• Tuesday, April 16, 2024

Business

Days of the superhero leader are behind us, says Chanel’s Leena Nair

Leena Nair says she really puts human beings at the centre of everything she does. (Photo credit: Getty Images)

Vivek MishraBy: Vivek Mishra

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

Nair, who came to Chanel after spending 30 years at Unilever, was one of TIME’s Women of the Year in 2024 and was also placed fifth in GG2 Power List 2024.

In an interview with TIME magazine, Nair said she drew motivation from her family’s dynamics, particularly her father’s belief in her capabilities. “My dad was a big sponsor for me because he believed that I was bright and should have an education,” she said.

Born and raised in a small Indian town in Maharashtra, 54-year-old Nair, who now lives in London, has increased funding for Fondation Chanel, the company’s charitable arm, to $100 million (£79 million) from $20 million (£15.8 million), enabling more efforts to support women in countries.

At Unilever, she spearheaded groundbreaking initiatives in sustainability and diversity and elevated the share of female managers from 38% to 50%. Now at the helm of Chanel, Nair wants to create an atmosphere that celebrates compassion, empathy, and kindness.

“We at Chanel are so uniquely placed to trailblaze on a new kind of leadership. Nobody in the world celebrates compassion, empathy, kindness, benevolence. When was the last time you saw a business leader on the cover of a magazine because he or she has kindness, compassion—no way. But 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 in the interview.

The engineer turned business executive also said that it is time to show that the days of the superhero leader are behind us. “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,” she said.

Nair, who is a big proponent of equality, said witnessing disparities fueled her determination to pursue education and career opportunities traditionally reserved for men. “I was fueled by seeing that I was not getting the opportunities that some of the men in my family were,” she said.

Nair said that despite a lack of female role models, she admired specific qualities in family members and mentors. “No female role models. I mean, 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,” she said.

Nair, also a member of the Board of the Leverhulme Trust, a charitable organisation focused on supporting education and research, says she remains committed to driving positive change, urging leaders to prioritise diversity and inclusion. “It takes courage, intentionality, and determination… You work on numbers, work on culture, and bring a sense of acceleration and urgency,” she said.

Talking about gender balance, she said that you need balance in both genders at all levels of management and that it has to start from the top. 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,” she said.

Nair said she remains committed to driving positive change, urging leaders to prioritise diversity and inclusion. She asserts, “It takes courage, intentionality, and determination… You work on numbers, work on culture, and bring a sense of acceleration and urgency.”

Boasting decades of experience in human resources, Nair says she really puts human beings at the centre of everything she does. “I really, really care about people. It’s not lip service for me. 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,” she said.

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