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You recruited and trained me, new Chanel boss tells her first mentor in Kolkata

Leena Nair and her Kolkata connect: Aniruddha Lahiri shares his Dronacharya moment

Chandreyee Chatterjee | Published 16.12.21, 05:08 PM
Leena Nair will be joining Chanel as Global Chief Executive Officer at the end of January 2022

Leena Nair will be joining Chanel as Global Chief Executive Officer at the end of January 2022

Wikimedia Commons

Aniruddha Lahiri: “Wow Leena, you’ve done it! I am so happy for you.”
Leena Nair: (Pause) “After all, who recruited me and trained me?”

When Aniruddha Lahiri got the news of Leena Nair’s appointment as Global Chief Executive Officer of French luxury house Chanel, the corporate veteran called her in London, from his south Kolkata home. That was when he experienced his Dronacharya moment.


“She was so humble. She should have been saying ‘thank you very much’, but what she said was her way of saying ‘thank you’. It was an emotional moment for me,” Lahiri told My Kolkata.

Leena Nair, then Menon, did her MBA in Human Resources at XLRI Jamshedpur, where she won a gold medal. In 1992, during the campus placements, she caught the eye and impressed the recruiters from Hindustan Lever Limited (now called Hindustan Unilever Limited), especially of the then HR director, Aniruddha Lahiri.

“My purpose is to Ignite the Human Spark to build a Better Business and a Better World #morehuman” reads the LinkedIn bio of Leena Nair, 52, who was the “first female, first Asian, youngest ever CHRO of Unilever and member of the Unilever Leadership Executive (ULE)”. She will be joining Chanel at the end of January 2022 after a stint of almost 30 years at Unilever.

Nair has been featured in Fortune magazine’s list of most powerful women in 2021 and is the second woman of Indian origin, after Indira Nooyi, to become an A-list global CEO. “Humbled and honoured to be appointed the Global Chief Executive Officer of @CHANEL, an iconic and admired company,” read her Twitter post after the announcement.

“Extremely bright” and “of great intellect” were the two things that immediately stood out for Lahiri in the first interaction he had with Leena on the XLRI campus. She almost didn’t join HLL, till he convinced her otherwise.

Apart from being a member of the Hindustan Unilever Board for many years, Lahiri was the Managing Director of the ABP Group and then the President of The Chatterjee Group (TCG).

Over to Aniruddha Lahiri on… The Recruit!

The recruitment of a rare talent

It was in 1992. We were doing campus recruitments at XLRI and we recruited Leena as a management trainee for the HR function. I was the decision maker in recruitment and, as the HR director of HLL at that time, was also involved in her training and development.

Leena was given her offer letter and she came to the HLL office in Churchgate, Mumbai, to finalise and close the job placement. I was busy in my office on the fifth floor, where all the directors of the company used to sit. I called the management development guy who was in charge of finalising the recruitment and asked him for the day’s report. I asked about Leena and he said that she was unlikely to join as she had a competing offer from another leading company in India. When I asked where she was, he told me she had just left the office.

I ran down five flights of stairs and went to the reception and asked the security if Leena had signed out. She was in the elevator and as soon as she came out, I caught her and told her let us go out. I took her out for a cup of coffee and spent a couple of hours talking to her. It proved fruitful because I was able to convince her that HLL would be a much better place for her to flourish, and she joined us.

Aniruddha Lahiri, as the HR director of Hindustan Lever Limited at that time, was closely involved in Leena Nair’s training and development

Aniruddha Lahiri, as the HR director of Hindustan Lever Limited at that time, was closely involved in Leena Nair’s training and development

I was that keen and took that much interest in her because, from her campus interview, I realised she was an extremely bright individual. I was enamoured by the quality of her intellect and I realised that she could fit into any role she was given in the company. I thought that she could get out of HR and become a business leader, manage exports and take the company forward. I believed we had recruited a gem of a person. A real talent who’ll go a long way.

Being the HR director, I was also responsible for chalking out her training programme and had a lot of involvement in her training, and she really flourished. She had great confidence and a great outlook towards business. She could talk about anything under the sun.

From factory floor to the board of Hindustan Unilever

Leena helped me fulfil one of my personal objectives, which I had when I joined the board of HLL as the HR director. I always thought that a fast moving consumer goods company making so many products where buying decisions are made by women — food, personal care, homecare — should have a woman on the board. And she fulfilled that objective. She joined the board of Hindustan Unilever as a management committee member and executive director of HR.

She also fulfilled my objective of putting a woman in charge of industrial relations in a factory, which was all about human relations with regard to unionised labour. Women were never posted in the factories because in those days they were rough and there was a lot of militancy when it came to the unions. But I believed that women would do as well as men in the factories because they would be able to change the attitude of people. I sent Leena to one of the smaller factories but with a great deal of problems. And Leena proved me right. She did extremely well there.

In her role in industrial relations, she contributed a lot to maintaining industrial harmony and peace in the factories. She was successful in putting some sense into those guys and she was extremely popular. She was successful in solving remuneration issues and long-term settlements. She had an influence in changing some of the attitudes of the management towards the workers. She was equally adept at handling the workers and the management staff.

She would give me a lot of ideas about remuneration and assessment of people that, at that time, were quite novel. And we ended up rolling those ideas out worldwide. Of course, there have been times when we have butted heads, because I would never be as contemporary as her, and some of the new ideas that she had would question our flexibility, but those were easily resolved, and always led to a better decision. There were so many times that I have learnt from her.

She would take up any challenge and never back down

During my direct association with her, I gave her a lot of responsibility, giving her jobs for which I needed someone who would deliver, and she did, because she was an achiever. She was someone who would take up any challenge and never backed down. At the end of the day, what is business about? It is about getting people to deliver your objectives, working through people. And Leena was fantastic working through people. She was very popular and she earned a lot of respect. She was extremely dedicated and committed and a great consensus builder. She was analytical and fast with decision-making and always extremely innovative. On the board of HUL, she was always seen as someone who could play a role in linking up everybody.

Towards the end of my time at HUL she was steadily rising in the HR management side and after I moved to Unilever around 1996-97, she became the HR executive director and was part of the board as a management committee. She never looked back and just went up and up and up.

By the time she was seconded to Unilever I had retired from the Unilever headquarters and come back to India.

I had kept in touch with Leena throughout. Just to say hi, hello and how are things…. She was always warm and forthright. She became the head of HR worldwide, but I knew she was not going to stop at HUL!

 The French luxury fashion house was founded by Coco Chanel in 1910

The French luxury fashion house was founded by Coco Chanel in 1910

Feng Li/Getty Images

Leena has great leadership qualities and Chanel recognises that

I am not at all surprised that she has been appointed CEO of Chanel, even though it is a deeply marketing-oriented company and different from her HR role in HUL and Unilever. At the end of the day, what you need is leadership qualities and Leena has great leadership qualities. She is really good at consensus-building and talking to managers from across functions, technical, finance, etc. She not only has an appreciation of all these functions, she is versatile and capable of handling business. And Chanel recognises that. Especially her ability to build human capital, which, today, is the biggest asset for any company.

Like Dronacharya, I am someone who wants to see my trainees become better than me. And Leena Nair is one of them. I am extremely happy, like I have been every time she has moved to a higher position. Mark my words, she will go down in the pages of history as one of the most successful Indian managers.

Last updated on 16.12.21, 06:06 PM

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