Experiential / Reality-based Learning / October 12, 2017

CEO@Smith: Kees Kruythoff, Unilever

Students starting their careers should ask themselves three questions, Unilever North America President Kees Kruythoff said on Oct. 10, 2017, at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business. “These individual discussions can help you discover your personal purpose,” Kruythoff said during a CEO @ Smith keynote address. “People with purpose, they thrive.”

“Are you making a difference?” is the first question. Kruythoff said people can define impact in different ways. “But make sure you put a high ambition level in there,” he said.

“Are you learning?” is the second question. Kruythoff said people need curiosity, especially in the digital age when technology changes so rapidly. “In this day and age, it’s even more important that you continue to accelerate the learning,” he said.

“Are you having fun?” is the third question. Kruythoff said people need to find their passion and enjoy the journey. “What we do at Unilever is serious,” he said. “But we never take ourselves too serious.”

Many people try to keep their personal and professional lives separate, but Kruythoff said Unilever encourages people to bring their full selves to work. “When you share your personal purpose, you get to learn about each other,” said Kruythoff, who has spent his entire career at Unilever.

During a span of 25 years, he has worked in the Netherlands, South Africa, Singapore, China, the United Kingdom and Brazil. He came to the United States to lead Unilever’s North America cluster in 2011.

Kruythoff said that when personal purpose overlaps with organizational purpose, individuals can multiply their impact, their learning and their fun. He said Unilever’s organizational purpose has shifted over the decades from making personal hygiene commonplace to making sustainable living commonplace.

Unilever sells 2.5 billion products to 2.5 billion consumers every day, so taking small steps toward sustainability can go a long way. “We take responsibility for the totality of the supply chain,” he said.

Part of the strategy is acquiring brands with social missions, including Ben & Jerry’s ice cream and Seventh Generation cleaning, paper and personal care products. Kruythoff said Unilever also focuses on performance, which aligns with the company’s sustainable living plan.

“When you drive waste out of your system because of sustainability, you also get lower cost,” he said. “What’s good for the planet is good for business.”

As a result, he said Unilever does not think about corporate social responsibility as something separate from core business functions. “It is the core of our business,” he said. “It is the business.”

Smith School dean Alexander Triantis introduced Kruythoff, who addressed about 200 faculty, staff and students. Previous speakers in the CEO@Smith series have included leaders from Marriott, Deloitte, PepsiCo and SAP.

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About the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business

The Robert H. Smith School of Business is an internationally recognized leader in management education and research. One of 12 colleges and schools at the University of Maryland, College Park, the Smith School offers undergraduate, full-time and flex MBA, executive MBA, online MBA, business master’s, PhD and executive education programs, as well as outreach services to the corporate community. The school offers its degree, custom and certification programs in learning locations in North America and Asia.

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