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In this Best of Series episode, we hear from Nicky Sparshott, CEO of Unilever Australia & New Zealand, on being brave, taking the path less trodden and differentiating yourself.
Nicky has been involved with FMCG firm Unilever since 2006, as a senior manager and executive in various roles and locations around the world.
She became the CEO of Unilever Australia & New Zealand in March 2020, but we interviewed Nicky back in October 2017 when she was the Global CEO of T2 Tea, a luxury retailer and Unilever brand.
Nicky is also a non-executive director for a number of organisations and has built up quite the impressive resume and expertise across FMCG, Retail, Luxury, and Ecommerce.
In this episode, you’re going to hear Nicky talk about:
- her lessons from a failed product launch;
- taking the path less travelled, even if others don’t think it’s a good idea for you;
- being brave and not being scared to fail; and
- creating a track record that differentiates you from your peers.
Connecting with Nicky Sparshott
You can connect with Nicky via LinkedIn.
Books and resources
- Elon Musk: How the Billionaire CEO of SpaceX and Tesla is Shaping our Future – by Ashlee Vance
- A Whole New Mind – by Daniel Pink
“We set ourselves a vision of creating 15 million smiles a day, which was simply the number of ice creams we needed to sell. But how were we going to do that? If we took 50% of current customers and got them to buy ‘just one more' that would be worth $100m.”
On learning from a failed product launch
- A couple of really small choices that we thought were small choices, had not been clever and we did not deep dive. These proved to be those chinks in the armour that really let us down, and it was an unmitigated disaster.
- Be sure to build the right stakeholder relationships outside of the business and leave no stone unturned. When someone asks, “Have you thought about X?” It might feel like an inconvenient truth, three days before you launch, but actually take the time to investigate.
- The importance of mentors is that you need to have a safe place where you can have those unfiltered sounding board conversations, where you can shoot the breeze, you can explore scenarios, where you’re not personally judged for it.
- A problem shared is a problem halved. There’s so many things that we work on that feel hugely challenging and are sometimes insurmountable, but the reality is somebody, or a number of people, are probably experiencing exactly the same thing, or have done so before.
- There are some brilliant people out there, so just getting around the table with other thought leaders, or people from different industries and taking the best practice that’s happening in one industry, and being able to adapt it to your own.
- And you’ve got a relationship where someone can say, “Actually, that’s not going to work,” or, “You need to hold yourself to account to a higher order”.
- The value of those mentorships have been really, really important to me and I play a mentorship role for many others, because I think you’ve got to pay it forward.
- Mentors also have a rich network and can connect you to other opportunities.
On dreaming big and a path less travelled
- My mindset is to aim for the moon and you might get the stars. I aim high and kind of go big or go home. You sort of play to do something extraordinary.
- Bryce Courtenay once said to me, “if you’re skating on thin ice, you may as well tap dance.” That really appealed to me. To push the boundaries, be courageous and go create some magic. Sometimes you’ll get it wrong, but more often than not, you won’t.
- I’ve taken the path less travelled at times in my career, much to the horror of some of my mentors and some of the people around me, but it’s always felt right.
- Ask yourself, how do you differentiate yourself against a myriad of other people in the market? Because there’s some great talent out there, some exceptionally good people. How are you going to craft or curate a skillset and an experience list that is different?
- I write down for the month, what are the big bets. If I do nothing but what’s on this list for the next 30 days, will that create the impact that I want to create in the next 30 days? If it’s not on that list, will I spend my time on it?
- At the end of every week I do a pulse check, “Is there something that has changed that would require me to change my focus?”
On her leadership style
- It’s important to practice service leadership, which is really paying it forward and recognising that there is no time better spent than in nurturing capability. Especially today, technology is such that things can be replicated with such pace that you need to have an amazing group of people and a culture that is sticky.
- Every month as a leadership team, we get together and not only measure performance to date and performance to go, but that performance in the context of our three-year plan. What are the risks? Are we investing in the right areas? If we have to dynamically allocate resources, where are we prioritising?
- For me right now, mindset trumps capability quite often. You can have all the best capability in the world, you can be an amazing rock-star, but if you can’t bring others on that journey with you, if you can’t elevate the performance of the whole team, if you can’t get past your own ego to deliver the results, then it’ll just be really short lived.
- My counsel to anybody that’s in a senior management role and aspiring to be in a CEO role, is to get that commercial understanding solid. If it doesn’t come intuitively to you, get some mentors and some support in that space and certainly recruit a team that is incredibly capable in that area, and marry that with creativity and intuition, because you need both today to be successful.
On the importance of developing a track record
- Success breeds success and confidence. It’s having done it and experienced it and lived it, warts and all. Because when someone talks about their track record and having delivered something great at the end of it, it’s very rarely been smooth sailing to get to that. It’s the lessons learned that are as valuable as the success delivered.
- It is really important to be able to talk from a place of confidence about what you’ve done, and how you’ve done it, and how you would do it differently based on the experience that you’ve had. You’ve got to get dirty. You really got to roll up your sleeves and do it.
- One bit of advice that I would give to anybody listening to this is, take opportunities that come up that sit outside of your natural job.
Final message of wisdom and hope for future leaders
- Be brave, because I think the world is changing quickly. What got us here won’t get us there, and the best advice I would give to people is go after the dream, but perhaps also be prepared to take the path less trodden to get there, because I think it will hold you in good stead.
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