Unilever’s Sharon MacLeod: Grow your people, grow your business

Recession mindset is setting in.

Recession mindset is setting in.

Chiselled in very, very tiny letters on the logo of many companies, right under the huge ‘people are our strength’ is the caveat ‘except in a recession.’

A year ago I might have been writing on how to win the war on talent. Back then we were all concerned with how to attract and obtain the very best people to grow our businesses. Now that seems so 15 minutes ago.

Today the popular retention strategy at lots of corporations seems to be ‘where are they going to go anyway?’ HR at its best.

A sign of the times perhaps. The daily onslaught of bad financial news has an effect on all of us.

I recently spoke with Robert Holden, the author of the insightful book Success Intelligence. Robert told me that he had just facilitated an offsite with a small group of CEOs in a castle in England. Very cool place for a meeting. The CEOs assembled were collectively responsible for over 80,000 employees. They were powerful leaders of successful companies.

Yet the question on the minds of these leaders was, ‘did I take a stupid pill?’ For years they had been praised for their results but this year the markets were treating them as if they were total failures. It’s hard not to take that personally.

When Robert related that story to me, a chill ran down my spine. If some of the most powerful leaders feel like failures, how will they ever lead their companies out of a recession?

A while ago I attended the Ad Week event featuring another U.K. business superstar, Richard Branson. During Branson’s remarks, he described asking his executives how they plan to grow this year. Nothing unusual, we are constantly looking for ways to grow our business. But midway through Branson’s sentence I realized he was talking about the executive’s personal growth: how they would grow as people this year.

Branson believes that the only way to grow his company is to grow his people. What a novel thought in a recession. Have you asked anyone about their personal growth plan lately?

Executives who think they’ve swallowed a stupid pill, the assumption that growth plans must have something to do with the P&L: signs that recession thinking has taken hold.

People in the marketing world aren’t exactly lined up to leave even a reasonably good job in this environment. But smart organizations will do their utmost to make sure their best and brightest stay not only employed but engaged in these difficult times.

There are important reasons for leaders to pay particular attention to the soft (read: people) side of business during a recession.

Right now marketing people need to be at their most inspired because, believe me, some days they are going to be very perspired. Over and over HR professionals and business gurus have told us that motivating people to do their best, most creative work requires more than a paycheque. Somehow it seems easy to forget that fundamental when the sky is falling.

Today, more than ever, it’s essential for managers to be proactive in sending the right messages. Your reports need to hear loud and clear that business might be bad but they aren’t. It’s not an assistant brand manager’s fault that people have retreated to their homes to wait out the bad times. Your copywriter didn’t cause the U.S. housing crash. Your support staff didn’t drive the price of oil up or down.

It’s a good time to reinforce the fundamentals that have been the foundation of your organization’s success. If your people have helped to build a strong business, they probably haven’t gone brain dead overnight.

People need to hear that you have faith in the business and in them. Even the best of us forget that spending countless hours going over unsatisfactory numbers can send the opposite message.

I suspect that Branson has it right. Growing your business means growing your people. Making sure that your people have the courage and confidence to tackle tough problems is the most important job any leader has. It’s also the easiest thing to forget when your hair is on fire.

The bottom line is simple: people are the only way out of a recession. Now is the time to take good care of them.

Sharon MacLeod is the marketing director for Dove and skin care at Unilever Canada. She’s also a lifelong student of human behaviour, and passionate about consumers and motivating teams – with her greatest pride being Dove’s ‘Campaign for Real Beauty.’