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Blog : Purple Interview - Claire Fox, HR Director - Unilever Food Solutions


Purple Interview - Claire Fox, HR Director - Unilever Food Solutions

‘Working Nine to Five – What a Way to Make a Living!’ was the break-out session which caught my eye at this year’s Women 1st Conference. Partly because I was still riding high from Dolly’s storming performance at Glastonbury, though really it was because I’d seen Claire Fox speak previously and had been impressed by her approach to diversity, equality and work-life balance.

When our research into what makes a best place to work revealed work-life balance and a positive working environment within the top six, I knew who I needed to speak to…


Claire, we all know of the powerhouse which is Unilever and the incredible brands this encompasses. However tell me about your area, Food Solutions:

Sure, Food Solutions is Unilever UK and Ireland’s food service business. Our premise is that we provide solutions for chefs whether that’s restaurants, hotels, canteens, hospitals, schools – anywhere that serves food.  So with brands like Flora, Hellmans, Knorr. We don’t just supply though. We take time to understand the business and also champion change. For example following the insights gained from the organisations we work with, we’re launched a programme called the Big School Bake Off which is encouraging chefs in schools to make things from scratch rather than using cake mix. The feedback we’ve had is amazing and that it’s reignited a love for baking.

And how about your role?

I’m the HR Director for this business and sit on the board. My main responsibilities are to drive capability and development within the business. Three people sit directly on my team but obviously within Unilever there is additional support from expertise teams for example in learning and development teams, recruitment, policy which in a smaller business you may not necessarily have access to which is an advantage to us.


The feedback from your Women 1st session, where you focused on gaining a better work-life balance, was fantastic. What’s your experience of this – balancing work, home and two young children?

It’s really difficult to get a balance that you’re happy with, but you can do it. You have to make it happen though, no-one is going to do it for you. And this is what my session focused on – my four step formula to work-life balance.

First up is be true to yourself. To do that you need to know yourself. So what’s really important to you in your life, being really honest with your answers. I used a tool called 'Career Anchors' and that helped me gain clarity (or you could also use Purple Cubed's free eValue tool). I love my job and my career is very important to me but my priority in life is quality time with my family and so whilst I’m happy to work late occasionally or pick up emails on a Saturday, what I’m not willing to do is miss the kids going to bed and so I work around this and communicate that to the business. 

Second is being fabulous – absolutely fabulous. In work the more of a voice you’ve got the more opportunity you have to suggest doing things differently. And to gain this you need to do a great job now – career plans and mentoring are great, but focus first on being brilliant at what you do because if you don’t it’ll be much harder to get that opportunity. So you have to find your way of being on form. Think about when you were last really on it. What were you doing and why was it going so well. Reflect and re-create.

Third is ruthlessly prioritise – everyone has lots to do, more than a nine to five probably more than a seven days a week full time. Companies are restructuring, asking people to deliver more with less. When I asked people who are successful leaders or work part-time what their secret was they all said ruthlessly prioritise. Again it’s about finding out what works for you and then sticking to it.

Finally is having crystal clear boundaries – you have to know what you’re ok with so really consider what is and isn’t ok. Are you OK to work into the evenings? How many evenings are you prepared to do that for? Will you answer calls at the weekend and how often are you willing to do this? Are you ok to miss a school play – is that once, twice or all the time? And then you come back to the being true to yourself and the being fabulous bit because you need to communicate, live and breathe it. And that will depend on the job and you. For example, I usually get the train to work so I use this time to do my emails and that’s part of my working day. If I have an early meeting then I’ll catch the shuttlebus from the station. If I don’t then I’ll walk as that makes me feel good and I can make phone calls as I’m walking. If I have a presentation that I know I want to practise then I’ll drive to work and speak it out loud as I’m driving. When I work from home I drop the kids off at nursery and go straight for a run because this gives me some thinking time for the bigger projects. So you have to find ways which work for you and obviously the business as you still need to deliver.


And what do businesses need to do to accommodate this?

What businesses need to understand, and it’s coming out a little bit with the focus on mental health and wellbeing at the moment, is that it is a symbiotic relationship. If you are happy outside of work, enjoying yourself, not regretting being away from the kids or whatever your driver then you’ll have energy inside of work, be engaged and more passionate. It’s not good for people to be unhappy, resentful or stressed. So businesses need to understand the benefit of having a fully rounded life. Then create the right culture to support – there’s no point having a policy of agile working if every time someone leaves the office others raise their eyebrows. Ultimately this is what organisations are going to have to do to attract and engage talent – just look at the younger generations coming through. We have to recognise that they have a completely different perspective on what is or isn’t OK from a work environment.


As you’ve said it requires hard work to overcome the challenges of gaining that balance. What advice would you give to employees who are about to have the conversation with their employer about work-life balance?

It is a difficult conversation to have so you have to remember to bring it back to the business. Think also about the culture in the organisation. Sometimes there are work-life policies but the culture doesn’t always support it. So if it’s a culture where everyone works really long hours then consider how that conversation would realistically go. But if you think that the suggestion isn’t unworkable then it’s about coming up with the solution and presenting that because all too often people focus on the problems. For example a comment might be "Oh four days a week, what about that one day and we need to contact you?" and my response would be "What a great opportunity for someone else in the team to act up for that one day". So think through why getting a better balance is important to you and how it can work for the business; turning it into a positive, honest conversation. You also have to bring it back to the most important thing to you because if that’s getting a promotion in that company then is this really the right conversation to have? You have to take your destiny into your own hands. If more people took this approach then businesses would realise they’d have to change their ways in order to keep great people.


It’s obvious that Unilever has this type of supportive culture. Though obviously you’re a global organisation, how do you ensure that is consistent across the world?

We have our Code of Business Principles and our Standards of Leadership which are global. Every employee in every country is expected to adhere to these which provides consistency in the things that really matter, such as the organisational values. But then countries are managed locally, with leadership teams able to adapt the things to suit their business and local area. Combined with our sustainable living plan, which encourages our businesses to get out and help their community, this is why we have retained that style culture.


One of the other things you’re passionate about is gender balance and within Unilever Food Solutions your holy trinity of Managing Director, Finance Director and HR Director is all female. With the board quotas topic regularly featuring in the news, what’s your take?

We work really hard to promote gender balance in all areas of our business – so more men in marketing, more women in leadership positions. We want to engage the senior leadership team in this as the bigger picture rather than just getting women on our boards.

Tracey Rogers (Managing Director, Unilever Food Solutions) really supports this and makes sure that we create a culture of being output driven; where agile working is valued and accepted. It’s this which really makes a difference to the balance within our workforce. However despite having a female MD, HRD and FD we still have more work to do and so we’re looking at our big bet talent – our future starts not in their next promotion but perhaps two or three more down the line. Once identified we can provide them with the support, development and exposure to grow their skills and capabilities.

In terms of female quotas, I don’t think they’re the right answer. I do see that it might be a quick way to make changes, however I also see that they might alienate not just the male leaders, but also women themselves. So it needs to be much more around ensuring women gain the same opportunities, especially with critical assignments, so they can prove their worth and gain a position on merit. And also get past the mindset of a job is Monday to Friday, 9am till 5pm and open our minds to using talent and technology in an innovative way.


You also advocate the benefits of coaching and mentoring. Who has been your most inspiring mentor and what have you taken from this relationships?

Ann Donoghue who used to be VP HR for Global Executive Functions in Unilever and now coaches full time. She had a really good balance between focusing on my performance and what I delivered against my aspirations and what was important to me in life. She was really honest, and you don’t always find that, so that was really refreshing and made for a great role model.


And what would you say are the key things you have to have in a mentoring relationship for it to be successful?

Trust, which comes a little bit with the honesty, but you have to feel like you’re able to say whatever it is you want to say without worrying about the repercussions or impact. The confidentiality is massive in this. You also have to click – one person who is a great mentor for one individual may not be a good mentor for another. So if at the beginning you don’t 'click', or it just doesn’t work very well then admit that and don’t take it forward. Obviously to really listen, unconditionally almost, is also really important.


What’s your greatest life lesson?

We’ve talked about it a lot though it’s really about being true to yourself. If you aren’t then you end up regretting things. Not everyone has the opportunities to do everything they want to do but everyone can decide what is most important to them and align things behind this. Personal leadership is crucial – who do you want to be, what do you want to be perceived as and is that what you put across. If you’re stuck on this then coaching or taking some time out really is the best way to figure this out – asking some challenging questions and making yourself really think about the answers and check the way you are running your life matches those decisions.


And finally, what do you do outside of work which makes you more successful inside?

Regular exercise and plenty of quality time with my children. Invest in and stay connected to my partner. Making sure there is time for the important things, so seeing friends, family. Doing these things outside of work makes me more focused, have more energy and means I love the time I spent at work. It’s not easy to do – I have to really prioritise these things though by doing so it makes me much better at my job.

Quick fire questions

If I could do any job in the world it’ll be – a professional tennis player; sport is my passion. Given that I’ve missed the boat there, I would love to be in an HR leadership role at Virgin Active

The one thing I can’t live without is – my trainers. I’m not into gadgets and couldn’t live without exercising

Greatest achievement – captained the junior Great British canoe slalom team to the Word Championships. Also coming to the understanding of what’s important in my life and living it

In 10 years’ time HR will be – all about enabling, collaborative working, engagement and succeeding in an environment where technology and popular culture has revolutionised the way we work. The leaders who still think today that some jobs can’t be part-time or work flexibly will have had to move on – embracing new ways of working with people. Richard Branson is ahead of the game in this respect.

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