Like the other 340 attendees present at the luncheon on Women in Leadership hosted by the Thai-Canadian Chamber of Commerce in February, I was inspired by the talk delivered by Rob Candelino, head of Unilever Thailand, on Leading with Purpose. Rob’s authentic speech rightly went beyond the subject on gender diversity to include several other major
leadership themes today such as the importance of “bringing your real self to work”, personal and corporate responsibility and “sending the elevator back down” to unlock opportunities for people at all levels in an organisation. It was with great enthusiasm that I went to meet Rob to better understand the man behind the job and what does Leading with Purpose
As I entered the lobby of Unilever House, the iconic oval building in central Bangkok, I was welcomed by a spacious, bright and playful environment. Rob showed up relaxed, grounded and fully present. Dressed in jeans an untucked shirt and trainers, I was immediately struck by the same remarkably humble attitude that hooked us all when we first saw him at the luncheon. Are humility, authenticity and purposefulness the future qualities of the new generation of leaders? While listening to the professional and personal story of Rob Candelino, this is what we found to be a message of hope for everyone experiencing this chaotic and complex world of the 21st century.
Rob, a Canadian national, didn’t get the first job he applied for at Unilever. In
Candelino shuns the notion that he is successful and doesn’t appear to pay much attention to his title or “other trappings of corporate hierarchies”.
“For me leading with purpose is purely about understanding where you get your energy from, your
Born the youngest of three children to Italian immigrants with no real education, Rob was inspired by the strong work ethic and commitment his family had to a better life. He started working at nine years old in his friend’s father’s pizza shop and has worked almost continuously since then. Rob’s father was a bricklayer, his mother a seasonal worker in a fresh fruit factory for more than forty years. “We didn’t have much and it wasn’t ever easy but there was love and we all learned early that there was no free ride in
Rob went on to say that it was interesting to grow up swinging between an advanced western upbringing during the day and a very traditional immigrant Italian existence at home. As a third culture kid (people raised in a culture other than their parents), he was always
When he discussed the professional forces that shaped his leadership, Rob is quick to mention the people who played a critical role in growing his career. “There are probably about six to eight people who have invested heavily in me when they really didn’t have to do
Listening to Rob, it is not difficult to understand that he never felt pressured to conform. In return, he values the organisations that don’t force their people to submit to the standards, rather allow them to be themselves. When asked what his greatest responsibilities in Thailand are, he doesn’t hesitate: “to unlock personal and professional growth for our people and to make a positive impact on the society in which we live and work. I strongly believe that if we get our purpose and people agendas right, then great business performance ultimately follows”. About his mission as a leader abroad, he described his role as a caretaker of the legacy of a storied company in Thailand and within Unilever itself. “Having this job is the greatest professional privilege of my
This is the reason why he unreservedly labels Unilever a purposeful organisation. Contributing to a company that embodies such corporate value is the third driving force of his leadership. Rob shared that every Thai home uses a Unilever product at least three times a day and he sees that as an enormous sense of responsibility to positively impact their lives. As I am curious to understand what corporate legacy or lasting imprint he wants to leave in Thailand, our conversation took another direction. He challenged unbridled commercialism as a sustainable solution. Rob believes that in today’s modern economy, performance, profit, integrity and social responsibility can go hand in hand for a better definition of success. “We have a multi-stakeholder model for business success” he shares. “We remain committed to proving that business can be both prosperous and purposeful”.
Candelino went on to say that leaders in all aspects of society must play a bigger role
As a case in point, Rob cited the “I’m Wall’s” programme which was created in Thailand thirty years ago and has spread to numerous countries around the world. The programme employs local people across the countries as “mini-entrepreneurs” who sell ice cream mainly from
Candelino concluded that this is the corporate environment at his best. Leaders who hope to leave an influential corporate legacy must be intentional about principled leadership, defining and living out cultural beliefs, and bringing organisational practices in line with these beliefs. In response to the needs expressed by other parties, he said: “Our role as leaders is to create a thriving business while giving back to the communities and the people we serve, unlocking potential and creating new routes to prosperity for people who otherwise may not have those opportunities. I don’t think these are conflicting ambitions. I think they are symbiotic”.
Knowing the world’s problems and that the field of progress is of magnitude, we discussed leadership responsibilities in a stakeholder society. Rob shared that Unilever has been named the industry leader in
As we discussed corporate social responsibility, I am interested in his views on gender equality and beyond
We want to lead that both because we are transforming our business for the digital age and because it is the right thing to do. I am super proud of our teams who are driving this agenda in our company”. Asking if the expat culture is helping in
Candelino then went on to share that Unilever’s new global CEO, Alan Jope, spent many of his formative career years in Thailand, speaks fluent Thai and still retains great reverence for the country where two of his children were born. “We are very proud that Alan worked in Thailand. It is further proof that this country is a great developer of talent for Unilever globally”.
He refers to a trick he has recently stolen from his wife of 13 years, Carolyn. “Every morning she asks our boys to declare their intentions for the day. We have noticed
The family has found its rhythm obviously, but what about its ability to get in tune with the lifestyle Thai? Rob confessed with humility that he is still figuring out life here. “I learn something new every day,” he says. He is travelling regularly as he wants to get out of the echo chamber of Bangkok and the very tight business community in the capital. Later in our conversation, I particularly appreciated Rob’s invitation to all the guests to the Land of Smiles to go beyond the surface and the tourist sides sights of Thailand. “The Thailand of the tourists is very different from Thailand that I have come to love and value” underlined Rob. “Unfortunately the narratives about this country cover only a few of the things that tourists see. You rarely hear about the deep commitment Thais have to their families, the reverence they have to their faith, to their strong sense of community and their refreshing sense of fun and happiness. These are only things you get to see when you are here for a while and you are genuinely committed to looking for them”.
To the question how long do you envision staying in Thailand, he immediately said, “as long as they will have me”. Rob feels blessed that he inherited the beautiful work done by his predecessors. He also values the immense responsibility of his role today. He says for those two reasons
As we spent one hour talking informally and genuinely, I was captivated and lost track of time. It was fascinating to get to know you, your mission and your beliefs Rob Candelino. Thank you.