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Meet & Greet: Richard Sharp, HR Vice President at Unilever

In this week’s Meet & Greet interview, myGwork member and LGBTQ+ ally Richard Sharp shares why leadership has a duty to make sure that the LGBTQ+ community feels supported and included in the workplace. As Unilever's HR Vice President and Executive Sponsor of its ProUd network, he highlights how the company has succeeding in creating an "invaluable, inclusive, nurturing and supportive" environment for LGBTQ+ employees. He also believes maintaining a work-life balance is "critical", and explains why he is a vocal and visible role model for this. Here’s a glimpse into Richard’s work and social life.


Hi Richard, can you tell us a bit about your career journey to date?


I studied international History and Politics at Leeds University, and post-university asked my dad, aunt and uncle for advice on what career path to take. As a group of accountants, they all told me not to do accountancy. Unsurprisingly, as a hot-headed teenager, I went on to join Price Waterhouse where I trained to become a qualified accountant. This gave me a great business grounding and business understanding. 


I went on to move into what then became PwC’s management consultancy division where I stayed for around eight years. I was at this point working on change programs for large tech companies/telecom businesses. I didn’t consider this to be “HR”. However, looking back I was working on organisational design, change management and people motivation, which gave me great experience for my current job. 


Following this, I joined a smaller management consultancy for three years, where on my second assignment I worked for Unilever in its HR transformation. Twelve years later I have not looked back. I have lived and worked in the US, Sweden, the Netherlands and the UK where I now sit as the VP of HR for the UK & Ireland. Working across the globe has allowed me to learn lots about the business both locally and globally, and apply my learnings to the UK&I. I also learned to speak Spanish to work with our LATAM business – a great skill to have!


What's the most challenging aspect of managing people right now?


In the UK & Ireland, we employ people from 4-5 different generations. With a fundamental shift in the world and workplace over the last 30 years it is particularly challenging to speak with one voice for every employee. People expect personalised experiences as consumers in the outside world; and bringing that level of personalisation to their careers and employment experience isn’t easy. At Unilever we are working hard to deliver opportunity to every employee to have truly great jobs, relevant for now and the future; and which allows them to bring their unique personality and skill set to work.


What attributes do you look for in new recruits and why?


The main attribute I look for in new recruits is curiosity and learning agility. People who are experienced and good at what they do are always great new recruits, but with an eye on the future, having the humility to acknowledge that you need to keep learning and continue to develop and support the organisation is as important as what you already know.


It’s also important to me that our recruits have the drive to want to make a difference. At Unilever we don’t just want to make consumer goods, we want to make consumer goods with a purpose behind them and to enrich the lives of those who use them.


How important is LGBTQ+  inclusion in the workplace for you personally? 


It is incredibly important to me that everyone should feel they have the opportunity to shine – to be their best and most authentic self when they come to work and not feel discriminated against. 


Personally, for me having a brother who is a member of the LGBTQ+ community has given me an insight into the barriers he had to overcome both 20 years ago when he started his coming out journey all the way to now, married and enjoying life in the USA. In society today it easy to forget that the discrimination against the community is not so distant in the past, and as leaders we have a duty to make sure the LGBTQ+community feel supported and included.


At Unilever, we created our internal ProUd network three years ago and I was delighted to be asked to be the executive sponsor and join the journey. We have created a nurturing and supportive environment for our employees, and it has proven invaluable. The network has recently reviewed all our HR policies and worked with us to make some really innovative and progressive changes to support the community, and be even more inclusive. 


What's your favorite inclusion campaign to date and why?


I have seen lots of brilliant campaigns but the one that stands out for me is the Starbucks #Whatsyourname campaign. Partnering with the Mermaids charity to support transgender young people and their families, the campaign shows the importance of small acts of acceptance and their importance to the transgender community. I loved this as it also reinforces the importance of allyship to the community whilst giving a platform to such an important charity. 


How do you encourage staff to have a work-life balance, especially with the increase in remote/hybrid working?


With the huge shift we have seen to working from home, it is critical to maintain work-life balance. I actively aim to be a vocal and visible role model for this. People know that I take time off to take care of my own wellbeing and my family when needed, and I use my 'Out of Office' indicator on Outlook and Teams to make it clear to everybody. 


Secondly, in the world of hybrid working we have to work on developing leaders to be even more output metric focused. Judgement of good performance can no longer be driven by presence, it needs to be driven by the delivery of the team/individuals, regardless of where from.  At the same time, the value of “social fabric” in a company like ours means that we need to make the most of learning opportunities – both formal and informal, which does require some physical presence.


With home working still a large part of our lives, in a hybrid world, we need to make the office an amazing place for people to come to work, but also help make the home environment great too. Going forward both environments can serve a unique purpose, but work in duality to suit people’s lives/working preferences.


What's the biggest highlight of your career to date and why?


I don’t see my career in terms of highlights – I learn something new every day, and it’s all on a continuum for me. The biggest joy I have had in my career is seeing people I have mentored, managed or coached reaching career goals such as promotion, or getting an amazing new job. 


What was the last book you read? Any interesting take-aways and would you recommend it to fellow leaders? 


I finished Dominon by Tom Holland a couple of months ago – it’s a history of the western world through the Development of Christianity, and I’m now Reading Silk Roads by Peter Frankopan, which is a history of the world written from an Eastern hemisphere perspective. I keep up my interest in history, but really enjoy books that look at things through a different lens to the one I learnt through at school and university. It’s a lesson that there are “facts” and these don’t change, but more importantly there are “perspectives” that everybody in the world holds, and the interpretation of history is always evolving.


What was your last holiday destination and where do you plan to visit next?

During the summer, we drove around the main cities of England, exploring the history, architecture and culture of cities like Liverpool, Bristol, Bath and Leeds. It was really nice to re-connect with our heritage, and show my daughters a bit of their own country they wouldn’t normally see. I’m really hoping to go skiing in France again next year, after two years where we couldn’t go!


What do you do to unwind at the end of a hard day?


I am not a morning person. Most people seem to exercise in the morning before work – not me! I like to go to the gym in the evening, or go for a run along the river Thames (especially in the summer). It gives me energy back after a hard day and sets me up to avoid slumping on the couch at the end of the day.


You can connect with Richard here.


Check out some of myGwork's other Meet & Greet interviews, including:


  • Swapi CEO Pete Howroyd who talks about workplace equality and LGBTQ+ inclusion, and the importance of ensuring that every voice is heard. 

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