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The very first company I worked for still defines who I am

I left Unilever longtime ago, but it won’t leave me

Reminiscing the chaotic beginning of a long career   

I’ve been in the food research and development field for the last 23 years. It’s been 20 years since I left Unilever Pakistan in 1997. I have worked at several other companies ever since, but still the essence of who I am as a professional is to a great extent a reflection of my six years at Unilever. Obviously I have grown many fold in terms of technical and managerial competencies, but still the foundations that I stand firmly upon today were laid back then

The 3 most treasured values that Unilever engrained in me include:

1. Question everything

o We had a management program called TQM (total quality management). One component of the program, probably inspired by the Japanese Kaizen philosophy, was to implement small continuous improvement ideas suggested by the lowest level line workers who were closest to the action. It was encouraged to question how business was done, at every level, till you had the answer or till it was fixed

2. Quality is a mindset, not a function

o Although we were in production and not in Quality Assurance per se, but the culture was that each and every one of us owned quality – Be your own quality inspector and audit yourself, before you are audited. The food that we produce may be consumed by our own family. So make the product like you are making it for yourself. What’s not good for my family is not good enough for my customers

3. Invest in people for the biggest ROI

o Technical and inter-personal training of the people was considered key to success. More time and resources were invested on training people than I have seen anywhere else since. People at every level of the organization had an inherent need to feel relevant and to be considered of a definite value to the organization. Give people a sense of ownership and they will do wonders

I still carry these habits with me and they have served me well over the years. It’s a second nature for me now. No matter what kinds of products I worked on or with which company, these golden principles have guided me throughout my career. Thank you Unilever

Looking back, my friendly advice for the new graduates starting their careers would be: Choose your first real jobs and companies wisely. Chances are that the good, bad and ugly that you pick up there will define you as a professional for the rest of your life. The reason is obvious. Right out of the college we are full of energy, with hungry hearts and eager minds, sucking up habits and influences like sponges

If you have a choice, start your career with a smaller business where functions and departments are not well established. This will prove to be the boot camp that will rub and polish you for the field. It will require you to wear many hats, and may squeeze out every ounce of energy in your body. As a result you will have the opportunity, willingly or otherwise, to literally learn how to run the entire business, from ordering toilet rolls, accounting the inventory, to reading the PNL statements. In the process you will also, unknowingly, learn work place ethics, time management and norms of communication, in addition to the functions of the job that you were hired for. Now if you decide to jump to a Fortune 500 company where functions are more established, you will be better prepared and will have an edge over your peers who unfortunately lack the grilling of working in an entrepreneurial set up like you.

Don’t go after success, go after excellence and success will follow you 

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