Consuming Passion

Unilever’s Global Mentoring Programme aims to guide its high-potential women into senior roles at the consumer goods giant. Now the course has evolved beyond mentoring, and into sponsorship, too.

Katherine Ray reports

The Unilever Global Mentoring Programme was launched in March 2009. It had one main objective: to aid the development and accelerate the readiness of high-potential women to enter into senior leadership positions at the consumer multinational.

The programme has since evolved beyond mentoring – now it effectively provides sponsorship as well. While participation never guaranteed promotion, mentees could get the guidance they needed to navigate their next career move, while enabling Unilever to build its female leadership population.

The launch of the programme more or less coincided with the appointment of the new CEO, Paul Polman. Accountability is a key enabler to driving diversity in the consumer giant, and that year (2009), diversity was placed firmly on the agenda when Unilever articulated its new 12-point vision incorporating diversity as one of its key points.

The Global Diversity Board was created in the same year, comprising nine senior executives and headed by Polman.

The board meets quarterly to review progress against the Diversity agenda and Diversity targets for 2012 and 2015. One of the six non-negotiables agreed and communicated across the business was the implementation of mentoring schemes to support development of diverse talent.

Furthermore, Unilever’s workforce didn’t match its consumer base, where 80 per cent of Unilever’s consumers are women. We needed our workforce to reflect this, so it’s not only about building our female leadership, but about increasing the number of female employees at all levels across the business.

At its inception, the programme consisted of 22 women who were at least 18 months away from their next lateral move or promotion.  Meeting with their line managers, participants worked to identify both their immediate goals as well as plan their longer-term career objectives.

With a better sense of their destination in the organisation, mentees then created a development plan with their line managers to determine next steps in their trajectory. This is essential to the women’s success later in the programme. We’ve found that more upfront planning translates into better outcomes.

Outcome-orientated plan in hand, the women move to the advocacy stage of the programme. Each is paired with a mentor who is a senior leader within Unilever.  Ideally, pairs meet monthly, either in person or via web conferencing. Since the mentees already know what experience they need in order to advance, the assigned mentor plays more of a sponsor role from the beginning, advocating their placement so they gain the experience they’ve identified as necessary to attain the objectives they’ve outlined.

Survey feedback indicates the programme is thriving and has grown from a class of 22 to more than 100 as of end-2011. Not only is Unilever seeing its mentees gain promotion  (21 per cent to the next work level since the programme started), but many of the mentorships have developed into committed sponsorships.

Sponsorship has been critical to the success of the programme, however, such commitment and trust must occur naturally.

Secrets of success

Success is due to the sponsorship, engagement from senior-level mentors and a clear objective.

The programme is sponsored by chief HR officer, Doug Baillie. Baillie is a great role model,
having been mentored throughout his long career at Unilever as well as continuing to mentor others.

The other sponsor was Helen Wyatt, the former SVP HR global functions, who was also a great role model for more junior women at Unilever.

We have high levels of engagement from senior-level mentors. All our senior leaders,
90 per cent of whom are male, are mentors, as well as Polman and the leadership executive. Our senior leaders are so engaged with mentoring that I haven’t ever had one of them turn me down to mentor someone in three years.

The programme’s objective was developmental-specific. Each mentee had to prepare a clear plan that would form the basis of their mentoring conversations.

Distance mentoring

Unilever is a global business, so some mentees and mentors had to have distance mentoring. The pairings were proposed by matching the mentee’s current role and experience with the mentor’s current role, experience and skills.

We started out training the mentees and mentors, having created comprehensive guides, and hosting a launch event at the beginning of their mentoring relationships. However, through our regular feedback channels, we found there was a need for some formal training.

Insala provided webinar training to both mentees and mentors, covering areas such as:

  • your role as mentee/mentor
  • the differences between mentoring, managing and coaching
  • the importance of having a plan
  • the advantages and challenges of distance mentoring.

The training also offered mentees and mentors the opportunity to share experiences they’d found really helpful. Between training sessions we send out newsletters to mentors and mentees, covering tips, what-if scenarios and what to expect next. These have gone down really well.


We constantly obtain feedback from mentees and mentors. Mentors continue to find mentoring rewarding, while mentees cite these key benefits:

  • Learning more about how Unilever operates
  • Agreement of a clear development plan
  • Better understanding of how to transition into a bigger role.

One of our female mentees says:

“The sessions are very productive and the subjects vary from projects to personal feedback and ideas on how to do things differently and better. It is a very safe environment. I feel comfortable to ask my mentor’s point of view on any subject. To me his concerns about my development and wellbeing are genuine and I truly appreciate this. I look forward to each session, and prepare beforehand the subjects that I would like to discuss. To date I have always left a session with at least one thing that I have applied immediately and this is very energising.”

Next steps

We want to increase the promotion rate and the number of female senior leaders participating in the programme. At the end of 2011, all our high-potential women at director level were participating in the programme. By the end of 2012, we aim to include all our vice-president level women too (around 25-30 mentees).

We are also working closely with our key markets and functions to get mentoring rolled out at manager and director level across the globe to strengthen our diverse talent pipeline.

Lessons learned

  • Keep checking in It’s so important to have regular dialogue with your mentees and mentors to ensure the pairings are working and that they are developing great mentoring relationships.
  • If the mentoring relationship isn’t working, admit it and move on Fortunately, we haven’t had many pairings that haven’t worked, but where we have, we encouraged the pairs to admit this and move on.
  • Create a mentee network So they can share their experiences with each other.
  • Have a clear objective Programmes like the global mentoring one need an objective, otherwise they are just a ‘nice to have’ HR initiative.
  • Link it to your business agenda This gives it gravitas and drives engagement.
  • Don’t underestimate the need for training Don’t assume that mentors who are senior leaders know how to be mentors, or that mentees know how to be mentees.
  • Katherine Ray will be presenting on mentoring for change at Unilever at the Coaching at Work conference on 11 July

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