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Sustainable future for retiring Unilever boss

by Carley Bowman

Paul Polman has announced he will step down as CEO of Unilever after more than 10 years at the helm. But retirement? No way.

He will continue to be a leading figure pushing for greater sustainability, value and purpose from business. His argument is straightforward. The old model is increasingly out of date.

It alienates consumers and citizens, especially the Next Generation. As he proved by ditching quarterly reporting at Unilever, this is about battling against short-termism with a new sense of strategic responsibility.

Central to Paul Polman’s well established commitment to create new responsibility will be his roles as Chair of the Global Advisory Board of One Young World and also The B Team. The latter is a not-for-profit initiative funded by what is still a tragically small number of global business leaders to work for a “better way of doing business”.

Polman is a tireless advocate of putting social purpose at the heart of every company’s business strategy.

We have witnessed him irritate many fellow C-suite peers with his relentless pressure on the issue.

But gradually and at last, global events are forcing change and a corporate realisation that the way leaders have led in business cannot and must not endure.

The sinister realities of the new, existential normal are encouraging more to sign up to his arguments and be part of what could soon become a revolution in how corporate leaders lead.

Paul Polman is a big supporter of Thinking the Unthinkable’s core mission to help global leaders thrive on change in times of massive disruption.

He has talked to us about his vision of leadership. He described how critical it is for leaders to redefine purpose and values in their business in conversation with TtU founder and director Nik Gowing.

Arguably he is the most prominent executive voice on the scale of change needed in corporates, government and public service.

Here are some of the key things he has told Thinking the Unthinkable:

On the scale of the challenge

Some CEOs are scared stiff, [but] we must be disruptive, taking risks and challenging the status quo. We must be bold in looking at new technologies and be creative.

It’s very, very difficult to get that kind of level of change that is necessary internally, even if you’re the chief executive, and even if you’re the chairman.”

On conformity and lack of creativity

Too many things are scripted and programmed, and people are not willing to speak up anymore.

On the impact of geopolitics on corporates

The world is much more uncertain and volatile than it has ever been before. And that is because of some factors coming together now that have never come together before. And they amplify each other. You have a totally different world order and we struggle with that enormously.

On dealing with uncertainty

When you have far more shock, when you have far more uncertainty you have to build up resilience. Resilience, in the broader sense of the word, is as much mental resilience as it is organisational resilience. With the average tenure of a CEO now being about four years long. And getting shorter.

You have to be enormously strong and thick skinned and enormously failure driven because most of the things you will deal with are things that aren’t so clear. Anything that’s clear will be handled under you. So, this job [CEO] is managing ambiguity or uncertainty at the highest level and lot of people feel uncomfortable with that.

On Purpose (with a capital P) in business

So first you have to find your inner compass, what you’re strong about. If that is so important, you’ll be able to take more risks. And we have become risk-averse.

Who are the leaders that are going to be successful tomorrow? They are leaders that don’t work for their own interest but work for the common good. The leaders that can have a longer-term vision. The leaders that are driven by a deeper purpose so that they can take some more risks in doing so. So those are the ones that we need to nurture.

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