When Paul Bulcke was appointed CEO of global food giant Nestle in 2008, he put the issue of women and gender at the top of his Executive Committee's agenda. He saw gender balance as a lever for accomplishing his broader goals of making Nestle a more flexible, and modern corporation
Until his appointment, Nestle had done very little on the topic. The reality of the company's statistics was not something to be proud of. Although Nestle's consumers and "shoppers," as they are referred to, were about 80% female, only 3% of managers in the company's leadership pipeline were women.
This gender imbalance contrasted oddly with the company's record on cultural balance. Nestle is based in the little town of Vevey, perched on the shore of Lake Geneva and surrounded by snow-capped Alps. Nothing could look more Swiss. Yet the all-male leadership team had only a single Swiss national. The rest of the team was a mix of nationalities, and managers who had lived their lives in a number of different countries, with no official 'home country' at all.
Paul Bulcke put the issue of gender balance as a top priority on his senior management's agenda. "As a multinational company," he said, "we enforce culture balance to reflect the mix in our turnover. We must have the same philosophy on gender. Today the world is gender balancing; we must as well."
Bulcke communicated about gender balance regularly at management events and conferences, included it in the formal management action planning processes, and began the journey of setting 'gender balance' as a basic Nestle value for the future. He produced a video, along with a few key business leaders, explaining why gender was an important topic for the company and offering his personal take. "It is very important to me that women stay women. Too often I have seen in other companies that women have to become tougher than men in order to succeed. I don't want to see that happen at Nestle."
What Bulcke didn't do was as important as what he did do. He did not, at the outset, set numerical targets and quotas. He did not communicate externally on the issue, recognizing that progress had to be made first internally. And he did not delegate the responsibility and accountability on the topic to a particular person or department, nor ask a woman to lead the charge. He did not frame it as an HR issue, and repeatedly spoke about both the market side of the equation (the majority of Nestle's customers) as well as the talent side of the equation. It was clearly positioned as a management issue that would now be part of Nestle's expectation of managers and leaders and Bulcke took the lead.
I first met Nestle in 2008, shortly after Bulcke came on board. Instead of launching a women's network, we helped the company run a series of strategic debates and action-planning sessions on gender balance. These 'Awareness Sessions' created a new conversation among the male leadership group, and helped to reframe gender as a business issue and an opportunity for the company. We started at the top, with every member of the Executive Board and their own direct teams, and we cascaded across divisions, countries and regions from there. Over 4,000 Nestle managers were involved in the debate and action planning on gender issues.
The focus in the first phase has been on the visible promotion of women to the leadership ranks. This has resulted in an increase in the percentage of women on the teams that run Nestle's country organizations from 15 to 21%. Women head two of Nestle's five global Strategic Business Units. At the corporate level, the group CFO is a woman.
Is Bulcke happy with the progress made? "I think we are doing the right thing, in the right way. My next priority will be to bring more ownership of the topic to ever lower levels of the organization. But we are seeing the idea taking hold, taking on a life of its own."
Nestle is not yet a leader in gender balancing, but they are an innovator. Time will show if its top-down approach will prove effective and more sustainable but very few global companies have so deliberately invested in building this degree of commitment, accountability and awareness at the top. In subsequent blogs I'll report on what the initiative has delivered in the major countries where Nestle has operations.
Full Story at Avivah Wittenberg-Cox