Ehsan Malik

Chairman & CEO, Unilever

By Wali Zahid 14.03.2011

Your one-sentence description of yourself?

Passionate about what I do. Excellence is what I want to achieve. 'Passion to serve consumers' is what dictates my thoughts and actions. If the word 'consumer' doesn't appear in your first two sentences, you are only pleasing yourself.

Your first leadership opportunity? When? What was it?

This was in 1981 when after my ACA I returned to Pakistan to turn around a bankrupting organisation, Dawn Group. As Director Finance, I was thrown at the deep end it became a quick learning opportunity. I negotiated with stakeholders saying I will support you, but not with money. I had this job until 1991.

Were you ready for it? (H, M, L, no)


What was your readiness factor? (luck, will, skill, network)

'Need to prove myself.'

How did you perform then? On a 1-5 scale?

4 (brought the group from a bankrupt, insolvent to a highly solvent position).

Your all-time most significant leadership opportunity so far (if different from this)?

Not any particular. Success comes to you when you behave with people with humility, not as an arrogant boss, wearing dark glasses and having selective eyes and ears. As a backgrounder, I joined Unilever in 1991. In 1994, I was posted in London to investigate the Unilever successes and failures and lessons learnt. In 1997, I was sent to Egypt; in 2001 to Sri Lanka. In 2006, I returned to Pakistan as CEO of Unilever.

Your ideal, future leadership opportunity?

Success is not scale (although that helps). Form is not important; purpose is. What really matters is how many people you touch through your work positively (not through the blinkered view of tobacco firms' selling!). As for facts, during the 2006-2010 years, we doubled the growth. Our 2010-2015 business plan ensures tripling of the growth.

Is it likely to happen in your remaining work years?

It happens every day.

Today in your current role: Where are you on Wali's Will-Skill Matrix (high, medium, low)?

High will. Moderate skill.

Ehsan said competency would be a better word for skill. Competency to judge people, to motivate them, to empower them, to hold them accountable. I am like a tent pole; ropes needed to be strong towards the top.

What drives you? (one-word driver)

Meeting people's needs

Candidly speaking, have you been happy about growth numbers in the past decade?

Happy, but not ecstatic. We provided stability. We took growth from pre-2006 3% to 24%. This was 5% volume growth and 19% value growth.

In an uncertain and ambiguous world, how can you make sure that your plans are achievable?

Keep doing the right things persistently, consistently. You need to be more consistent in an inconsistent world!

How easy or difficult is it to manage the Gen Y/Millennials (people born after 1982)?

A lot easier to manage than earlier generations. They are open to change; in fact, they are the change! They are not hierarchical; high-maintenance people. You cannot take them for granted. They have a deep understanding of digital media. In Unilever marketing, 62% of the staff is Gen Y, some of them young mothers. We have a company-managed daycare centre for them, with their laptops having a webcam where they can see their child's movement in the centre. We also practice agile working: they work one day a week from home.

Your legacy? How do you want to be remembered? In your industry? In your organisation?

I don't know if I want to be remembered. But definitely not as an individual, but my institutional legacy. That Unilever Pakistan is cognizant of people's needs and is (not, was) able to meet those needs.

What would you want to see in your leader (i.e. your leader to do)?

What I want to see in myself: humble; consumer-first attitude. I report to head of South Asia.

Your learning: Where do you turn to for learning – both daily routine, and time-off for courses?

My biggest learning comes from consumers. I spend a day every month with consumer focus groups to see if our product offering is aligned with people's needs, or we need to make significant changes. Similarly, our business heads and their teams do the same every month. We are a firm which serves 185 million people, so we are people-centred and our learning comes from people.

Are there sufficient opportunities for C-level learning here in Pakistan or in the region?


Learning and development of your team – what opportunities are available here? Your rating of these programmes? (1-5 scale)

Mostly in-house. 20% learning comes from Unilever-provided developmental tools, while 80% is on the job training.

What would you want different about these programmes?

That they are practical and grounded in reality. For those working fine, I won't need to change them.

What are three core competencies or skill areas you would want your team to develop for this year? Next three years?

External orientation. People management (immediate-manager effectiveness and fairness). Heightened sense of accountability/responsibility, differentiating gray areas – perhaps through an evolved tool of how people perform: both in what they achieve and how they achieve.

What is your biggest time eater at work?

One is meetings and my need of balancing: giving the people their air time and making conclusions. Could make them more focused. The other is emails.

Information overload: What is your coping mechanism?

I am able to skim a lot of background and have an evolved procedure of only focusing on exceptions in routine reporting.

Do you have a stop-to-do list?

Not a static list; it's a constantly evolving list. It includes both 'must-stop' and 'more/less of' items. Sometimes, it's not as black and white list; includes a lot of gray areas.

How can we give up control (and do more empowering)?

Set up processes. Create reporting spans of 8-10 direct reports – horses for courses. Do not look over people's shoulders.

What kind of personal or social networks do you use to enhance your presence and the chances for success?

These are mostly external networks. I am a director at Pakistan Business Council. There are some casual networks too.

Faith? Is faith an inspiration for you?

Faith is doing the right thing.

Ever thought that how could the Prophet (saw)'s personality be a guiding factor for you in doing business, making decisions, empowering others? If yes, in what ways?

The Prophet (saw) was motivated by fairness.

CEO derailment? Have you seen colleagues derailing/going down? What was the cause?


Any other cause of CEO derailment in our part of the world?

Self-centred. Promoting themselves beyond the business. Mistreating people. Sometimes, lack of integrity which shows your character. Complacency. Sometimes, success goes to your head.

Your messages to new generation of leaders: What leads to success?

Having an open mind. Curiosity. Healthy discontent.

Your messages to new generation of leaders: Can you create your own luck? How?

By having courage. Having the right behaviours and skills. Caring ways for others.