Senior leader interview: Julia Fentem, Vice President SEAC

Julia is Head of Unilever’s Safety & Environmental Assurance Centre (SEAC) and has spanned a career within Unilever since 1998. With an academic background in biochemistry and a PhD in toxicology, she has also played a key role in shaping the R&D UFLP and so read about her career so far, tips for being successful on the scheme and maintaining that vital work-life balance:

Could you just give a brief overview of your Unilever career so far, highlighting any major career milestones?

I joined Unilever in 1998, where prior to that I was working for the European Commission out in Italy and prior to that I worked for a scientific animal welfare NGO in Nottingham and prior to that I was doing my PhD. There is a common theme throughout my career, which is actually a scientific leadership role in the development and application of non-animal approaches for assessing product safety. That was why I joined Unilever, since we are probably the leading company in terms of our scientific research into ‘nex gen’ safety assessment (non-animal) approaches (see: So the first role I had was to lead the external research program that Unilever was doing at the time in that area. After a couple of years, I also took on leading the safety contributions to a big project we were doing with the Hair category with one of the North American teams. After that, there was a big organisational change and I was asked to lead the Human Safety department. Then there was more change in SEAC in the early 2000’s and so I took on leadership of increasingly larger and more diverse groups. I was appointed VP of SEAC’s applied science and technology group in 2001, and in 2007 I became Head of SEAC – which I must say is probably my ‘dream job’ (on a good day!).

Something I’ve become increasingly aware of in my first R&D UFLP placement is the number of outstanding scientists with highly academic backgrounds up to PhD and post-doctorate level. Do you feel a PhD is necessary within R&D to reach such a high leadership position?

Not always, though I think there are certain aspects in the safety area, for example when we are interacting with government authorities and leading academics, when it probably helps. If I look across SEAC’s leadership team then there is a mix; whilst it depends on the specific role, I think experience and ‘track record’ are more important. A PhD is probably a good training experience for those wanting to stay in research and build their careers. I think on the grad program we end up with more of a mix since it is aimed at those scientists who want to play a broader, more general, role in leading design projects, etc.

Would you say there has been one stand out role that has been particularly challenging and stretching but in turn had a big impact on your career development?

I think I learnt most (a steep learning curve) leading the safety program for the Hair project. I was working with a US Marketing lead and so it was a very good learning experience around how R&D and the safety agenda has to fit with the business case and consumer needs. It was also very complex from a technical perspective, both from the research side and most definitely from the safety side. At one point in time, we had around 40 people with different expertise in safety working on aspects of the project. I also learnt how to simplify technical communications when collaborating with Marketing and other business partners.

As a Vice President dealing with cross-category research and development, you must continually see innovations being brought to the consumer. Are there any Unilever innovations that have particularly amazed you at the capability of science within the consumer goods industry?

As a scientist sometimes I am more excited about the things consumers wouldn’t necessarily think about first, particularly with the role that new and better technology plays in our products. So if you look across our Laundry products, I am of an age that when I was growing up big boxes of powder were the new innovation. You can see how the technology continues to change and with it comes more consumer choice (e.g. concentrated liquids, single dose tablets) and ‘built in’ environmental sustainability considerations (less energy & water use). Fragrance technology plays a big role as well, especially when we think about why we like particular products – in my case Persil as much for the smell as the performance attributes (‘washes whiter’ was the advertising premise when I was young).

Julia Fentem- persil

I’m aware that you have been a R&D UFLP Senior Sponsor for several years and have also had graduates within your department. With your extensive expertise, what do you believe makes a successful UFLP grad and do you look out for any specific characteristics when recruiting?

If I look across the community of UFLPs and ones that I know quite well, there is something around their interest and understanding of the business as a whole, and how things fit together in a broader societal needs context (e.g. the Unilever Sustainable Living Plan), that defines those who will have strong impact. For R&D UFLPs, the benefits of placement opportunities in Marketing or Supply Chain, and gaining experience of cross-function collaboration, are paramount. Sometimes it is just about having the confidence to get out there and have discussions with others on the topics that matter, benefitting from others’ experiences and expertise. Making the most of the networks that are established within the UFLP community is also extremely important.

Unilever is a huge organisation and the opportunities within the scheme really are endless, are there any roles, functions, departments or categories that you feel UFLPs would particularly benefit from?

I think the broader the experience within the first 2-3 years, the better. So my personal view would be to at least experience a couple of categories, alongside going into another function, and definitely move around the R&D sites. I think those future leaders that can make connections across categories early in their careers, understanding the synergies and identifying potential cross-category applications of new technologies, will reap benefits career-wise. There aren’t too many times within your Unilever career where you get to see such breadth over a short period of time.

I recently attended a UFLP congress event where there was a significant focus on defining leadership and determining what makes a great leader. When thinking about leadership, is there anyone you particularly aspire to be like?

I’m of the opinion that you tend to pick up aspects from many different individuals that you work alongside or admire from a distance (also outside of work). I have seen strengths of character, principles and values in others in particular situations, and thought I would like to be able to lead in that way in similar circumstances. I am a bit of an ‘activist’ in nature, always looking to improve on the ‘status quo’ and never settle for ‘good enough’. I played a lot of competitive sport and many of the attributes I have developed through playing and coaching translate well into building high performing teams in a work environment. Flexibility and adaptability are important. I think we all develop and shape our own leadership attributes, depending on what is important to us and our own natural styles & experiences. A diverse and inclusive environment enables us to do this, and be confident and comfortable being ourselves and leading in our own way. Personally, I think building & maintaining confidence, self awareness and personal integrity are really important – and one of the leaders I most respect is Sir Clive Woodward who takes great credit, “off-the-pitch”, for England winning the rugby world cup in 2003. However, I know my own natural preference is to lead from “on-the-pitch” and be part of the playing team, when it is sometimes easier to motivate and inspire those around you in real time.

Unilever’s Compass Strategy for sustainable living puts a huge emphasis on increasing our positive social impact: this includes improving the health and well-being of Unilever employees. In such a senior position holding a high level of responsibility, how do you manage to maintain a decent work-life balance and are you able to switch off from work?

Compass strategy
Unilever Compass Strategy

In my current position I am available 24/7 for any big safety incident and my phone is never off – in the past I have spent my New Year’s Eve discussing how best to handle a particular safety situation. But, personally I don’t have any real concerns about my work-life balance – the SEAC team have a ‘work hard, play hard’ mentality and we bring fun and social activities (e.g. raising funds for various charitable causes) into the workplace. I can usually make the space for the things I want to do as well as the things I have to do. I enjoy my job and I switch off by spending time doing outdoor activities and watching sport, and I travel far less these days – connecting with others using IT gives me all that time back that I would otherwise have lost waiting in airports. I have a view that the ‘right balance’ is different for different people, and also differs depending on our personal circumstances and with the phase of our lives and changing responsibilities. As leaders I think it is important that we understand & support individuals’ needs and specific pressures, through agile working and other solutions.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *