Chanel’s incoming CEO, Leena Nair, could shake up the future of fashion

Chanel’s incoming CEO, Leena Nair, could shake up the future of fashion

Leena Nair, Unilever’s former human-resources chief, is stepping into the world of fashion as Chanel’s new CEO.

Chanel announced on Wednesday that Leena Nair would be the company’s new CEO.
Nair, Unilever’s former human-resources head, is an outspoken advocate for diversity and inclusion.
Her leadership style is defined by empathy and inclusion, she told the World Economic Forum.

Chanel — the iconic brand that made the little black dress a staple for every woman — has a new leader: Leena Nair.

The haute-couture house announced on Wednesday that Nair, the former Unilever human-resources chief, would assume the role of CEO in January. She’s replacing Alain Wertheimer, Chanel’s coowner. Nair is set to become Chanel’s first woman chief and one of the few women of color in the industry’s exclusive leadership ranks.

Nair, who is of British Indian descent, is joining an industry rocked by the pandemic as stores shuttered and consumers flocked to e-commerce. And unlike its competitors — Gucci, Prada, and Versace — Chanel doesn’t sell its famous handbags online, which makes Nair’s job more complicated. Nair may also have the big challenge of helping shape Chanel’s artistic vision, which critics say is still under construction following the 2019 death of Karl Lagerfeld, Chanel’s venerable artistic director. 

Nair brings a bold vision with her. Recent interviews showed that Nair, 52, wasn’t afraid to speak about the need for global leaders to make companies more inclusive.

“I believe every voice matters,” she said in a 2019 interview with the cloud company KRISIN. “Inclusion is at the heart of everything I do.”

Nair could expand the fashion house’s vision and brand.

A fierce advocate for others 

Nair is used to being the “first” in many roles, she said in an interview with the World Economic Forum‘s podcast with Linda Lacina. For her, it’s a “privilege and a burden.” 

“You get to do things you didn’t think were possible before, but also there’s the burden of making it easier for those who come after you, and the burden of success,” she said on the podcast. “The last thing you want to do is fail, so you feel this enormous pressure and sense of responsibility to succeed at every job you’re given.”

For the executive, it’s not enough to break glass ceilings and succeed in her own role. She wants to make sure others can also climb the corporate ladder. 

“I think about the people who come after me. I want to make it easier,” she told the Forum. 

Nair didn’t make her way to the C-suite through traditional means. In 1992, Nair, a former engineer, began ascending the corporate ladder. In 2016, she became Unilever’s “first female, first Asian, youngest ever” chief human-resources officer, Unilever said. She also oversaw the company’s diversity and inclusion efforts, helping the company reach a 50-50 ratio of men to women in manager positions during her tenure. Before that role, she served as a nonexecutive director of the British government’s business, energy, and industrial strategy department. 

Throughout her career, she was often the only woman in the room. In fact, the executive recalled dozens of times when there was no women’s bathroom in the buildings in which she was conducting business. “Can I get a loo?” she’d ask her male counterparts. She would joke that they should name the bathrooms after her, a quip that spawned a running joke about “Leena’s loos,” she told the World Economic Forum. But jokes aside, she is intentional and serious, and that’s because she knows the stakes.  

“What tends to happen to you when you’re the first is that people tend to think that you represent all women or all brown people, or that you represent all Asian people. But that’s not true,” she told the Forum. “What happens is your successes get amplified massively, and your failures get amplified massively. When you fail, they say, ‘That’s why we shouldn’t put a woman in the role.'”

Leading with empathy 

“I lead with both head and heart,” Nair said in an October interview on the “Change Makers” podcast. “Having intent and purpose gives you the energy to go through tumultuous times.”

The incoming Chanel CEO speaks to a growing body of research on the importance of emotional intelligence. 

“Emotional intelligence is a crucial leadership skill to have, one I think more people are going to be talking about in the future,” Arquella Hargrove, a DEI consultant and leadership coach, previously told Insider

Calls for racial equity and diversity, equity, and inclusion still ring out from 2020’s racial reckoning, and more people want companies to benefit society. To achieve those goals, experts, including Hargrove, told Insider that leaders have to listen to their colleagues from underrepresented backgrounds. They have to engage in tough conversations and work together to find solutions. 

Nair’s personal strategy tracks with that course of action. She told the World Economic Forum that leaders should make creating psychological safety a top priority. 

“Look at leadership,” she said. “If you see leaders at the company role-modeling inclusive behaviors, they’re being advocates; they’re creating environments where they are psychologically safe.” 

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Strategy, Chanel, Leena Nair, CEOs, Strategy, Leadership, DEI, Diversity and Inclusion

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