• Saturday, April 13, 2024


‘I put people at the centre of everything,’ says Chanel CEO Leena Nair

Leena Nair also dwelt on the challenge of impostor syndrome, and said women feel like they don’t deserve to be at the table due to a lack of confidence and self-belief.

Leena Nair also stressed that the era of the ‘superhero’ leader is over. (Photo credit: Getty Images)

By: Vivek Mishra

CHANEL CEO Leena Nair has said she “really, really cares about people and puts them at the centre of everything” she does, adding that it isn’t about lip service for her.

Nair, who became CEO of the luxury fashion house in 2021, also described how she has been a “champion for gender balance” and said she wants to help men understand there is room for both genders in senior leadership positions.

In an interview with Time magazine, Nair explained who her role models were, the importance of mentoring and the changes she is bringing at Chanel.

Women should be encouraged to step up and be ambitious, Nair said, as she cited her parents as an inspiration and former Pepsi CEO Indra Nooyi as a mentor.

“There are more women coming into education, more women topping classes and getting the best grades, and still not enough women in positions of leadership,” Nair, 54, told Time.

“So it takes courage, intentionality, and determination. You work on numbers, work on culture, and bring a sense of acceleration and urgency.”

Nair was ranked fifth in this year’s GG2 Power List, published by the Asian Media Group, which also publishes Eastern Eye and Garavi Gujarat news weeklies.

Born and raised in a small town in Maharashtra state, she reflected on growing up in western India, saying, “In my family, no women worked.

“My moms and aunts were extremely loving, but many of them hadn’t completed college or school. My father was a self-made man, so I admired the determination, the dynamism. I loved my mother’s vibrancy, she was a connector.

“So it was specific qualities that I would look up to and get inspired by. My husband is also an equality fighter. We had an arranged marriage when I was 23.”

Nair, a strong proponent of equality, said witnessing disparities fuelled her determination to pursue education and career opportunities traditionally reserved for men.

In her previous job at Unilever, she led initiatives in sustainability and diversity and increased the share of female managers from 38 per cent to 50 per cent.

“I was motivated by the realisation that I wasn’t receiving the same opportunities as some of the men in my family,” she told Time.

Nair’s appointment as the CEO of Chanel marked a significant departure from tradition as the European, male-dominated luxury fashion brand now has a woman of colour at the helm for the first time in its 113-year history.

Nair has increased funding for Fondation Chanel, the company’s charitable arm, to $100 million (£79m) from $20m (£15.8m), enabling more efforts to support women in countries.

Chanel aims to promote a new kind of leadership with an emphasis on compassion, empathy, kindness, and benevolence, Nair told Time.

“When was the last time you saw a business leader on the cover of a magazine because he or she has kindness?” she said.

Women account for a majority (70 per cent) of Chanel’s workforce, and Nair is keen to mentor and support women, as she did at Unilever.

“We have a female founder. We have a female leader. We are genuinely a business that supports women, serves women. Women are a majority of our clients,” she said, as she recalled the role of her mentors.

“Once I have them in my life, I joke that I have my claws in and will never let go.

“Indra Nooyi and Barclays chairman Nigel Higgins have been my mentors for the last few years. When I was early in the business, I would reach out to people who inspired me and say, ‘Hey, will you mentor me?’ Nine out of 10 people would say no, but one would say yes. And as I started growing and getting more senior, nine out of 10 people would say yes,” she said.

The engineer-turned-business executive also stressed that the era of the “superhero” leader is over.

“I have always believed in the collective voice, collective intelligence, diverse perspectives. For me, every voice matters. If I sit in a meeting, I want to listen to every voice around the table, not just the dominant ones,” Nair said.

There was a need for equal representation of both genders at all management levels, starting from the top, she added.

“Every appointment you make, if you’re meeting two talented men for the role, you must meet two talented women. Find them. So it’s about being deliberate, intentional, all the time, every single appointment, every single promotion, every single lateral move, every single international mobility.”

Nair, who now lives in London, is also a member of the Board of the Leverhulme Trust, a charitable organisation focused on supporting education and research.

She spoke of her commitment to driving positive change, urging leaders to prioritise diversity and inclusion.

“It is heart-wrenching to see 125 male climate negotiators and maybe five or six or seven female climate negotiators,” she said.

Nair also dwelt on the challenge of impostor syndrome, and said women feel like they don’t deserve to be at the table due to a lack of confidence and self-belief.

“If you’re looking at appraisals, I’m generalising, but nine out of 10 men will say, ‘I’m so good. I need to be the CEO of this company’, but nine out of 10 women will say, ‘I want to do my current job well, I don’t think I’m really good enough to go for the big ones’,” she said.

Nair is among a growing group of powerful Indian-origin CEOs leading global companies. Last July, she met Indian prime minister Narendra Modi to discuss ways to enhance skill development among artisans in India and promote Khadi. She met Modi while he was in Paris to attend the Bastille Day parade as the guest of honour at the invitation of French president Emmanuel Macron.

Nair told Time leading with compassion doesn’t mean a loss of business.

“Remember people, their names, their stories, the trivia, what’s going on with them. I do believe if you put people at the heart of the business, they will care about the business.

“If you care about them, look after them, give them the space, give them the freedom, listen to their ideas, give them respect, care, and they will care about the business,” she said.

She said that it would be horrible to say that you can only succeed in business if you’re terrible.

“I’d much rather that we at Chanel show our people are at the heart of our business, and by being exemplary, show to the world that it’s possible,” she said.

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