Thoughts on the Grad Scheme from a Passionate Amateur Runner

18 months in the Unilever Future Leaders Programme

Supply Chain UFLP

Many times I have been asked to share my opinions on the Unilever Future Leaders Programme (UFLP). It is always difficult to explain to your friends exactly what your feelings are while you go from placement to placement, starting new roles, exploring new cities and taking up new hobbies.

Today, after completing my first marathon, and having started my 4th placement within the scheme, I know how to do it.

Last may I entered the ballot for the London Marathon for the first time, I knew the chances of getting a space were extremely slim, but I really wanted to get out of my comfort zone. I did like doing Parkrun…but never past the 21.2km mark!

Anyway, I won the ballot.

Similarly, thanks to my Industrial Placement manager who pushed for my personal development, I took on the challenge of a graduate scheme with Unilever.

There I was in September 2015, on the front line of the UFLP, a Chemical Engineer out of university, passionate about environmental management and wanting to change the world, scared as anything about Customers and the possibility of not being taken seriously by operators!


My first 6 months: start line to the 10k mark

I started with being a Customer Replenishment Specialist, based in Dublin and working with the biggest retailers in the country.

Similarly to start running around London, it is all so exciting: finding your own pace, understanding Unilever’s ways of working.

You can’t wait to be a Future Leader (you have trained hard for it!) but you still have to find out how to do it day by day, get to know your colleagues (or running buddies) and perhaps even find a mentor you can trust (or the right pacer!) to give you advice.

Looking back at my first placement, I learnt so much about a business I knew little about but, most importantly, about myself. My colleagues were, similarly to experienced runners, a bible of knowledge in Customer Service and an incredible guiding light in a new country, new tools and new managers. They believed in me and helped me build the confidence to keep going for further adventures.


My second placement: 10k to the 25k mark

I moved on to Leeds, our European deodorants factory, to work on engineering related projects.marta-in-knorr2

It was a fantastic experience to go back to a manufacturing site after my placement and being able to work on something related to my previous studies. It’s like getting to the 21.1km mark and realising it’s already time to count down!

I was able to work on conceptual studies as well as commissioning and get a wide breadth of experience in project management and deodorant production.

I loved everything about Leeds including the city, the friends I made and my new hobbies: yoga and running.


My third placement: 25k to the 35km mark

My third placement was in European Portfolio & Innovation for Ice Cream based in Rotterdam.

Unexpectedly, I found this the toughest of the positions I covered. Reaching your third placement, you have built up some knowledge from your past year and feel confident about yourself but roles can be so different between one another that you need to keep yourself humble: respect the miles, respect the race you are doing.

Ice cream has been the most exciting category I have worked in. Being in the office where ideas are generated and seeing the positivity of the environment was fantastic. Everyone in Rotterdam was international and I felt so much more at home there than have felt in many other places I lived in.

However, I understood and felt the challenges of working remotely from your stakeholders. I learnt the importance of holding people accountable and not being scared of chasing for things to get done. I learnt how we need to be creative with the capabilities that we have but also the key role some of our third party manufacturers play. The only way to be the best in this role is to build a strong network, making sure your colleagues know you and trust you, and be clear on priorities when asking questions: factories don’t hear all the discussions taking place in the head office, you need to be that key person passing or filtering information.

My third placement helped me figure out my own limits: it was challenging to keep a long distance relationship, getting used to a new city and a new language, and perhaps even a non-British manager. Running towards the end-line you get all these mixed feelings: the excitement of your parents cheering for you, the warmth of the crowd but deep down you can feel the pain in your feet telling you how far you got.


My fourth placement: 35km to the finish line

On Sunday, I arrived at 35km with energy left and felt exhilarated by the fact that I only had around 7km left. I saw my best friend shouting and all I could do was keep running and smiling: what is the worst that can happen? A bit of pain the day after?

Maybe there really is no gain without pain.

What was I doing in London other running? I have actually moved for my current rotation in Purfleet, Essex. Here, in our UK spreads factory, I am a Unit Manager for a specific production technology. I manage 9 operators within 2 production lines and 1 process area. Challenging? Yes. I have targets related to efficiency, quality, safety and waste generation. I am only 3 weeks in, I have high expectations for the next 6 months and very little knowledge with regards to both managing people and making Flora.

All I know is that you are in charge of your own development and that targets are set to be challenging. But I will try to be the best I can be.

I am still eager to learn and if I manage to inspire even one person to run, or to care about the sustainability, or simply challenge their limits and step out of their comfort zone, then I will think that is a success.


Crossing the finish line what would I tell the younger me at the start?

  1. Take this as a chance to learn who you are, what your leadership style is and where your passion lies.
  2. Choose your attitude, every day, every week, every 6 months.
  3. Don’t be frightened about your weaknesses, don’t ignore your limitation but be aware of them and learn from them.


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