How to crack the CEO factory?

“At HUL we start winning when we are still in diapers.”

The above statement was posted by Unilever Careers’ FB page this April. Although it is clearly toned in a playful way with a whiff of that refreshing candour that companies seemed to have perfected on social networks, the statement still registers strongly with the listener.

“At HUL we start winning when we are still in diapers.”

It does, right? Had another company put this out, one could have dismissed it as a hollow claim of a corporate giant. With HUL, however, style tends to be backed by substance. This particular post was about HUL’s day care centre at their Andheri head office being ranked as the best pre-school in Mumbai and amongst the top 4 nationally. It says something about a company’s winning philosophy when their day care centre not only aspires but becomes the best in Mumbai, besting players who are solely dedicated to the child day-care business.

Is it any surprise then that every year, scores of Sales & Marketing candidates put HUL as their dream company? Nielsen, which tracks recruiter preferences amongst B-school students, has had HUL at the top of their list every year for the past five years. When you think of all the companies across sectors new and old, and everything that has changed in the last 5 years, it is an astonishing achievement.

So what makes HUL so desirable to candidates?

Part of it has to do with its sheer size. As the biggest FMCG in India spanning a plethora of categories, the learning curve and the career opportunities are unmatched. However, dig just a little deeper, and you will come across the real reason why HUL is distinctive. This is not just another company. It’s a “Leadership Factory’, the only one of its kind.

The Company’s strong employer value proposition is rooted in its unique positioning as a ‘School of CEOs’ — offering big jobs very early on in career to groom for functional and leadership responsibilities.

HUL’s capability programs for their employees and summer interns are widely considered to be best in class, highly rigorous, and provide an amazing growth opportunity through the diversity of experiences: from rural immersions in Maharashtrian villages to treading international waters. Even the title of their summer internship program has “Leaders” inscribed. There is no wasting any time here! They know they are in the business of creating leaders and they start at the first very step.

 

HUL’s employer value proposition of creating ‘Leaders’ is evident everywhere.

Although this “Leaders build Leaders” philosophy has been derived from its global parent Unilever, it is HUL that has perfected the clay into a reliable functioning mould. HUL’s strong influence on its global parent, as evidenced by the number of HUL leaders holding key global leadership positions, is quite unusual for Indian subsidiaries. Fondly called ‘Mafia’ by their colleagues, these ‘Made in HUL’ leaders form the pulse of the global behemoth. All in all, HUL offers to take your career by the collar and put you on an ever escalating journey of learning, opportunities and powerful leadership experiences.

So the obvious next question is: How does one prepare for its recruitment process? Having interviewed scores of recruiters and candidates, we have unearthed some key insights that could help you tame the lion.

First things first: Understand HUL’s Standards of Leadership (SOLs). SOLs are competencies that Unilever expects its employees to embody and showcase in every single job at hand. As a candidate, if you can demonstrate these behaviours through your past experiences and/ or key decisions, you will stand out as a clear culture fit. Below we have tried to explain each SOL and ways to demonstrate them in an interview:

1. Growth Mindset:

Definition: You have a positive attitude about the company’s future and a passion for growth and winning. You take the lead and seek fresh opportunities; insist on innovation and never settle for ‘good enough.’

To manifest growth mind set in an interview, try finding past experiences in your life where in you undertook the task with a clear intent to really ‘up’ the game. It can be your role in the marketing team of your under-grad college fest. Now how did you go about it? Was your benchmark the foot-falls achieved by the previous team, or did you aim to beat the best fest in the city, or the country? People with growth mindset are the ones who always hope for, believe in and work towards the best possible outcome. They challenge the status quo and push themselves and their team much beyond their ‘satisfactory’ performance.

2. Bias for action:

Definition: You bring a sense of urgency to getting things done and making tough decisions, avoiding over-debating or over-analyzing issues. You’re results-focused, and drive for simplification by keeping the end goal in sight at all times.

Bias for action can be manifested in an interview by talking about your past experiences where in you got things done. Find instances where you were absolutely execution focused. You realized that it is imperative to take a decision irrespective of the lack of information or challenges or the doubts that people surrounding you have. You escalated issues, inspired people or just rolled up your sleeves and did it yourself.

This SOL can be very critical in an HUL group discussion. An HUL GD simulates solving a problem under time and data constraints. Difficult decisions need to be made and key outputs to be delivered. Candidates who keep their cool, overcome conflicts, complexities & doubts, and stay results focused stand out clearly.

Let’s also correct a common misconception for HUL GDs.

No one likes overtly aggressive candidates in GDs!

There, we said it! Let your marketing logic and inter-personal skills help you lead the group towards solutions.

Group discussions: Don’t be that guy. Aggression doesn’t work.

3. Accountability & Responsibility:

Definition: You make commitments and hold yourself accountable for delivery. You take pride in delivering work to the highest standards and acknowledge when things are not up to scratch. You let people know clearly, at the beginning, what is expected in terms of performance and hold them accountable for delivery.

This SOL has integrity, consistency and perseverance as their core personality facets. HUL invests significantly in its employees, and obviously wants to make sure that the investment does not go down the drain on fickle-tempered individuals. You should be ready to keep fighting when the going gets tough. Hence, it constantly looks for perseverance as a quality that you have demonstrated in the past. It shows in how you have persevered with good grades all through your high school & college or how you have persevered with a hobby and now have an in-depth understanding of that field.

4. Customer and Consumer Focus:

Definition: You have a passion to improve the lives of our consumers and customers and bring their voice into everything we do and the decisions we make. You are externally focused and go the extra mile in order to exceed consumer and customer expectations.

Applicants with work experience can demonstrate this competency through examples wherein they made an impact in the lives of a client or the end consumer. This SOL is not always possible to evaluate in an interview, especially for freshers. However it can be manifested in your passion for solving consumer problems or in your intention towards finding consumer insights, which you believe are the real game changers.

5. Building Talents/Teams:

Definition: You inspire through action and lead by example. You challenge people to do their best work and spend time coaching individuals and teams to ensure that they realise their full potential. You constantly challenge yourself to grow and improve.

Again, this SOL is not something that is actively judged while recruiting a candidate. However it can be manifested using experiences where in you held positions of responsibilities and helped an individual or a group of people to escalate their potential.

So what other things should you keep in mind while preparing?

HUL puts high value on analytical, logical and structured thinking. Don’t be impulsive in deciding your approach when the question is first posed. A marketing interview question rarely has a singular objective answer and it usually requires a well thought out structure to unearth category/consumer insights and then dovetailing them with the marketing objective using tools like STP, 4P, etc. Hence it is usually a good sign when as an interviewee you are thinking out loud. If you are unsure of something in the question, confirm it before proceeding. If you don’t have category context, admit it. This would help you turn the interview into being more of a brainstorming session with the interviewer and less of an interrogation. Even if in a specific question you are in a spot due to not knowing the terminologies or what route to adopt, you can always admit your knowledge status-quo and still wow the interviewer by the singularity of your logic. We have repeatedly seen ‘not-so-S&M focused’ candidates convert HUL on the back of logical and structured answers.

Especially in summers, it is not so much about where you start from, but if you are hell bent on arriving at the solution using every tool you know. And one of the strongest tools at your disposal is your conversationalist flair. Once you can turn the question into a subject of extreme interest to you and have an engaging & ever-improving conversation with the interviewer, you are always in the hunt.

Showing a sharp learning curve is more important than knowing the exact solution that the interviewer has in mind.

What can really help you in this is involving the interviewer in the process of finding the solution. That in turn is a skill that can be worked on by giving quality mock interviews and putting yourself in the hot-seat again and again.

Moving on from the softer aspects of the interview, there is a lot of credence in a candidate who has deep dived into every sales & marketing CV point that he/she has worked upon in the past. A candidate who has read up a lot about different categories and the current goings of the FMCG sector shows genuine interest and acumen. Specifically for finals, HUL expects in-depth knowledge of marketing concepts, especially the ones that you have worked on. Be ready with sharp questions on any of the projects, internships or case-studies that you have mentioned in your CV. The questions are generally focused either at the key concepts that you had used/studied, or your understanding of the sector you’d worked upon.

To sum it up, if you can demonstrate clarity with your own expectations and objectives in life, have made sense of the past in a way to learn from it and have made a strategy for the future, are clear about the basic marketing and sales concepts and have worked hard honing them leading up to the interview, and finally if you can stir up a marketing conversation with your passion and genuine curiosity for the subject, you are ready to own the Holy Grail.

Good luck!

This article is the first in the series “Unleavables: The top marketing and sales recruiters”, featuring actionable insights about their placement process. You can read about P&G here, or simply like our facebook page to get all updates.

At Kraftshala we use stories and expertise to craft the marketing & sales leaders of tomorrow. If you are interested in coaching, teaching or learning more about marketing, write in to us at contact@kraftshala.com

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