Claire Thompson has just swapped Mexico for Surrey in exchange for her
new post as HR director of Lever Faberge‚ UK. She talks to Lucie
Carrington about how to manage a career abroad and reveals what its really like
to head up management development across many cultures
An hour with Claire Thompson, the new HR director of Lever Fabergé UK is
exhausting and business-focused. She talks with energy about the challenges,
never problems she is tackling. Often, she doesn’t talk like an HR person at
all and there appears to be not an ounce of cynicism in her when she talks with
a marketing manager’s zeal about producing fantastic brands that customers
Her enthusiasm is perhaps part and parcel of the global career she has
developed within Unilever – Lever Fabergé’s parent. Hers is a truly
international career, both in terms of where she has worked – with stints in
Brussels and Mexico under her belt – and the projects she has been involved
with, such as setting up a global management development curriculum for
Unilever managers. Moving in and out of different cultures in this way,
Thompson has had to learn to think on her feet.
She joined Unilever in 1991 after four years with the Post Office and a
rather dissatisfying 18 months spent working in training and development in the
restaurants and pubs division of Grand Metropolitan. "I just felt it
wasn’t the place that would give me what I was looking for,’ she says.
Thompson’s first Unilever post was as personnel manager with Elida Gibbs, an
earlier incarnation of Lever Fabergé UK. After a couple of years she moved onto
a head office job as a group personnel manager where she provided a central HR
resource for Unilever firms in the UK. It also proved to be seminal experience
for someone forging an international career path.
It was the mid-1990s and the soap and food giant had realised it needed to
develop its global HR strategies and practices to match its global business.
This involved redesigning Unilever’s grading structure, remuneration systems
and personal development processes, for example. These were processes that
Thompson says weren’t as well connected to the business agenda as they should
"This was a global project to design an integrated approach to HR. It
wasn’t revolutionary but was a step change for the business," she says. It
was also about providing "stronger HR leadership from the centre in a more
From London, Thompson moved to Brussels where she took up the post of
European HR manager for Unilever’s home and personal care brands. This was
primarily a management development job – but once again with an international
"We were looking to provide opportunities to develop the careers of the
best people within a national and an international context," says
Thompson. There was a massive job to be done on developing skills and
competencies across the business. "We needed to help people improve their
leadership capabilities, especially their coaching and influencing
Working with the Centre for Creative Leadership, Thompson developed a
management curriculum for senior and middle managers that could be cascaded
down the businesses. The aim was to provide Unilever businesses with ideas and
guidance, not control their every move as far as management development was
concerned. "One size does not fit all. Different parts of the business
need different things and they cannot always wait for central permission to get
on with it," she says.
Thompson’s Brussels posting was a fantastic job, she says but after three
years it was time to move on to a new challenge and, as it turned out to a new
continent and new language. In 1999 Thompson took over the job of
vice-president, HR for Unilever de Mexico, based in Mexico City.
At the time Unilever – with its mix of food and soap businesses – wasn’t a
big hitter in Mexico, but there was massive potential for growth Thompson says.
Her arrival coincided with other changes at the top of the business and the new
senior team was charged with realising that potential.
Thompson is clearly proud of what they achieved. "We turned it around
and more than doubled the size of the sales revenue,’ she says. Some of this
was what Thompson calls "organic growth" achieved through improving
Unilever de Mexico’s offering to consumers and getting its distribution right.
But part of it was the result of Unilever’s acquisition of Bestfoods.
In Mexico this added a further 1,000 people to the Unilever workforce.
Suddenly Thompson and her colleagues found themselves running a sizeable food
services business supplying the Mexican catering trade. For Thompson it meant
that not only was she taking on a very personal cultural change moving from
Europe to Central America, but she was also handling the difficult task of
moulding a new culture from two very different business cultures.
"Bestfoods in Mexico was an extremely well established and
paternalistic culture. Best people felt they were being taken over and there
was a lot of suspicion and reticence. It is always difficult when you come in
as the much larger organisation and you have to be sensitive to that," she
There were, of course, redundancies and restructuring, but the aim was to
retain the best from both original businesses and it was part of Thompson’s job
to identify potential high flyers from both camps. In the end, 64 per cent of
senior managers left in the business, including two board directors, came from
And Thompson and her colleagues had to develop some brand new HR systems
covering communications and training and development – to reinforce the
Developing a leadership style was crucial too, and Thompson did a lot of
work on this. "It was about sharing our thoughts on what style we wanted to
demonstrate, then encourage in our teams," she says. It was also about
developing ways of recognising people’s achievements and celebrating successes
Thompson reckons it took 12 months to build people’s trust and crack the
business culture divide. "After that first Christmas break Ifelt it was
‘us’, a new team working together,’ she says.
This didn’t mean it was time to sit back and enjoy it. Thompson had another
big management development job on her hands and she was able to put her
existing expertise to good use. The merger with Bestfoods left it with a young,
well-educated management team – with fantastic potential but perhaps lacking
the knowledge, experience and professional skills the business needed.
Secondments outside Mexico proved to be one way of developing those skills
and experience. Unilever’s businesses in Argentina and Brazil for example, were
much more developed than in Mexico, so one manager spent six months in Brazil
working with people on brand development and logistics. There were longer
secondments of 18 months to three years too.
"It was a fantastic opportunity to expatriate people to other parts of
the world and build their skills and experience before bringing them back to
run their own business," she says.
Thompson also brought in good people from other parts of Latin America –
through for example management swaps. But sometimes she looked further a field.
Thompson brought over a manager with customer development expertise from
Unilever in the Philippines. "He had been extremely successful and
increased our sales greatly in the Philippines where the structure of the trade
and the demographics there are relatively similar to Latin America.
"We wanted to learn from his experience and see how we could expand our
sales into low income consumers. It was about a rapid transfer of skills.’
As Thompson is at pains to point out, business and national cultures are
very different beasts that should not be confused. As well as helping to
develop a cohesive business culture within the bigger Unilever de Mexico,
Thompson had to get to grips with living and working in a foreign land.
"Mexicans are very welcoming, but naturally it takes time to build real
trust and confidence. So while I never felt excluded, there was a step change
between being welcome and being part of the team, whatever that might be,"
From her own personal travelling and work in Brussels, she had a fair idea
of the differences between various social cultures. Thompson also knew she
would need some help through the early stages.
Mentoring worked well for Thompson. Unilever’s vice-president for HR in
Latin America was one supporter as he was a fellow European. Thompson also
turned to help from Mexicans in her own personnel team who from the beginning
felt comfortable in giving her feedback. She also made friends with other
Europeans – "People who had lived in Mexico for years and so understood
the culture but could stand outside it," she says.
And obviously Thompson learned Spanish. "Spanish was the working
day-to-day language – so I just had to get on with it. I’m not spectacularly
fluent but I can get by," she says.
After three years in Brussels and four years in Mexico, Thompson was ready
to come home to the UK. But taking on the HR director’s job at Lever Fabergé in
Kingston-upon- Thames is proving to be somewhat of a culture shock too.
Thompson remains unfazed, however. "This was very much the job I wanted
next in Unilever. It’s not a bigger job but it is a different one with very
different demands on it," she says. And where most of us might feel a bit
deflated at the thought of forsaking the excitement of Mexico City for the
Surrey stockbroker belt, Thompson insists there is ‘a buzz about’ Lever
There are remarkable similarities between the Mexican business and Lever
Fabergé UK. Both have relatively recently been formed from two separate
businesses and are looking for high growth. But that’s where the comparisons
end. Whereas in Mexico there was everything to win, Lever Fabergé is looking
for high growth in a low-growth environment. What’s more, the merger between
Lever and Elida Fabergé is done and dusted. It could be hard to make an impact.
Global HR careers were fairly rare until comparatively recently, but now
they are almost essential to get to the very top in multi-nationals such as
Unilever. Thompson is a highly flexible as well as experienced member of
Unilever’s global HR team , making her ideal material for future overseas
She won’t be drawn on her future – for now her mind is on Lever Fabergé.
"I’m feeling extremely energised and motivated," she says.
"I really enjoyed my times in Brussels and Mexico and I wouldn’t rule
out working overseas again. But after seven years outside the UK it was time to
return, to reconnect with some of the world-class organisational approaches
that can be found in the UK and Europe," says Thompson.
"International experience can be very useful in forging a career in a
multi-national such as Unilever but it is not a prerequisite. Openess to new
ideas is more important – and different perspectives from people with
wide-ranging experience. This could be in an international context or it may
result from working in different industries," she says.
CV – Claire Thompson
MSc in HR and Industrial Relations at
the London School of Economics
Graduate trainee and personnel manager – Post Office
Grand Metropolitan Retailing
Personnel manager, Elida Gibbs
Group personnel manager, Unilever
European HR manager, Unilever, Brussels
Vice- President, Human Resources, Unilever de Mexico
HR director Lever Faberg, UK
Networking round the world
Networking is an essential skill of
the international business, says Claire Thompson. Unilever personnel
professionals have always been good, although Thompson says it could, of
course, be better in places.
So as well as taking her HR skills and experience to Mexico,
Thompson took her network along too. It was this that enabled her to fix up
secondment for Mexican managers and pull in expertise and knowledge from as far
afield as the Philippines
"We’re not talking about the old boys’ network," says
Thompson. "Any remnants of that have gone.
"We use networking in a very positive sense to try and
ensure the transfer of best practice. That’s what a learning organisation is
about,." she says.
Getting the best regard less of
– Use the performance development
process to ensure you identify the best people. It’s about skills, knowledge
and the right attitude.
– Ensure everyone has a work plan linked to business
objectives. They could share the same work plan with other team members.
– Constantly review people’s performance against those work
– Encourage a culture of self-evaluation against what the
business is trying to do.