Ignore these leadership lessons at your peril

  @FortuneMagazine October 10, 2013: 7:44 AM ET
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Harish Manwani (left) and Anand Mahindra


"Attracting the best people is actually easier than it used to be," says Anand Mahindra, managing director of Indian industrial and services conglomerate Mahindra Group (2012 revenues: $16 billion). You almost never hear a business chief say that, yet the story behind Mahindra's startling claim isn't unique. On the contrary, it's entirely consistent with what's happening at a markedly different company, Unilever. Both companies, highly successful in their own ways, reveal the same two crucial realities of leadership development today. They are these: In attracting and keeping top talent, the most important thing about a company isn't what it does but how it does it. The most important thing about a leader isn't skills but traits.

In Singapore recently I talked with Mahindra and separately with Unilever COO Harish Manwani, who was visiting the company's brand-new leadership-development center there. Unilever, like Mahindra, is a talent magnet with power most employers would kill for. "Unilever is among the top three employers of choice [in its industry] in 37 countries," Manwani says. And it is the No. 1 pick in countries as diverse as Brazil, Germany, and Vietnam. He holds no doubt about the reason: "People want to join us not because we make soap and soup. It's because of the way we do business." At Unilever that means pursuing CEO Paul Polman's objective of doubling the company's size while halving its environmental impact. "It's really a big draw," says Manwani.

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