I Sat Next to James Bruce, EVP at Unilever, for 1 Hour – Here’s What I Learned

I don’t graduate until December 2017, but back in February 2017, I signed with Unilever to become a Unilever Future Leader (UFL) once I finally finish school in January 2018. While my batchmates hunted for their first jobs and hit fresh grad milestones (like first paycheck, first overtime, and other symbolic rites of passage), I get to enjoy being a student a semester longer. Cracking open history textbooks, writing papers on the impact of the Catholic Church’s encyclicals, and debating on what Plato meant through his discourse on ‘existence’. Fun.

So, I was surprised when Unilever called the other week with an invite to have lunch with both my future department and the EVP of Enterprise & Technology Solutions (ETS), James Bruce. I never expected that the company would include me for something as important as a luncheon with one of the global management team. But that’s the culture of Unilever: inclusive to all on opportunities for growth and fun.

Unluckily, all my classes happened at the same time as lunch. But my personal philosophy is I don’t cut class for anything but once-in-a-lifetime opportunities. So, I didn’t mind missing school. That much.

My first hour at Unilever’s office was spent talking to the older UFL’s and managers of my department. I got a lot of great advice and insight on how to approach the job once I start in January, which I’ll someday write up and share since I think it’s great advice anyone starting a new job can apply.

The rest of my stay at Unilever was for the luncheon, and being the youngest, the group sacrificed me to sit right next to James Bruce himself. I’m glad they did that because I got to listen closely to the discussion, while still enjoying my roast chicken.

A bit on James Bruce from my perspective as a random college student at the luncheon.

He’s funny, gregarious, a fantastic story teller, and sharp as a whip. His insights on the future of tech, project management, and Unilever cemented that I made the right choice in choosing Unilever over everyone else. Working under the leadership of someone both compassionate and capable will be a fantastic growth experience, not only for me, but for all of us in ETS. I can’t wait to start work and see where we go as a division, from 1 hour of listening and engaging with him.

Here are some favorite key insights from my hour sitting next to James Bruce:


On the future of AI and its impact:

It’s coming whether we like it or not, and the ones who aren’t preparing for the change will be its first victims. The best way to future proof your jobs and usefulness is to constantly study, not just the new technology but also the new practices and processes in your field.

Stay sharp and keep refreshing your knowledge, even if what you’re studying doesn’t seem that useful today. Somehow some way, it will come in handy. Skills nowadays have a lifespan of 3 years, meaning we can’t rest on our stock knowledge if we intend to have a long career.

Life is constantly changing and those who don’t change with it are going to get left behind.


On the best trait to hone:

Be analytical. Don’t just prepare the data, run the numbers, and make the obvious conclusions. Take the analysis further by posing questions your stakeholders would have. Get into their mindset and practice, practice, practice. Never have we had so much data at our fingertips and each passing day, people are working hard to organize it for intuitive use.

We need to learn how to use all that data to make better choices, more comprehensive analysis. Yes, sometimes it’s best to trust your instincts, but it’s better to back up those instinctive choices with historical data analysis.

So, get comfortable with using data to make smarter, better decisions, especially in the wake of the coming AI revolution. And start analyzing.


On covering your weaknesses:

Knowing your strengths and weaknesses, (and being completely realistic about them), are how you position yourself for a successful career. If you know your strength is in telling stories, in connecting raw data analysis to overall business impact, or in outlining for others how their work can change how the company is run, then you need to leverage that. Volunteer for work that lets other people see that this line of work is your strength. That you are the rising expert in it.

But don’t abandon your weaknesses. Work on them as well, but just enough to ensure that they’re not pain point beacons people can use against you. If you can, partner with people who can cover your weakness, and you theirs. Train with them; learning how to amend your weakness while teaching them how to copy your strengths.

Being open with your knowledge, share freely, and keep a realistic view on how much you can improve.


On feeling attached to your past work in a VUCA world:

James Bruce used to be the CFO for the UK & Ireland before transitioning to becoming EVP for ETS. Recently he spoke with the new members of his old team and he commented that it was like they were speaking in tongues. All the work and processes he enacted as CFO were gone; the team’s reaction to his inquiries were closer to “Oh, we used to do that?” rather than “Yeah, we phased that out last year.”

Someone a bit more self-centered might have felt hurt that their hard work was relegated as obsolete. But James Bruce was accepting about it, explaining to us that all this change is for the best.

Don’t get attached to the old ways. New processes are only introduced if they make the company better, and that’s the end goal for all our work. To make the company better.

Another great insight from this was, the organization is filled with young people, who are constantly bringing change and improvements with them. Embrace the young people and what they bring, because that’s how your company will survive.

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