The emergence of a new type of leader – Rob Candelino CEO of Unilever Thailand

by Fabienne Hansoul
CEO Unilever Thailand

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 mean for him and the company he leads.

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 Candelino CEO Unilever Thailand

Rob, a Canadian national, didn’t get the first job he applied for at Unilever. In fact he applied to all of the “traditional academy companies” and only Unilever returned his call. He says he interviewed 10 ten times before the company rejected him for a role as an Assistant Brand Manager. He persisted and ultimately a woman with whom he had interviewed named Mary Swaffield “took a chance on a kid who had no relevant experience, no applicable skills and poor academic grades”. However he was only offered an internship because “Mary essentially told me I was either going to be very successful or a disaster so she offered me a trial period to protect the company if it was the latter”. Based on his subsequent very quick ascendancy through Unilever which includes roles in Chicago, London, NYC and now Bangkok and the many industry awards that followed, it seems Mary was correct on the former.

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”. Instead he stays grounded by reflecting daily on the three key drivers of his energy and purpose – his role as a leader of people, his role as a father and his role as someone who “is blessed with a platform from which I can help make an impact to the society in which we live”. Listening to him, it was very clear that these values are written deep in his DNA. When I asked what purposeful leadership means to him as a leader, as a human being and as the prominent figurehead of Unilever Thailand, I was spoiled by a deep speech and ignited by his passion for the subject.

“For me leading with purpose is purely about understanding where you get your energy from, your why, and then putting yourself in a position where you can share that to benefit the maximum number of people you lead, the what. Leading with Purpose sounds very selfish but in fact its the exact opposite. The positive impact you can make on others is almost always greatest when you yourself are most committed to making such an impact. And that only comes from being purposeful and deliberate.” At a personal level, Rob shared that his cultural roots and the story of his parents are firmly anchored in the man he has become today and his own purpose in life.

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 life” Candelino said. “The only way to a better life was through hard work”.
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 curious how “normal” people lived. Ultimately this curiosity inspired his dream to be the first one in his family to leave home and go to university and a career where he has travelled extensively and has contributed to work in every corner of the world.

Rob Candelino CEO Unilever Thailand

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 so” he says. “I learned from them what a gift you give someone when you invest in them or when you believe in them. These people all did so for me and have changed the arc of my life”. Throughout his 22 years of professional experience he felt uplifted by such leaders who have cultivated his inner compass to point him in the right direction, shaped his value and showed him the way to purposeful leadership. All the while, he seems to have remained the same grounded person from two decades ago.

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 life” he said. He talks respectfully of the generations of leaders before him who built a successful enterprise but also gave so much back to this country as well citing the countless jobs Unilever has created in the country and their significant investments in people development and unique job experiences for Thais.

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 on issues that affect every one of us. He shared environmental damage, income inequality, education, child hunger as just a few of the issues where “we all need to do more”. I think of locals and foreigners who share this exotic land and who will be happy to learn from concrete initiatives. I ask Rob what are the good practices of Unilever in this area and what would be his response to activists, NGOs that could offer resistance to a company listed on the stock exchange whose primary purpose is profit.

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 three wheeled bicycles. The more they sell, the more money they can make. Currently, Wall’s supports “several thousand” in Thailand many of them having enjoyed a better life as a result. When I asked for an example, Rob was quick to share a story of his “new friend” Khun Arun who has been a Wall’s salesman now for over twelve years. “Before that he was a cobbler, sitting at the end of his Soi lamenting the fact that he wasn’t able to send his kids to school and often struggling to put clothes on their backs” Candelino said. “When I asked him what changed after he joined our Wall’s family, Arun said to me that his kids are happy, in a good school and they call him a hero.”

Rob Candelino CEO Unilever Thailand

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 Dow Jones Sustainability Index for more than a decade and that the company is proud of its leading role in this concern. That said, he was very clear that much more still needs to be done and confessed that Unilever alone cannot solve the problems. The world’s problems need collective solutions obtained with public and private partnerships and with leaders of all types taking more responsibility to help”.

As we discussed corporate social responsibility, I am interested in his views on gender equality and beyond onto inclusive diversity. He shares that Unilever Thailand is a gender-balanced organisation with “more women than men in management roles and an equally balanced top executive team”. Rob went on to say that while Unilever is committed to gender equality, Thailand has long been iconic for Unilever because they have had an abundance of extremely talented women and men in equal measure for “as long as anyone here can remember”. The one area of diversity where Rob claims the company has plans to make even more of an impact is in creating opportunities for people with“diffabilities”, a blend of different and abilities. “Just imagine” he said passionately “how cool it’s going to be for people who lack sight or lack the ability to hear today to soon join the mainstream workforce en masse because of advances in Artificial Intelligence, Digitization and Voice.

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 any ways to accomplish the corporate mission and thrive in Thailand, Rob certainly agreed. The expat culture gives Thais the opportunity to work with some of Unilever’s most talented global leaders who come here while also creating opportunities for Thais to have similar experiences abroad. “It’s a great quid pro quo” he says. “Thailand is among our most desirable posting for expats from abroad to come and learn in one of the most dynamic markets in Asia and equally our Thai talents are sought after in many markets around the world because they tend to be extremely smart and passionate leaders”.

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”. Naturally I came to ask about his experience as an expatriate and bet that our readers are interested in knowing the man behind the job and his secrets of a balanced life. It is obvious that Candelino appreciates each fragment of this expatriate life as a gift. While Rob and his wife have lived abroad for sixteen years, the move to Thailand was the first they did with their young children. Rob was aware that the success of a life abroad depends undeniably on the wellbeing of his family. “I have learned that in taking a job of this magnitude you need to put hard walls around the things that are the most valuable to you. For me, that is time with my family since I can’t be a good leader at work if I am a poor contributor at home – that equation just doesn’t work for us”.

Rob Candelino CEO Unilever Thailand

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 its helpful for them to frame their day but I have learned its hugely effective for me at work as well”. “I love my job and I love all our people but this family time is honestly the best part of my day” concluded Rob. Then comes the need to work out, another ingredient needed to fill his glass of energy every day and get to work with a balanced body and mind. He says he would like his children to create memories for life and see Bangkok as a succession of learning, iconic and defining moments that will count in their future development at all levels. “We are very conscious that we live a privileged as expats in this amazing city. Hence we work really hard to create a sense of normalcy and reality for ourselves and especially our kids” said Rob, shedding light on a concern of many expat parents living in this entertaining and easygoing country.

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 its in his job description “to be constructively unreasonable” in order to help Unilever Thailand reach even new heights. It is so good to hear Rob dithyrambic about Thailand, its talents, smiles and country delights, that I hesitate to ask that one regret that he would have if he ever had to leave Thailand today. Rob regretted that he is a poor student and as a result has struggled to learn the language as much as he could or should. He concedes that life would be easier and it would be more respectful to the people of Thailand if he learned the language.

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.

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