Paul Polman

Interview: Unilever’s Paul Polman on diversity, purpose and profits

PAUL Polman, CEO of consumer goods multinational Unilever, is considered by many to be the leading light in the corporate sustainability movement.

He recognises the power of partnerships as well as greater diversity and inclusiveness in driving change in what he describes as a Vuca world; volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous.

Criticising the financing sector for being self-obsessed and self-interested, he calls on all CEOs to recognise they “cannot be a bystander in the system that gives you life in the first place”. Polman brushes aside the profits warning Unilever made this week and says it will not sway him from taking a long-term approach to the business.

What are the main ingredients for an effective leader?

First of all, you need to feel comfortable about who you are. So a good leader, I think, is a good human being in the first place. Too often we are being programmed by the environment around us to behave differently. But I think a true leader is an authentic person, who feels good about who he is.

I don’t have a problem crying when I need to cry. There’s nothing wrong with that and showing that you care because it’s the same in any organisation; if you show that you care, others will care for you, 100%.

Often people ask me what my job is and I say honestly it is to make others successful, and the more you do that the more you will see that you create prosperity.

What is the role of humility in leadership?

Working together on solving something requires a high level of humility and a high level of self-awareness. When we launched the Unilever Sustainable Living Plan, people inside the company were very worried about exposing ourselves. But I did something there that I didn’t realise at the time, but that actually made a big difference, by just saying publicly I don’t have all the answers on how to do this and I can’t do it alone. I still say it today, and actually it’s becoming more difficult as we progress towards the 10-year goal that we set.

Is it important to have a sense of purpose?

I know we all have our jobs, but that has to come from a deeper sense of purpose. You have to be driven by something. Leadership is not just about giving energy but it’s unleashing other people’s energy, which comes from buying into that sense of purpose.

But if that purpose isn’t strong enough in a company, if the top doesn’t walk the talk, then the rest will not last long. The key thing for CEOs is to make that a part of your operating model.

We all need to be way beyond CSR, and yet we still talk about it as CSR, which is basically activity-driven but not holistic. The concept of shared value is good but I think it is a post-rationalisation of not getting in trouble with society.

Now some people will say that’s too pessimistic but I think it’s realistic. Companies will now have to provide solutions to some of these challenges and be co-responsible and that’s a higher level than that we have talked until now. Unfortunately not many see it as being absolutely crucial but it will come, I’m convinced.

Do you believe you are being courageous by pushing the boundaries of business and sustainability?

I have a very fortunate situation in that a lot of risks around me are taken away by the sheer size of Unilever, by our culture and heritage. So I have a lot of safety nets around me. The real heroes are the ones who actually do more but don’t have that. And there are many of those. I just get a disproportionate share of voice, perhaps.

How important is transparency in driving change?

It is about building trust and for this trust you need leaders who are very comfortable with transparency.

We said to Barbara Stocking before she left Oxfam, why don’t you just go to Vietnam and do the whole social audit of our supply chain? We have 200,000 suppliers and audit 20,000 suppliers, probably more than any other company, but there’s a capacity limit to that, otherwise you go bankrupt.

We published Oxfam’s report, which included criticisms, and we say this is a great thing because it helps us be better and it helps Vietnam be better. You didn’t see the press jumping on us. You didn’t see people saying that Unilever was irresponsible. In fact I’d argue perhaps the opposite. So you create this transparency that builds this trust, which ultimately is the basis for prosperity.

What is the role of partnerships in finding solutions to the complex problems we face?

I’m not a CEO who has actually much power to be honest. I have a convening power, but I use that to find the right partnerships so all the time I bring in new partnerships to the company and then there are many specialists who know much better what to do.

It’s a different way of working. When I was chairing the Food Security Taskforce for the B20, the NGOs brought in a lot of things I’d never thought about. We would not have talked about land rights if Barbara Stocking had not insisted on land rights, which now sounds so obvious. We would not have put the focus on women in agriculture and small farming, which now everybody is preaching about, but that was already two years ago on our recommendations. So it becomes much richer. And as the business community also educates itself around that, you get solutions that are much better.

How important is it that leaders can work with uncertainty?

These are very difficult times; it’s very uncertain going forward. You get currencies that go up and down 20%, you get markets that shift very rapidly. So you need to have people who can feel comfortable dealing with a Vuca world – volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous.

The problem is, you talk food security and you hear many different solutions. Some say: how can you have food security if girls cannot go to school? While others say: if I don’t have energy, I can’t have food security. Or, we need to have water because otherwise we don’t have food…..

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