ­trying to plan for the future," she says.

According to Garrard, the markets are starting to grasp such concepts and this is manifesting itself in the automotive industry, where Tesla, a relatively small manufacturer of electric cars, has now almost half of the market capitalisation of a giant like General Motors.

As for Unilever, trust is growing among long-term institutional investors, like pension funds, while some shareholders are admittedly still hard to convince and the pressure to deliver is high. In 2014, sales grew by 2.9 per cent, lower than expec­ted, and no major improvement is expected for 2015. But the rationale is that sustainability goals do not fit with business short-termism and that is why in 2011 the company stopped issuing quarterly profit reports and guidance to investors, providing instead only trading statements.

"The most difficult aspect of this programme," Garrard says, "is that there is no roadmap or previous experience to draw from. It is uncharted territory and the reality is that you have to do it for a while before finding out what works and repeat it. But especially at difficult times, like a global recession, people tend to revert to safe behaviours. Part of my solution has been to structure how we capture our business case. Equally important is that our leaders feel a sense of passion as for something you love, the risk appetite is on a different level. And understanding how to light a fire is again what comms people are fantastic at."

The power of purpose
The Sustainable Living Plan is making ‘corporate social responsibility’ an obsolete concept; it is writing a new chapter in the industry lobby on issues such as climate change; it is transforming relations with investors, suppliers and consumers. But another area where the change is glaring is the attraction of talent. Unilever now receives two million applications a year, an amount that doubled in the past five years. In 2014, LinkedIn ranked the company third among the most sought-after employers in the world after Google and Apple.

"One of the legacies of the Sustainable Living Plan will be the type and the calibre of people it has attracted," comments Garrard. "They seek a meaning in their job. In our broken societies, and especially with the impact of the recession, many people tend to leave their values at the door of the office and this disconnects them from a sense of purpose. If you can release the passion, however, the power is extraordinary and for an organisation with 174,000 people in 190 countries this is a phenomenal asset. I find it really fascinating how few companies have yet understood the power of purpose."

This sense of integrity has been a thread throughout her career, Garrard says. She attributes her value system to growing up with parents as members of the Salvation Army, despite "not being a deeply religious person", and to the professionals encountered along her path: "I realised quite early that certain businesses believe their job is to make money and others believe they can do a certain thing and, if they do it well, the money will follow."

And back to the sense of purpose, the legacy she hopes to leave with her team – and her encouragement to women – is to keep true to themselves.

She is confident that this is the way to advance and things are progressing, although it takes time and patience. But will there ever be balance at the top? "Probably not in my lifetime," is her answer.

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