Baking, balance and why business has a lot to learn from The Arts

This week Leena Nair, Unilever’s Chief HR Officer and AGL client, shares her insights regarding the vital role creativity plays in the digital age, and how these ‘soft skills’ are fast becoming a necessity in the rapidly advancing world of business and technology. 


If you’re the type of person who regularly bakes their own bread, please click away now. Because, it was only recently that I finally got around to learning to bake.

I say “finally”, because I’ve been meaning to do it for ages, but never quite found the time. The incredible adventurer, Miles Hilton-Barber, who also happens to be blind, once asked me: “When was the last time you did something for the first time in your life?”

I have to admit, that the question left me stumped. When was the last time I really learnt something completely new? And what was my excuse for failing to buy some scales – far less actually doing the baking bit itself?

With busy working lives, it’s easy to succumb to “all or nothing” thinking. We focus on work, work, work – and never get to the “other stuff”. Yet, in a world where technological advancement is changing the very nature of work, lifelong learning has never been more important.

However, the problem we face is two-fold: firstly, by the time we reach a certain point in our career and school is but a distant memory, many of us need to learn how to learn again. Secondly, the sheer number of things we could be learning can seem overwhelming. So, we’re baffled by both how and what to learn.

The truth is, that STEM subjects, (science, technology, engineering and maths) are undoubtedly essential. But it would be a huge mistake to think that they’re the be-all and end-all

The venture capitalist and author, Scott Hartley addresses this very point in his book, The Fuzzy and the Techie: Why the Liberal Arts Will Rule the Digital World. According to LinkedIn data, of the number of people entering Silicon Valley’s digital companies, “soft fuzzies” with university degrees in the liberal arts, recently outpaced those from “techie” computer science backgrounds.

In their 2018 Human Capital Trends, Deloitte made a similar argument: that the future of jobs will not merely be about STEM subjects, (science, technology, engineering and maths) – but will be defined by STEAM, in which the ‘A’ stands for the arts and humanities, (such as philosophy, languages and history).

By engaging in lifelong learning and combining STEM with STEAM subjects, humans can be the guiding moral hand for technology, working alongside it as “co-bots”.

This is why at Unilever, we’ve introduced new online learning platforms that allow our people to learn remotely – anytime, anywhere. It’s also personalised, so they can pursue their interests and passions – even if they’re not directly related to their current “job”.

Now that the nature of work is changing so rapidly, broadening our skills, and in particular, engaging in those that enhance our creativity, reasoning, cognitive skills and ability to empathise with and listen to others, has become much more than a nicety – it’s now a personal and professional necessity.

I’ve spent enough time working in Human Resources to know that things like learning – along with looking after people’s physical and mental wellbeing – has long been seen as “the fluffy” counterpart to the more serious issue of “real business”. But Hartley is right to point out the importance of the “fuzzies”.

Because, in today’s world, the so-called “soft stuff” is the new hard stuff

As leaders, we all have a responsibility to lead this lifelong learning movement from the front; to stay curious, to stay open and to embrace new skills that help us challenge the status quo and embark upon fresh, innovative thinking.

To this end, I’ve just taken up Spanish. I’ve always loved the language and it’s helping me make new connections that I wouldn’t necessarily have done otherwise. It’s also helping me communicate more effectively with my South American Unilever colleagues.

So, learning has been good for me – and good for my business.

And whilst baking might not help me at work directly, (unless inspiration strikes for the Food & Beverage team!) – it has helped me believe more firmly in constant learning in a wide number of areas.

Because, just like combining STEM with STEAM, when you bake a cake, you balance the right ingredients in just the right quantities – then you have a great recipe for success.


To hear more from Leena, follow her on Twitter here