Interview: Ritva Sotamaa, chief legal officer, Unilever

Ritva Sotamaa tells us about the strategic benefits of diversity and how this plays out in the legal team.

Our strategy is really driven by both internal and external pressures. The big focus is obviously on the fact that we want to retain the best people out there. I think it is paying off as we are ranked the most sought-after FMCG [fast-moving consumer goods] employer in the world and the third most sought-after employer across all sectors for the second year running, according to a survey by LinkedIn. I think our focus on inclusivity is actually key in retaining hires.

We have a very strong commitment to gender through our ‘Gender Balance Plan’. Women represent half of the world’s population and talent pool. Two billion people use our products every day but women are our main consumers as the majority of the buying decisions are made by women. It is business sense to make sure we reflect that.

We’re committed to extending our principles beyond just our company and out into our value chain. This includes the advancement of women’s rights and economic inclusion as well as improving safety for women and girls in the communities in which we operate. There are a number of examples: Project Shakti, our programme in India, is a door-to-door selling operation which creates microenterprise opportunities for women, particularly in rural communities. These women are known as ‘Shakti ammas’. Shakti offers these women (and Unilever) low risk and high returns. It is a unique win-win initiative that catalyses rural affluence while benefitting our business. We have 70,000 Shakti ammas in rural India who benefit through higher incomes – the majority earn more than 1,000 rupees a month – while we benefit by increasing our sales in remote, hard-to-reach communities.

Unilever’s legal function displays diversity in all levels of the organisation. We are not a big legal team, but we are one that is present in all aspects of the business and quite visible, and therefore can, in many ways, set an example in Unilever. We have a very gender diverse team: of our managers, 54% are women. We are in 50 countries and are culturally diverse. In my leadership team, I have ten different nationalities and 47% of our leadership team is female.

The company has spoken about ‘gender proofing’ the organisation. In the legal department, we really make sure we promote diversity from the top. It gives us a great platform. We track our metrics and how we do quite carefully throughout the company. There are clear metrics that we follow and we do make sure we have continuous improvement.

In legal, we benefit from the different platforms that Unilever offers in terms of learning and placing continuous importance on career building. We send our employees at different levels to different types of programmes that Unilever offers, depending on where they are in their careers. We now also have our own learning academy specific to legal. That covers six key aspects specific to our legal agenda, such as being part of the business, simplifying problem solving, collaboration, external provider partnerships, maximising technology and effective external engagement.

What is also key is the whole agility element in legal. We are completely flexible in providing lawyers with the opportunity to work where it makes sense for them. Most people are part in the office and part at home. We mostly don’t have fixed desks, to allow for that agility.

In addition, we push mentoring and buddying relationships. Mentors don’t need to come from the legal function; they can come from the rest of the business. That decision is reached via a discussion with the individual in question. When we have those discussions, it is a question of: what is it that you as an individual want to develop, and to whom would it be most beneficial?

The company-wide initiative on gender addresses the balance between qualitative and quantitative goals. We want gender balance, and to achieve that you have to have some quantitative metrics and goals and something that is measurable. We believe in that, and have some detailed analyses across the company, including measures on geography and function, so that we can identify the hotspots for ourselves. But you also have to balance this with quality – the issue of diversity and inclusion would turn against itself if you didn’t focus on the merit side. So that’s where balancing the qualitative and quantitative sides, and building an inclusive culture where people thrive, comes in. There really needs to be a balance of both aspects.

Diversity feeds itself, and in that regard you need to make less of a conscious effort as time goes on. But every geography is different. In some geographies it is more challenging to get diverse talent on the board or in leadership. I believe that whoever is best positioned to win the role should win the role, but there is a lot you can do to drive diversity, and having diverse slates is a key starting position, as is making sure you have a good pipeline. Women may be less inclined to put themselves forward for promotions and more shy to try; therefore you need to make sure you encourage women, particularly in leadership.

Getting women and diverse candidates into leadership takes a bit of will, in legal and everywhere. Legal is ahead of the company as a whole in terms of numbers of women and women in leadership. We benefit from the various learning platforms, including our own. We have two developmental conversations a year with our team members to understand their minds in terms of their lives, their careers and where they are going.

It’s embracing the people that makes the difference. As a leader, you have to know your team and the capabilities out there. You have to know people well enough to know where the talent is, so in many ways it really needs to be a holistic approach.

Our INSEAD programme is significant in developing women across Unilever for leadership. We partner with INSEAD on the INSEAD-Unilever Four Acres Consortium: Women’s Leadership Development Programme. The three-day programme, which is delivered in the the UK and Singapore, enhances the skills of women executives. The fact that it’s a three-day programme where you work with other women who are in leadership roles, or aspiring to leadership roles, is great for building networks and helping synergies across departments. To date, 92 senior women have gone through this programme.

Practical tips to develop diverse leadership

Think laterally from the start

One of the issues many employers face is that we are not even thinking of some people who would be good for the job. When planning a more diverse organisation, for every role or promotion, you need to make yourself think about a more diverse slate from the start.

Take a chance

Accepting differences and having diversity of mind is a prerequisite for any well-performing team. Women are not as inclined to put themselves forward, and therefore managers need to take a chance.

Grow possibilities

When you have people on board, it is important to demonstrate support and that you have the will to help the person develop. It is always important to empower people to develop their jobs, to give them enough space to create their roles and grow their possibilities.

Always encourage, but tee up for success

There are women who are very ambitious, but I have known several people who I have asked to take a position and who needed to be persuaded to consider it. When they think about it, they realise they are up to it, and there is a kind of awakening. As a manager, you have to be encouraging and open up opportunities and think about who would shine in what kind of position. While you needn’t stretch people beyond their comfort zones, you do need to make sure you tee people up to success in what they do. I would also do this for men, but given some of the general issues with women embracing leadership you may need to be more encouraging there.

Be agile

Agile working is embraced by both men and women in Unilever, especially the younger generation. It’s really a case of focusing on outcomes not hours. That can really change the way you think about success and leadership.