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: Read more “Senior leader interview: Julia Fentem, Vice President SEAC”
We caught up with Carol Bosko, Research Director for R&D at out Port Sunlight site to provide some insight into what a career in R&D at Unilever might entail.
What excites you about science and what made you want to go in to science?
Well I first realised I wanted to become a scientist when I saw the very first example of pH change. I was at a science fair and somebody from a very large pharmaceutical company was demonstrating a simple pH indicator. When the colour changed from blue to green I thought it was the most amazing thing I’d ever seen. I was probably about 5 or 6 years old and it was at that point that science really grabbed my attention.
I think what’s most exciting about science is that you learn something new every day. Your job never gets mundane, never gets boring it never gets too routine because every time you answer one question there are five more questions that it opens up. It is the most intense, exciting and diverse career that one could have.
Were you inspired by any teachers, films or books?
For sure some of my inspiration came from teachers. I remember that in college I had a microbiology teacher who was very phobic about germs so it was always very interesting for me to hear him expound about the dangers of germs and yet those were the things we were studying. He was very inspiring.
Did you receive any good advice about studying science or entering a scientific career?
I do recall asking teachers about what I should do to enter a career. The best advice I got was to get an advanced degree. That is what inspired me to go on and get a PhD in microbiology.
Do you have any suggestions or advice for how to encourage more females into science subjects?
Well I think if somebody has an inclination for science they’re going to follow their heart so I don’t think people need encouragement to go into science. However one thing I would encourage women not to dismiss is the hard sciences like engineering, physics and mathematics. Those are very critical and we are certainly under represented as a gender in those sciences. If you are going to go into the sciences remember that you may focus on one discipline like biology like I did-but you can’t forget your physics and your maths. The best science comes from a merging of disciplines and a merging of scientists from different disciplines coming together to look at a problem from more than your own point of view so don’t assume that you can forget your organic chemistry or your calculus.
Why did you chose Unilever?
I grew up in the United States at a time when I knew Unilever’s brands but didn’t know Unilever as a brand or as a company. I first became exposed to Unilever when I was doing my PhD work and I happened to meet somebody who worked at Unilever because they were funding some research in my mentor’s lab. I then began to understand the possibilities of working with Unilever. I understood how good the research was, how good the research facilities were and how many different products it went into and that’s why I chose Unilever.
What opportunities have you had whilst working for Unilever?
I’ve had so many opportunities whilst working for Unilever. First of all- travel. There is always this opportunity with Unilever as it is a global company. You get to look at consumers in other countries, to work in other countries, to visit other countries and so I do have to say my passport is stamped and it is full because I work for Unilever. I’ve also had so many other opportunities professionally-to grow and to develop myself. I get to do things that I would never naturally be comfortable with such as doing this interview, standing up in front of people and presenting my work. Unilever is a great place for developing yourself, expanding yourself, and continuing to build your scientific skills as well as your professional and personal skills.
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We all know that job hunting as a graduate isn’t easy. The process is constantly growing in length with extensive application forms, multiple psychometric tests, telephone interviews and of course, extremely demanding selection boards. The process is most definitely challenging and on top of other deadlines that you may be facing (exams, coursework deadlines etc.) it can be a stressful time. As a recent graduate who started at Unilever in 2013 I remember clearly the pressure of job-hunting and the challenges it created. I thought therefore it would be helpful to offer my top ten tips for graduate job-hunters. Some are specific to Unilever and some are slightly more general. These are by no means the holy grail of securing a graduate job but hopefully for those who are feeling the strain they may help;
1. Know yourself
It sounds so simple but isn’t always something that people remember to consider. Joanne Lucy (Capability Director, Enterprise Technical Solutions at Unilever) who is regularly involved in Selection Boards highlighted the importance of candidates understanding and being able to articulate their own Unique Selling Point (USP). Know what makes you stand out from other candidates and don’t be afraid to share this. Consider your strengths but also be able to identify any areas where you would like to improve. Most importantly, be yourself. It’s easy to recognise someone who is saying what they think recruiters want to hear so honesty really is the best policy.
2. Avoid generalisations
You don’t have to be a ‘certain person’ to fit a particular role. My degree was in Sport Management and my work background was mainly focused around Communications and Marketing but I am currently a HR Management Trainee. Unilever do not look for specific backgrounds but rather where the individual wants to be in the future. Don’t be deterred if you have studied something that isn’t naturally connected to the role you’re interested in. As long as you can justify your interest and demonstrate potential you have a chance.
3. Preparation is key
Preparation is important for every stage of the recruitment process and should never be underestimated. Make sure you’ve done your research on Unilever as a company, our history and our culture. Keep up to date with news on your chosen function and be able to justify your opinions. Understand the function that you have applied for and how it applies to other areas of the business. Ask yourself why you are interested in this area and what can you bring to the role and to the company. It’s also worth making sure that you have an awareness of the external market – how are Unilever performing against our competitors? How are we navigating the challenges faced? Sources such as The Economist can help with this. Finally, ensure that you have a good grasp of Unilever’s Standards of Leadership as these are a critical part of the selection process.
4. Be specific – use examples
Think carefully about the examples that you can use to back up the skills/strengths that you have. Interviewers want to hear about specific challenges/experiences that you have had and how you reacted in this situation. Try to structure your answers using the STAR technique;
S – Situation – What was the task/challenge?
T – Task – What did you need to do to complete the task/overcome the challenge?
A – Action – What actions did YOU take to complete the task/overcome the challenge. Be specific here. Think in terms of ‘I’ rather than ‘we’.
R – Result – What was the outcome? What did you learn during the process?
It may help to think about examples around key competencies (e.g. communication, leadership etc) in advance as this will help you to develop a sense of self-awareness that can be extremely useful in interview situations. Also where possible try to use a broad range of experiences rather than the same scenario in every example. This can help demonstrate versatility and breadth of experience.
5. Be confident but realistic
Confidence in your own ability and what you can bring to the company is key. Be proud of your achievements and learn to sell yourself and your skills. You are your own best advocate and this is an opportunity to share the reasons why you stand out from other applicants. You should however be realistic in what you are saying. Exaggerating your skills is unlikely to get you far and is a risky approach. Also be aware of areas where you may need to improve. These may not necessarily be ‘weaknesses’ rather areas that you recognise as not being as strong and would like to improve on.
6. Be flexible
As a Unilever Future Leader a certain degree of flexibility is required. For some functions this means geographical flexibility (e.g. Supply Chain, HR, R&D). For all functions flexibility in the roles carried out and the tasks within these roles is a must. Take time to consider if this sort of flexibility is something you are willing to take on. Personally, the opportunity to move around the country experiencing different elements of HR is one of the key reasons I chose the scheme. It’s exciting and a fantastic learning opportunity but this may not be for everyone.
7. Ask questions
I can’t advocate the importance of asking questions enough. Yes, this can include prepared questions that you have thought of in advance, but also ensure that during your interview/assessment day you listen to the interviewer and respond where possible. Asking questions helps demonstrate engagement and enthusiasm which is important. When asked for his top tip for graduates at Selection Boards, David Sprent (Vice-President Customer Supply Chain UK and Ireland) spoke about looking for ‘genuine enthusiasm and energy around Unilever and its brands’. Asking questions is a great way to demonstrate this. However, do make sure that your questions are relevant and situation-appropriate. Also try to avoid the ‘obvious’ questions that are answered elsewhere as this could imply that you haven’t done your research.
In addition, if you have any questions before your telephone interview/selection day feel free to contact Unilever’s current graduates via our Twitter / Facebook pages.
8. Make a contribution
This is specifically in regards to the ‘group task’ element of Selection Boards which are never the easiest tasks to get through. The best advice is to make sure that you make a contribution. You are being assessed against key competencies throughout the group task and if you say little or nothing this will inevitably affect your rating. Be assured and confident throughout the discussion and try to demonstrate interpersonal and team skills. Working as a team rather than as competitors will stand you in much better stead so consider your team mates and try to engage with those who may be struggling to find their voice. If you do disagree with another comment, explain why this is a case and suggest an alternative. Try not to become too consumed with finding the ‘right’ answer. How you get to a final solution is often the most important part.
9. It’s never too early to network
The word ‘network’ is constantly used in the business world and whilst at first it may seem intimidating or irrelevant to where you are at, the importance will quickly become clear. It really is never too early to start building your own network. Keep in touch with as many people as you can – course-mates, past employers and lecturers as well as friends. All can be a good source of information and may be able to offer inside knowledge about the function that you are looking at. You might want to consider building a ‘LinkedIn’ profile so you can connect with people in the sectors that you are interested with. It’s also a great place to document your work history, show yourself off and find out about different careers.
10. Stay calm
Interview processes are not the most relaxing of experiences but it is important that you stay calm. Whilst nerves are usually inevitable try to not let them impact your performance. If possible, arrive to the venue with time to spare to enable you to familiarise yourself with the surroundings and avoid any last minute panics about being late. Specifically in regards to the assessment centre remember that there is more than one task during the day. Don’t panic if you feel that you have done badly in one task – this won’t ruin your chances of success and the chances are you are judging yourself harshly. Move on and tackle the next task as a new challenge. It’s a long day but whenever possible try to remain upbeat and interested until you’re on the train home. Remember, you can only do your best and the assessors genuinely want you to do well!
I hope this has been helpful. If you would like more specific tips about Unilever’s recruitment process take a look at Nick’s blog from February this year. If you do have any questions about the recruitment process feel free to ask in the question box below or contact the current grads via Facebook/Twitter. We are happy to help where possible and reply to all questions!
Good luck to everyone!
Senior Leader Interview with Alan Palmer – Vice President of R&D for Deodorants
Can you briefly describe your career in Unilever up to now?
I joined Unilever as a mid-career recruit in September of 2007 as the SVP (Senior Vice President) of HR Transformation based in London, after having 16.5 years with another company/industry – Whirlpool Corporation. The change to Unilever was the right move at the right time. I had held varying roles of increasing responsibility across HR (Expertise/Business Partnering/Services) as well as several Supply Chain roles (Business Team Trainer/Process Consultant/Operations Manager) at Whirlpool and it was now time to see if I could be successful with another larger company and in a different industry. With this decision, my husband, Paul, daughter Emma and I packed up our household belongings and moved from St. Joseph, Michigan to Esher, UK. We were on a great adventure. I had lived abroad before with Whirlpool, multiple times in multiple countries, as a single woman, but had never had the personal opportunity to live abroad after being married to Paul and as a family unit.
After almost a year in the role with Unilever, as of July 2008, I became accountable for the additional responsibility to include HR strategy, becoming the SVP of HR Transformation & Strategy. Then in August of 2009 I was asked to assume the HR leadership role for Western Europe based out of the Netherlands and became the SVP of HR – Western Europe. As of September 2011, our Unilever global structure evolved to 8 Market Clusters and 4 Category organisations, with this, our CEE (Central Eastern Europe) business was added into the Western Europe scope of my responsibilities and I evolved into the SVP of HR Europe. Thus not only have I been challenged with several different opportunities in my first five years with Unilever, but on the personal side my family has had the chance to grow and experience new adventures by already living in two different countries during this time. As a mid-career recruit, I couldn’t have asked for a better opportunity or a better development experience. As I like to say… ‘Once you join Unilever, there’s no turning back and before you know it, you are bleeding blue!’
Can you describe your typical work day?
Typical work day…what’s that? There’s no typical work day. Every day comes with new opportunities and new challenges to drive talent development, optimise the organisation and ideally drive higher performance at an individual and work unit level. I love the variety and the need to be adaptable, but also the pace of change and opportunity for continuous improvement. Every day I strive to make a difference by living Unilever’s ambitions and our HR ambition as one HR team. Because as one team, this is where we can collectively and individually have real HR with Impact.
What has been so far your proudest moment at Unilever?
There’s actually been two….March 21st – 23rd of 2012 and July 5th -7th of 2011.
On March 21st -23rd of 2012 I had the opportunity to be with 140 HR colleagues from across Europe at our European ‘HR with Impact’ conference where I experienced first-hand the power of ONE TEAM and that if you have a simple/clear vision, an aligned plan – with clear priorities and measures, are focused on results and have created a community with a real passion to win…leadership isn’t a responsibility it becomes a distinct privilege. Then on July 5th-7th of 2011 I was with another group of 100 European leaders, this time from across work units and functions at our European ‘It’s Our Time’ conference and here I experienced the power of having an ambition, creating the will to win and enabling new ways of thinking/working. Our European 2015 Strategy was revealed and there was clear recognition that we now had a plan for Europe.
What’s the best advice you would pass on to new trainees?
Always be ‘Full On’ – professionally and personally. Have the passion and drive to always make a difference. Look at every opportunity as just that…an opportunity for growth and an opportunity to have real impact. If you don’t, it’s a missed opportunity.
What exciting opportunities do you see in the near future for the HR business area in Unilever?
HR will lead the organization to be the best in People, Place and Performance and will do so as one team. By delivering on this exciting and audacious ambition, we will be clearly contributing to the delivery of our Unilever ambition and, by the way, having a lot of fun along the way.
Finally (for a bit of fun), what is your favourite Unilever brand?
Okay…don’t tell anyone…but it’s Axe – Dark Temptation. I know I’m not the target group, but I can’t resist. I borrowed my husband’s once (yes I know he’s not the target group either because he’s 44 like me) and from that day on it was my personal deo preference as well. It gives me the protection I want and makes me feel fresh for the day.
Hi, my name is Dhivant Patel and I am the High Street Customer Service Manger at Unilever. I am a Durham University graduate and joined the business on the Unilever Future Leaders Programme four-and-a-half years ago.
At six month intervals on the two year programme, I was assessed against my peers and the management competencies to ensure I was on track and heading in the right direction. The graduate programme is all about real responsibility from day one and a fast-track to management, so it’s really important to stay close to your manager during this time and learn as much as possible. After passing my final review at the end of my second year at Unilever, I successfully moved into a project manager role in customer service. Unilever creates succession plans for promising and talented employees and it was through succession planning that I got my current role.
Eight months ago I then took over the role of Customer Service Manager. I manage a team of six people and together we work alongside the Unilever customer development teams. Customer development is all about managing and enhancing relationships with our customers – large national retailers, supermarkets, cosmetics stores, wholesalers – and together, we work on the forecasting and supply of products for sale in stores. My team’s aim is to ensure maximum availability of our products on our customers’ shelves, cost efficiently as possible, so a typical week for me involves a good mix of face time with my customers, resolving day-to-day operational issues.
I really enjoy working for Unilever: there are lots of very talented, driven people; I enjoy the fast pace of the consumer goods industry, the variety of challenges of working across different product categories from household and personal care, to foods, and the fact that I’m part of a global company working towards an ambitious strategy of sustainable growth.
You can check out our Supply Chain Management video here.
Name Stefano Giolito
Job Title Global Director of Sustainability
Why did you choose to work in sustainability?
For several good reasons, first of all I genuinely have a passion for it.
Personally, I do believe that this generation has a unique opportunity to make a difference, if it is not this generation, the world as we know it will be a different place, in the next 20 years it will be too late.
As a business man, I am energized by the leadership that Unilever is taking in the area of Sustainability. Our CEO Paul Polman has said loud and clear that sustainability is an integral part of our business model and at the heart of the business strategy. I am confident that more companies will follow this lead in the years to come and will integrate sustainability at the heart of their business processes. It is an extremely exciting moment to work in sustainability!
Why do you work for Unilever? Why would you recommend starting a career at Unilever?
Why do I wake up every morning happy to go to work? First of all it is a great learning environment; you get to learn on the job and have opportunities to learn through formal training.
The second might sound a cliché, but it’s true- it’s more of a people company than a process company. Plans are born out of great individuals, not down to the processes. That is what really makes me happy at Unilever.
Obviously it’s also great because of the global reach. If you wish so there are opportunities to work abroad, to meet different cultures and different people. My team is a testament to this; there are barely two people from the same country in it. Yes, that is it, being in a global company, which is all about people, with brilliant opportunities for learning.
What’s your responsibility? How big is your team?
My team is relatively small, in total 5 people. The whole global sustainability team in total is only 12. However in reality the Unilever sustainability team is huge! In every country, in every category, in every R&D centre there are sustainability champions. But more than that, almost everyone in Unilever is involved in sustainability in some way. R&D find new sustainable technologies, marketers listen to consumers to help us make sustainable products consumers desire, supply chain implement our technologies and ideas in our factories, and ensure we source and manufacture in a sustainable way.
The size of my team is a testament that sustainability is not held in a corporate mysterious group, but is spread throughout the business. So you can work anywhere in Unilever and still contribute to our sustainability agenda, it is about a mindset not a business area.
What has been your biggest challenge in Unilever so far?
Whenever I start in a new job, at every level, joining Unilever to becoming a senior marketer, to becoming director of sustainability, has been a big challenge. When I joined Unilever, I came from a clear academic world where everything is geared towards exams, to a much more subtle environment where it’s about people. When you start a new job, you can read the job description, but the new challenges are always different to what you have done before and what you expected, but this is where you learn the most, through failures and through early successes.
When you come fresh to a new challenge you see things people who have been there for a while don’t see, call it the “naivety of new people” or “seeing with fresh eyes”. You have a unique opportunity to disrupt and put in new ideas. If you have the courage to mention these things then you are succeeding. If you sit quiet, then you have failed. It is important not to assume your ideas will be of any less value than those of someone who has been there a while.
What has been your favorite Unilever product innovation in the past 2 years?
I like them all, and I want to select one without upsetting the others! One I particularly like is
White Now, toothpaste which gives you immediate whitening results. It’s brilliant because it captures a real consumer need and challenges the convention, it doesn’t accept that to achieve whiteness you need dramatic and expensive treatments. It gives you everyday confidence by challenging the approach.
In an example related to sustainability, I really like the Dry Shampoos. I believe they are the perfect example of sustainable innovation, born out of a real consumer insight, (the need to refresh your hair, but you don’t have time to wash it), but executed in a way that is more sustainable (as it doesn’t need water to use). That is the role of sustainability, to understand a real insight, challenge the status quo, and deliver a real solution which is sustainable.
What one tip would you have for students to help them save money and be more sustainable?
Very simple. Be more mindful of the real cost of hot water! We take energy for granted, we leave the taps on, and we leave the shower on for too long before even getting in. You can save a lot just by doing that less. Not only will you save money, but also greenhouse gas emissions. I’m not saying colder or, shorter showers, but be careful of small things that are wasteful.
What does success look like for you in the future at Unilever?
We have laid the foundation of a brilliant plan, a vision to double our business and reduce our environment footprint. Success will be achieving this. People forget that 2 billion people use Unilever products every single day, so we have 2 billion opportunities everyday to make the world a little bit better, a little bit more sustainable.
Its difficulty to say what it is on a personal level. I think for me it is satisfying to be in a an ongoing position where I can leave my mark, a legacy and say that “product or that innovation, or that ad campaign” wouldn’t have happened if it wasn’t for me . At whatever level I am at, to be able to say, “I made an impact”.
Where is your next holiday taking you?
My next holiday, anywhere in the Southern Hemisphere, last winter I was so cold! So I am quite willing to explore the southern hemisphere, but I haven’t decided exactly where.
How many Unilever offices have you been to? Which one is your favorite?
I have been to dozens, across most continents. My favorite is the London office, (where I am based now). It has an open plan design and so it feels open. I like the open space; everyone is the same, equal space, equal voice. You walk amongst everyone, sitting in the same office, at the same desks, right up to senior executives. You feel empowerment, everyone can make a contribution, and everyone can make a difference. I like it especially important for my job as I need to meet with so many different business areas and categories, and most of them are represented here.
Which product do you use the most?
I use so many! The one I currently use the most is Dove for Men. I love the fragrance and the way my skin feels after I used it. It’s a great product, spot on for me, I couldn’t do without it.
Name Rachel Cook
Job Title Finance Manager – Financial Planning & Analytics
Why did you choose to work in your function?
Having studied Economics in Durham, I was always interested in numbers and finance. I wanted to understand how a company works and for me, Finance is at the heart of every business.
Why do you work for Unilever? Why would you recommend starting a career in Unilever?
I find it really exciting to see how a project moves through the full life-cycle. I love working with products that you use and see every day. It is very tangible, especially compared to other careers in Finance.
What has been your biggest challenge in Unilever so far?
For my first management role, I was working in a factory that was under review for potential closure where I was managing a team of 5 people who had been with Unilever for many years. I had just finished the grad scheme and my biggest challenge was to motivate people from very different age groups and backgrounds, knowing that the factory could be shutting down soon.
If you were a Unilever product, which one would it be & why?
As I worked in the ice-cream category for some time, it would be an ice-cream product. I live for the summer; ice cream is always fun, family focused and has good margins.
Which product do you use the most?
Sure deodorant and my freezer is always filled with ice cream.
What’s your responsibility? How big is your team?
I am currently working on the Analytics team in the Global Headquarters. It is a small team with only 6 team members, where I am directly managing one person. My direct customers are the UEx (board) and Senior Finance leaders and my responsibility is to provide accurate and timely insights to these customers to drive decision making.
What has been your favourite (Unilever) invention in the past 2 years?
Knorr stock pots, I use them in nearly everything I cook.
Where is your next holiday taking you?
I have just come back from a long weekend in Boston.
What’s your ambition in Unilever?
I want to keep doing new jobs that are always a bit more interesting than the last one. Every job in Unilever is a new challenge – I want to keep making a difference and we will see where it takes me. Unilever and the industry are changing so fast so you never know what opportunities there might be in a couple of years.
How many Unilever offices have you been to? Which one is your favourite?
17 offices – my favourite one was the Toronto one even though I could see it from my kitchen window. It is a small office and the whole business is in one place, at the same time it is downtown so the perfect location.