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Global leadership lessons from Unilever's Kees Kruythoff

Source:Ringier     Date:2012-09-04
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Kees Kruythoff, president of Unilever North America

Kees Kruythoff, president of Unilever North America

KEES Kruythoff described himself as a bit arrogant when he first applied to work at Unilever in the 1990s. He had a vision of where he wanted to go in his career and was forthright in sharing those aspirations with his interviewers. "I told them I wanted to work four years in marketing, then two years in sales and then I would go abroad and work in places like China, South Africa, Indonesia or Brazil," Mr Kruythoff said during a recent Wharton Leadership Lecture. ‘I will tell [them] what I want from this company,' I told myself when I went in there. I was na?ve, I admit."

The Unilever executives, though, liked what they saw in Mr Kruythoff and hired him in February 1993. "Six years later, I arrived in South Africa" to lead Unilever there, he noted. "You have to know what you want. When you are clear to an organisation, the organisation can work in a better way to help you reach that goal." Mr Kruythoff was appointed president of Unilever's North American cluster in September 2011. Based in the United States, the job gives him responsibility for what he believes is his company's most important market and the challenges that come with it.

"People like to talk about China or India or Brazil," said Mr Kruythoff, a native of the Netherlands, the birthplace of Unilever's foods divisions. "But when you grow up in Europe, you always hear of the American Dream and what that represents. "This is America, a place where we need to push the boundaries," he added. "The intellectual capital in this country is like no other. The Googles and the Amazons and the Apples, they are all here. So that is where I want to be for my company." Mr Kruythoff said that his enthusiasm for his job has always been what has propelled him.

There is really no substitute for that, he noted, and, in reality, enthusiasm should be the primary reason anyone should work for an organisation. "When you join a business, the most important part is to ask yourself how you can improve the values of the company," he stated. A new employee should have a sense of excitement, he added, and make sure that he or she is a good fit with the company."Wherever you go, if it feels like the place where you want to be, then in all likelihood it is."

Enthusiasm makes progress possible, Mr Kruythoff said, and leaders must build that excitement and fire amongst their employees. Not every decision is a winner, but when employees are optimistic about the future of the firm, that atmosphere will help move the company in the right overall direction.

From Raw Oils to a Worldwide Footprint
Mr Kruythoff went all the way back to the founding of Unilever to offer an example of what he findsadmirable about the firm. Unilever is actually two century-old companies–one that sold soap and the other, margarine – that merged in 1929 not because they were in the same business, but because both firms were dependent on the same raw products, certain oils.

The British arm of Unilever focused on hygiene, he said. It was not just a business for its founders, but a mission. The company started making soaps and other cleansing products. "It was about quality, though, not just a brand. It was about making sure that the company was having a positive effect on society."

In the meantime, the Dutch ancestor of the company wanted to come up with a good, healthy alternative to butter. The roots of their effort dated back to Napoleon, whose troops were using up a big part of the budget with expensive bread and butter. The Dutch company discovered that a product made from edible oils – margarine – would not only be more nutritious, but also cheaper to make.

What the two companies discovered, though, wNike

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