How to be brave (and other career advice) in uncertain times

Leena Nair is the chief human resources officer at Unilever, a role she has held since March 2016. Nair was also the first woman appointed to the Unilever South Asia Leadership team. Her personal purpose is “to ignite the human spark to build a better business and a better world.”

As the chief human resources officer, she champions having the right people, in the right roles, with the right capabilities and mindset and sees the young talent pipeline at Unilever as one of the most important strategic assets. Her sons are 22 and 18, so the topic of a tough job market and first careers has been dominating household conversations. Here is Nair’s advice to all graduating students and early career professionals on how to navigate the current job market.

Q: What trends do you see shaping the young workforce, or those who will be starting their careers during or after Covid-19?

A: That we are living in unprecedented times is not an exaggeration. The lockdown measures implemented across the world have forced workplaces to adopt new working behaviours overnight, some of which we expect to see continue beyond Covid-19 and into a “new normal.” At Unilever, we’ve done research into what this new normal might look like and have identified a number of emerging trends, including the rise of remote working, digital lifelong learning, a heightened awareness of well-being and work-life balance, and e-everything.

Q: How will these changes alter or redefine our understanding of work, where we choose to work or what we choose to do?

A: For those starting out in their careers this year and in a post-Covid-19 world, many will enter a remote-working environment. Our research shows that employees today are far more open to agile working, and this doesn’t necessarily mean working from home, but from anywhere really. There are benefits to this new workplace norm as it saves commuting, upholds social distancing and generally drives work-life balance.

With remote working comes the rise of digital collaboration, which opens the doors to work with a network of colleagues around the world. As Covid-19 has proved, we don’t need to be physically close to collaborate effectively. We see this virtual collaboration as becoming the default, allowing for a large number of people to produce powerful ideas and work together, across continents.

Moreover, people are more than ever before looking to work for companies that have purpose at their heart. The companies that genuinely look after their employees and are transparent about their purpose and plans will become the employers of choice.

Q: In tough times such as these, how does one go about choosing a career or a first job?

A: The key to picking the right role for you is to make sure it’s connected to your personal purpose. You might not yet know what your purpose is, and that’s OK. If you’re in this position, I would encourage you to dive right in and grasp the opportunities that come your way. Often through the doing and the learning trajectory you will start to understand what gives you energy and, as they say, what gets you out of bed in the morning.

Q: What career advice do you have for graduates worried about hiring freezes, layoffs and cancelled internships?

A: Be explicit about your goals and ambition. But instead of obsessing over the destination, try to focus on the learning trajectory that can get you there. During this time, ambition will take a bit of reframing. Try using this time to learn and then share your knowledge with others — give back to your peers.

Now is a great time for self-development. I encourage you to embrace all forms of online learning. Consider what skills you’ll need for your future — maybe it’s project management, strategic thinking or communication skills — all of this will stand you in good stead. If you have a gap between completing your degree and finding a job, or you’re in between jobs, focus on what is called the 21st-century skills. These are the four Cs: critical thinking, creativity, collaboration and communication. Try to commit at least three hours a week to online learning. There are so many free courses on YouTube and the Khan Academy. Once you have acquired these new skills, add them to your online CV — it’s something you can be proud of.

Q: What do you know now that you didn’t know when you were graduating?

A: I studied to be a telecommunications engineer. Like many, I worked hard to get good grades and learn as much as I could about my field. I thought this would prepare me for the world, but looking back, I now realize that you don’t graduate “fully formed.” What was important wasn’t the subject or even the skills themselves, but learning how to problem-solve, how to build your network, and learning how to learn. Your studies and degree do not lock you into one career trajectory for the rest of your life; treat your graduation as the start of an adventure and the beginning of the discovery phase of your life.

Q: If you knew then what you know now, how would you go about finding fulfilling work and ensuring success in your career?

A: Be braver earlier. It is so important to find your personal purpose. Keep asking yourself, “What am I truly passionate about?” and use it as your personal compass. Remember that there is no such thing as the perfect job. You have to look at each job and ask yourself, “What are the elements that I love?” Find those elements and dial them up. Learn how you can have a big impact in those areas. Of course, there will be areas you like a little less. But be brave in how you construct your job so that the areas that fulfill you are aligned with where you can have the biggest impact.

Written by: Vasundhara Sawhney
© 2020 Harvard Business School Publishing Corp. Distributed by The New York Times Licensing Group

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