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Developing and Retaining Young Talent

Unilever’s Jason Harcup explains how his company does it
Illustration of building talent
Image credit: iStock by Getty Images

Key Takeaways:

  1. Jason Harcup shares what he’s learned about leadership during the pandemic
  2. Harcup reflects on the project “that got away” 
  3. How Unilever plans to keep their promise to eliminate carbon emissions from its operations

From a leadership perspective, what is the most significant insight you can share in terms of what you have learned during the pandemic?

I knew already strong relationships were the competitive differentiator, but it turns out there is a magnificent whole new level to what they can achieve in adversity!

Our businesses in the USA raced to supply hygiene products at record rates and from a community outreach standpoint, we broke all previous donation records by providing supplies to local charities.  And, in the early days of racing to help, we joined forces with good friends at Yale Engineering to design and manufacture the first batches of essential masks for front line medical staff using our state-of-the-art packaging capabilities.

Since the pandemic started, because of the need to communicate virtually, some CTOs feel they now have much more continuous interaction with customers, rather than the ‘peak to peak’ pattern that resulted from in-person meetings. Do you share that view? And what implications does it hold for the post-pandemic world? 

It’s always felt pretty continuous to me, but I do understand the change - I’ve found it more notable that the virtualization of meeting customers and key partners has meant we can be so much more flexible (and therefore better equipped) in who we can include and how. That’s been a big multiplier.

Talk about the metaphorical “one that got away”.  Is there a project that eluded you? Why? And if you could return to it, what would you do differently?

I think there are plenty! Which is healthy, because otherwise we’re not really stretching just out of reach often enough. My most frustrating ones have been in some of the microbiome related areas, and what I would do differently is use a time machine to get the project sequencing capabilities from 15 years in the future!

What are some of the ways you try to hire, develop and retain diverse, young talent at Unilever?

We’re lucky enough to attract more than 6000 applicants - even in a year like 2020. We use a variety of tools to ensure that we remove bias in selection, and with the final recruits, we take care to curate a summer experience for each individual, starting with a project brief designed for true hands-on experience and delivery impact to the business.

Because we use quite a well-developed demand planning tool based on succession plans and anticipated attrition (using data analytics to guide us), we’ve been able to move fast and over the programme so far, we’ve converted more than 500 interns/co-ops to full-time hires.

These very impressive colleagues in turn, pay it forward through active involvement in University Relations/Recruitment and STEM programs for community, internal business resource groups like NSBE, AAPI, and SHEP (Society of Hispanic Engineers). We also try to develop ecosystem talent in partnership with our Supply Chain function to ensure we have the best opportunities to grow the national field of talent through STEM.

With respect to your company scientists, what non-technical skills do you most highly value?

I value “values” themselves: Drive, judgement and the desire to change everything we do for our consumers and our planet for the better.

What technology trends are you following most closely, with an eye toward how they may impact the work of your scientists, and Unilever’s future growth?  

I’ve been doing more on Personalisation – it’s the ultimate consumer delivery for every consumer, and cracking this for mass is intensely interesting. I’ve been progressing the Skin Microbiome field for a number of years, and I’m excited about where that is starting to break through for skin health. I also follow the potential of biotech produced materials that can offer sustainable alternatives to current materials. 

In the February 9, 2021 issue of Barron’s, they reported that Unilever has pledged to cut by 50% its use of virgin plastics by 2025. That’s a pretty aggressive target coupled with a short time horizon. What is your team’s role in helping Unilever reach this goal? 

We are all over it! We already have got Dove there – we have 100% PCR in bottles throughout North America. More generally, the biggest job to be done here is helping to encourage the collection and recycling infrastructure set up. We invested in ‘The Closed Loop Partners’ Leadership Fund - a private equity fund focused on acquiring companies along the value chain to build circular supply systems.

Unilever North America’s investment will ensure access to recycled plastics feedback processed by the companies that the fund invests in and enable many Unilever brands to incorporate post-consumer recycled (PCR) plastic in packaging beyond the bottle – including caps, lids and tubes.

On a related topic, the Wall Street Journal reported in its December 14, 2020 issue that Unilever has promised to eliminate carbon emissions from its own operations by 2030. How, generally, does the company plan to do this?

Yes, this is our commitment. Our focus is on making absolute emission reductions so we’ll only use carbon offsets for small amounts of emissions that we can’t yet get to zero. We’re transforming the way our factories run by investing in new technologies like hydrogen, increasing energy efficiency and switching to renewable energy sources. We’re also focusing on efficiency and innovation to reduce emissions from transporting our products and from our freezers in retail stores. It’s a huge ambition, there’s lots more information at Decarbonising our business | Unilever

How has your family influenced your leadership style?

My Dad, in thousands of ways, but in showing me the importance of remembering that ‘every member of the ship’s crew’ is, and can be, important for its voyage. My Mum is brilliant at noticing what’s not being said or done, and how that speaks volumes if you ‘listen’ for it. 

You personally hold several patents, and you have been published many times. Which is more gratifying to you?

Both only ever feel like scratching the surface! I have to say that I get more enjoyment out of publication purely because it’s a more versatile medium for helping to change things for the better.

Having lived and worked in the U.K., Shanghai, and the U.S., how would you assess the public appreciation and understanding of science in each country?

Wow, that’s a big question! The average level of both is similar in all three countries…. I still remember when I first moved to the US in 1997, being very positively surprised at how people I met every day, knew well what a graduate student was (not true in the UK back then). Americans have an unmatched love and enthusiasm for the truly new and unbounded, and I see this so much as a foreigner.

The British tend to either tread very carefully into new ways of doing things, or else almost recklessly embrace them! There’s probably some Game Theory reason why that’s generally paid off for our science and innovation culture!

And the Chinese fascination for how nature can be put to the useful service of humankind seems very much to permeate the broader public too.

From both the personal and professional perspective, what has motivated you to serve as a judge - since 2015 - for the RSC’s Emerging Technologies Competition? 

Personally, I can’t stay away because it’s like the innovation equivalent of an all-you-can-eat buffet! Professionally, we’ve made some great relationships with innovators in sustainable and renewable materials, and I hugely value the RSC’s incisive ‘curating power’ to help surface those from a very, very crowded field.

What’s the one thing about which you most often say, “Well, maybe one day?”

I love the anecdote about the late British Comedian, Peter Cook, being introduced to someone who said they were writing a book. Cook replied “Oh what a coincidence! Neither am I.” I keep meaning to write a proper overview of the Science and Technology of Skin Care – there are so many myths, so much quackery, but there truly are so many amazing pieces of rich science… well, maybe one day. 

Jason Harcup, Global Vice President, Skin Care Research & Development, Unilever
Jason Harcup, Global Vice President, Skin Care Research & Development, Unilever

Jason Harcup is Global Vice President for Skin Care Research & Development, leading end-to-end R&D delivery from innovation to market in 89 countries, across several billion Euros of turnover.  He is also Global Vice President for the billion Euro Prestige Division. He also leads Unilever’s North America R&D Campus. He leads several hundred PhDs globally across a dozen worldwide laboratories, delivering more than a billion euros of marketed innovations.

He is a Cambridge University Natural Scientist, being elected a Fellow of The Royal Society of Biology in 2016, and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Chemistry in 2015. He more broadly serves the industry as Judge for the RSC Emerging Technologies Initiative, co-convenor of the Asian Dermatological Forum, having grown and headed up a $60m R&D facility in Shanghai, as Faculty for Health and Beauty America, Beauty Disruptor with the CEW network, and frequently contributes presentations and articles.

This article has been edited for length and clarity. The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the view of their employer or the American Chemical Society.

Copyright 2022 American Chemical Society (All Rights Reserved)

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