It takes real courage to be purpose-driven leader, who ensures that their team and company has a Net Positive impact on the world.
So how can we be courageous leaders?
This episode’s guest, Paul Polman, is the perfect person to help us answer this question.
Not only has Paul recently written a book about it, but he has also demonstrated immense courage himself – such as when he launched the Unilever Sustainable Living Plan to decouple the company's growth from its environmental impact.
Tune in to hear all the advice he shared with JP.
JEAN PHILIPPE: There are many types of courage. Of course we need courage when we are on difficult situations, when we are scared or stressed or in danger, but it also takes courage to get out of your comfort zone, to do things that have not been done before, to acknowledge the challenges and inequalities in the world and choose to make a difference.
VOICEOVER: This is the Positive Leadership Podcast with Jean Philippe Courtois, Microsoft Executive Vice President and President and the founder of Live for Good.
JEAN PHILIPPE: So it’s really a great honor and pleasure to host you, Paul, today.
PAUL POLMAN: Well, thank you, Jean Philippe, for the opportunity. Certainly look forward to it.
VOICEOVER: Inspiring and intriguing conversations from around the world.
JEAN PHILIPPE: My guest today is someone who has demonstrated courage many times throughout his long career, Paul Polman. He was the CEO of Unilever from 2009 till 2019, when he transformed his company to reach 1.3 billion people in the world, to improve their health and aging, reducing life-threatening diseases like diarrhea. And before that, Paul was a senior executive at Proctor & Gamble and Nestle, and today he’s the inspiring co-founder and co-chair of IMAGINE, which is set up in 2019 to get businesses to evolve from pure compliancy or philanthropy towards the goal of becoming a system transformation change agent. He’s also finally the author of a wonderful book, Net Positive, that I love reading, so I would advise you to read it as well, how courageous companies thrive by giving more than they take, which is all about true, sustainable, responsible business, as the only way to go. Paul, I’d like to start with something that might surprise our listeners, because before you entered the corporate world, I know you were considering becoming a priest, and so can you tell us more the way that instead of becoming a priest, you ended up as the CEO of one of the largest companies on the planet?
PAUL POLMAN: Well, yeah, it depends on the definition of the priesthood, I might still be in it! But, you know, life is serendipity. I always try to create as many opportunities and then pick one and then done look back, but I was born in 1956, so I basically grew up in the ‘60s, and I always thought that was a long time after World War II, but the older I get, the more I realize how close that was. Unfortunately my parents were deprived from their education as a result of the war. We had six children at home, and all they focused on was really ensuring that we got our education, that their communities functioned again, so we grew up in a sense of serving a greater good. You know, it was not surprising in those days that the second son, I actually was the second one, would go into the priesthood. There were many examples of that. But I was always interested in it. Unfortunately already at that time there weren’t that many people that were called to that vocation, and the seminary was getting emptier and emptier, so I ended up going back to my hometown after a year, and then I wanted to become a doctor. I think I was driven by that same desire to help others. In Holland there’s a lottery system. The government limits the number of places, so I didn’t succeed in getting in, unfortunately. My father made it clear to me that I had to make my own living one day, and I ended up actually studying economics basically as an escape route as a holding study, but ended up then developing my career in business.
JEAN PHILIPPE: Interesting to see kind of the vocation, you know, you had and still the way you found a new vocation becoming a CEO of a company, so what has been the trigger at some point when you work for very different large companies, like P&G, like Nestle to find kind of your new vocation into the business world?
PAUL POLMAN: Yeah, well, I’ve always believed, and I’ve always seen business as being a force for good, that it could play an enormous role in the development agenda if you want to or enhancing the basic human values that we need for society to function, and I’ve been very fortunate with all these three companies that all were created, by the way, in the midst of the 19th century, that they were companies with strong values, that actually were aligned with mine, so although each of them had different cultures and obviously were in slightly different industries and backgrounds, as you would expect, I always felt I could be myself, but my real awareness was probably when I moved in the ‘90s to Newcastle and ran for P&G the UK and Irish business from there, and that’s for the first time that I really saw the effects of second generation unemployment, ship building, steel coal, that had gone belly up, and the only thing a 14 year old girl could get was pregnant, making the situations worse obviously. We were the biggest employer there, so I felt a strong sense of being part of making these communities function, and I always called that the moment that I moved sort of from being a half person to a full person and really understood what the power of business could be, but also why that is so important for business itself and how that is a mutual symbiose that then starts to develop. But then during your life, you have other moments that really inform you, and that goes on obviously throughout your life. I was fortunate enough for one of my visually impaired friends, Erik Weihenmayer, who I had read his book called Touch the Top. He was the first blind person to climb all seven summits, including Mt. Everest, and we became friends, and he called me, and he said why don’t you join me, I want to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro again, so I took my children, but then we decided to take eight blind people. Six of them ended up being on the top. The first blind African on the top. And spending 10 days with these officially impaired people made me understand that it’s not disability, it’s differability and how much they can see, you know. Helen Keller, who was at the Perkins School for the Blind in Boston, Massachusetts and spoke six languages and was blind and deaf, she was often asked that it must be horrible to be blind, and she said no, the worst thing is not being blind, the worst thing actually is having eyes and not being able to see, and that is still the case for many people.
JEAN PHILIPPE: As you talk about not being able to see, you remind me actually of an exhibition I just visited in Paris, which is about Saint-Exupéry, you know, and his book, The Little Prince, Le Petite Prince, and this wonderful book, it basically is showing us the way you need to see the world with your heart. And I think the stories that you share with us about the way you’ve been embracing life with your heart and the way you’ve been aligning clearly is because of that your values, your sense of purpose, with the bigger things you could accomplish, with the position of bigger parallels you had in your career, and it reminds me as well of the opportunity I have. I always remind all teams people, Microsoft and others, that we are privileged, and that we need and we can use that privilege to have an even better positive impact around ourselves, so thanks for sharing the stories, Paul. Really wonderful. I know there’s many other big moments in our lives and sometimes turning points, and, you know, for many people around the world over the past few years in the pandemic, I know we have this tragedy going on a few thousand kilometers away from us in Ukraine, with the people of Ukraine. I know that in your case, Paul, you’ve been speaking a couple of times about this very unique moment for you that happened during a business dinner in 2008 at the Taj Mahal hotel in Mumbai, when it was a terrorist attack, so I don’t know if I can ask you that story now, to share that story again, because I know it’s been since today a very emotional moment, I’m sure for you. But if you can share some of that for the listeners and what he taught you, that would be fantastic.
PAUL POLMAN: Well, I think it’s one of the crucials, and I hope I don’t find myself in that same situation again, but we were going around the world, saying goodbye to my predecessor, who also was a Frenchman, Patrick Cescau, so we were in the Taj Mahal in Mumbai on the unfortunate night that the terrorists attacked it, and, you know, we were supposed to eat by the swimming pool where most of the people lost their lives, but because of a little bit of rain, we ended up going inside in one of the rooms on the first floor. We ended up being there the whole night, and regretfully many lives were lost around us, but, for some miracle, we were able to get out of the hotel again, and I think, yeah, it’s not something that you will forget, how precious life is and the price of poverty, to be honest. It makes you more determined to try to fight for the Sustainable Development Goals and ensure that nobody is left behind, because at the roots of all that evil that you see in the world is that sense of exclusion, and you see the same again happening not far from here in the terrible war and in the Ukraine. At the end of the day, the world doesn’t function if we don’t work differently together or if we don’t share our common values and if we don’t fight for each and every human being’s rights to have dignity and respect or equity, and if we don’t show the needed compassion, so, at the same time as I saw the evil side of humanity and the cost of poverty, it was also good to see how we were embraced by the community after we came out and welcomed obviously, and, yeah, it brings to life a little bit the realities that we deal with, and you find that the real crisis that we have is more of a crisis of humanity than it is a crisis of anything else, and that we also have the power to do something about that, if we desire to do so, so we were lucky, and it makes you even more determined to live your purpose, which in my case is really to ensure that we implement these Sustainable Development Goals and don’t leave anybody behind, and we have a small window to do that in the next 10, 15 years by all means possible, but it needs all of us, these challenges, like the pandemic or the climate change or the financial challenges that we have in the world, all these things that know no borders, and it requires us to work together in a different form than what we’re currently doing that is not clear.
JEAN PHILIPPE: Yeah, Paul, obviously thanks so much for sharing that defining moment for you, and, in many ways, I’m sure getting you ready to do things in a decisive way, and so little bit after that tragic event, you became the CEO of Unilever in 2009. I understand that you are not necessarily welcome by everyone coming as the guy from the outside in the company, but you went there, and you decided to reset the new journey for Unilever by creating the Unilever Sustainable Living Plan, which really the company grows by addressing three main goals, improving health and wellbeing, reducing environmental impact and enhancing livelihoods, so, to you, what were actually, Paul, in that early journey and during the journey, the three most defining moments where you felt both excited but also scared about the change that you are creating in the company? So I think what we usually call the tipping points, can you share that with us?
PAUL POLMAN: We found ourselves in a situation that the company had not really performed the previous decade, it had seen its turnover go down from about 55 billion euros to 38 billion euros, and it had become victim of short-termism, chasing its tail actually, and when I came in for the first time, a CEO coming in from the outside, happened to be also at the height of the financial crisis, so you might argue there was a burning platform already. Most companies went back at that time to short-termism and running the quarters and cost cutting, but we just didn’t have a choice. I’ve always believed that you can’t save your way to prosperity, so we had to find a way to grow. So the first thing I did was really go back to the roots of the company and find out what made this company so great over its history. Lord Lever started his company at the end of the 19th century to address the issues of hygiene in society. One out of two babies in Victorian Britain didn’t make it past year one, and he wanted to solve that challenge by making the bar soap available, soaps like Sunlight or Lifebuoy, but the man also believed in some other concepts. He always talked about shared prosperity. He was the first one who guaranteed a six day work week or introduced pensions in the UK, or actually paid the workers during World War I and guaranteed their wages and their jobs, something that no other company did, so we took these core values that he had summarized in a purpose, which was making hygiene commonplace, and we translated that to the needs of today, into making sustainable living commonplace. As Bill George in his book True North talks about, you cannot develop a purpose-driven company if you don’t have your own purpose, just like you can’t build a sustainable company if you’re not sustainable yourself, so the first year I asked Bill to help me and be sure that we worked with our top leadership team, our top few hundred people to help them find their own purpose, that that course is still there in Unilever, and 70,000, 80,000 people have gone through that, but together we then developed the courage to come out with what was called the Unilever Sustainable Living Plan, fairly revolutionary at that time by really setting some very bold targets, like decoupling growth from environmental impact, increasing overall social impact, and the targets I felt were needed to reestablish trust. Trust is probably the most important currency in society, and we lack a lot of it. But by operating with a higher level of transparency, that’s nearly a precondition to build that trust that is the basis for prosperity. We made a decision to take responsibility for our total impact in the world, and we looked at our impact across our value chain, call it our total handprint instead of our footprint, that led us already then to targets of totally decarbonizing or running our factories at zero waste or implementing the human rights framework that John Ruggie had put out that’s called the Ruggie Framework and many of the other things. People felt uncomfortable about it, but it created a certain level of energy in the company. It made us an outside in company, because it really forced us to focus on the issues of society to address those, and the penny really dropped after a few years when we could show that our purpose-driven brands were actually growing faster and were more profitable, brands like Lifebuoy or hand soap, helping a child reach the age of five, when 4 million children die still every year of infectious diseases, as you mentioned, like diarrhea or pneumonia, a brand like Dove working on women’s self-esteem, a brand like Domestos, a toilet bowl cleaner, trying to address the issues of open defecation. So all of these brands got targets around that of reaching 100 million, 200 million, or a billion people, and that was very motivating, that really created that strong sense of mission and purpose that unlocked that energy that I hadn’t seen before. Now, it had some challenges. The market was not used to that. For many in the financial market, this was kind of a strange thing. We were all supposed to serve them and nobody else, and here is someone that says he has another idea, even tells them to put the money somewhere else if they don’t agree with it.
JEAN PHILIPPE: And you even ended actually reporting on the quarters, Paul, which I know was kind of a shock to the financial community as well.
PAUL POLMAN: Yes, because what you normally expect is when people do that, there must be bad news coming. In our case, there was no bad news coming, but I needed to put the right boundaries in place. You know, leaders work on the forest not in the forest, and for our organization to take the right actions for the longer term, I felt it was terribly important to stop quarterly reporting, to stop giving guidance, to move our compensation plan to a long-term plan, so these were dramatic changes at that time. Regretfully not many companies have followed, but what it did was it moved these boundaries, so that people could behave differently, so we had pressure from the financial market, there’s no question about it. I discovered it’s easier to get rid of shareholders than to find new ones, but over time we really changed our shareholder base, and that was very important. We seeked out shareholders that were in line with our strategies. Too many CEOs cater to a current shareholder base, and, frankly, at times become schizophrenic. The other challenge we had was that at that time there were not really enough data to make our point. Now we can show that more gender diverse companies perform better or companies that internalize the challenge of climate change perform better, so there’s a direct correlation now between purpose-driven companies in general and being better performers not surprisingly, and Microsoft is a great example of that, as well as many other companies, but, in those days, we didn’t have the data, so it made it more difficult to explain our story as a value creation story to the financial market. Many of the issues you cannot solve alone as a company, so you need to create these broader partnerships, and that takes time. Even in Unilever’s case, we had some wonderful partnerships to solve these broader societal issues, like deforestation or plastic in the oceans or moving to sustainable sourcing, but when governments are not quite functioning, when multilateral institutions don’t quite work, when competitive pressures take over, it is just outright difficult to form these partnerships, so many of the bigger things we now need to work together. I always say that we should not compete anymore on issues when it comes to the future of humanity, and yet we still do that all too often, so that’s a different mindset we need to create.
JEAN PHILIPPE: It makes me also reflect on the way we are going through our own transformation in Microsoft for the last seven years now and where I’ve seen in a very, I would say visible way, the foundational pillars of the transformation, starting clear with the mission which needs to be authentic, which needs to be, as you rightly said, aligned with the purpose of each one of our employees. The way we also embed basically the sense of that mission into everything we do, into the core operational pillars of our execution, innovation, sales marketing, supply chain, everything we do. And the way, finally, we make it real by really shaping the culture in the way that opens up new opportunity to transform, again, the company to achieve in a better way submission day after day. So I like you maybe to actually provide some even more advice for business people who are listening to this podcast as well on what are the first steps that you recommend them to do to move a business from compliance and CSR to become, as you said in the book, a courageous business and shape the past to become a net positive company. What would be the very first steps of the journey?
PAUL POLMAN: Well, the very first step is really to create your own awareness and to work on yourselves, you know, spend some time on finding out what makes you tick first and foremost to give you the courage to make the changes that are needed. Many businesses play not to lose instead of playing to win, and under exploit its potential, but also under exploit its responsibility that they have towards society, so it starts with yourself. Rumi who was a 13th century poet said it very well when he said “yesterday I was smart, I tried to change the world. Today I’m wise, I’m trying to change myself”, so that’s the beginning of the journey. Then the second one is really to find that purpose. You know, Collin Meyers says as well he defines purpose as to profitably address the issues of people and planet. I talked to so many CEOs, and you ask them what is your purpose, and most of them start stuttering. The purpose of Microsoft, to empower every person and organization on the planet to achieve more is an energizing purpose, or, you know, purposes that Unilever had to make sustainable living commonplace really rallied people to find that purpose. Then you take responsibility of the total impact in the world, and that takes courage, because it gets you to targets that are needed versus targets you can get away with. It forces you to think about partnerships, which sometimes are inconvenient. It unlocks the courage that you need to do the broader advocacy when society actually moves in the wrong direction and undermines some basic principles on which humanity is based. So once you’ve set these clear targets, then I think the best thing to do is based on where you can have obviously the biggest impact across your total value chain. Then you make it public. Very few companies make their targets public. You look at climate change right now, and we only have about 15% of companies doing science-based targets, and of those 8% are making targets for between now and 2030. It’s so easy to make a target for 2050 and say, yeah, we will be net zero by 2050 and claim that carbon capture and storage will take care of it. That’s literally kicking the can down the road, and many of your employees will not find that courageous anymore, but if you take, for example, what Microsoft did, say we take all the carbon out of the air, since our origins of 1975, then you all of a sudden start to become carbon positive, then you become a net positive company, or when you say I want to be water positive by 2030, that’s net positive thinking. This world has overshot its planetary boundaries enormously. Last year World Overshoot Day, which is the day that we use more resources than the world can replenish, was July 29th. After that day, we’re actually stealing from future generations. In many cases, we’re close to negative tipping points. It’s not a good position to find ourselves in. So CSR deals with being less bad, but in a world that has overshot these planetary boundaries by such a magnitude, less bad is simply not good enough anymore. I used to murder five people. Now I murdered two people, am I a better murderer? No, you’re not. Less bad is still bad. So we need to get businesses to think in terms of regenerative, restorative, reparative, and that is net positive, and that requires that courage, and that’s probably the most important thing. Once you are there and set these targets that are absolutely needed, you have to focus on putting the capabilities in place, and this is what we briefly touched on with abolishing quarterly profits as a micro example of that. You have to help your organization by moving boundaries. Leaders work on the forests, not in the forest. So what are the boundaries that get in the way of working together across the organization, of behaviors that might not be conducive to bring your strategy to life and make everybody part of that? At Unilever, we saw an incredible unlock, we became the most desired employer because of that plan. Most people want to work now for companies that have a higher purpose. Our engagement scores were in the top of the top tercile. We saw our innovations becoming stronger, our resilience was in our value chain with our partners became bigger, so the payouts were clear. What made it really come home was when people saw that even as an individual company, this multiplier effect you could have on society and how that actually also drove the company results 10 years top and bottom line growth, 300% shareholder return, so ultimately it was actually the shareholder who benefitted from this as much as other stakeholders, but they had to go through that small adjustment of buying into this longer term multi-stakeholder model.
JEAN PHILIPPE: You know, in your book you actually quote two business professors, Nitin Nohria and Paul Laurence who said we have two fundamental human drives, to acquire and to defend, but, on top of that, we need to have two other fundamental drives to the equation, to bond with others and to comprehend a world. We need connection, we need meaning, we need purpose, and to me, Paul, this resonates really deeply with the positive leadership philosophy. I’m deeply convinced that we need to nurture in people what I’m calling a positive impact mindset, which is really, you know, built on the fundamentals of positive psychology, neuroscience, mindfulness. It’s about creating the sense of purpose in ourselves but also the ability to manage our own positive energy, physical energy, emotional energy, mental energy, and, indeed, it’s all about bonding, connecting in a deep, meaningful way with others to in spite then to grow their potential so that as a positive leader, we’re deeply aware of the new challenges at stake socially in the world. You make them as well as yourself ready to become a player to change the world.
PAUL POLMAN: No, I totally agree with that, that I’ve always felt, Jean Philippe, that I was lucky to be born in the Netherlands. I never realized that, but the older I get, the more I realize that I had a piece of bar soap, I had enough food so I didn’t end up being stunted. We had a toilet at home, so we didn’t have to deal with the issues of open defecation. I got free education from the government, still deprived for the majority of people. So, in the end, I started to realize more and more that I had won the lottery ticket of life, and, if you’ve won the lottery ticket of life, you only belong to about 5% of the world’s population, and then it’s our duty, our obligation to put ourselves to the service of the other 95%. The world otherwise simply can’t function, and so it’s that deeper sense of purpose that we need to unlock that we then put to the service of others. You know, the Dalai Lama said it very well, in fact, when he said that if you seek enlightenment just for yourself to enhance your own causes, you miss purpose, but, if you seek enlightenment to help others achieve their causes, then you live a life with purpose, and I think that’s the most important thing in all of this.
JEAN PHILIPPE: It is so, again, clear that that sense of purpose is being actually—I think it’s really pushing a lot of people these days to rethink their lives in the future and in the pandemic, everyone has realized that there’s a deeper sense of every minute they’re living their lives. You know, Paul, I’d like you to think about those CEOs taking a job of CEO in 2022. What would be your advice in this kind of crazy world post-pandemic? Actually I’m not sure we are completely post-pandemic, but we pretend it is, to the worst situation in Europe that we discussed briefly in Ukraine. What would be your top piece of advice for a CEO stepping in, in the new role in 2022, in the way he/she starts her role?
PAUL POLMAN: Well, what I would recommend to them first and foremost is unlock that purpose in your company, try to find that broader responsibility that you need to have by taking responsibility of your total impact. I don’t want to single out any company on this podcast, but it’s not good enough anymore to say, yeah, people like my platform and use it, but they’re not taking responsibility for undermining democracy or hate speech or child addiction on the platform. You have to take responsibility of your total impact. Then once you are able to implement it in the company with your own journey that we talked about, then try to enlarge that into your value chain at the industry level and increasingly become part of the bigger transformations that society needs. Most importantly is be consistent in all you do. There’s an incredible lack of trust between employees now and management in most companies, and that comes really from the lack of walking the talk. When 70, 80% of CEOs make bold commitments, and then only 20 to 30% of people in the company see these commitments being implemented, I think that’s at the roots of the great resignation that you now see in the U.S. and many other places. You know, especially the millennial, the Gen Z generation don’t want to work for companies that just look after their own self-interest. They want to work for something bigger. They want to leave this world in a better place. So for CEOs, it is important to be very, very consistent if you want to gain that respect as a leader and that trust that you need to build ultimately the success of your company on.
JEAN PHILIPPE: This is true, Paul. Paul, as we come to the very last section of our discussion, I’d like us to really shift gears and talk about system change, because I think you’ve been very clear about what is at stake actually to become that agent of change. You were a member, Paul, of the UN Security General’s High Level Panel, which developed the Sustainable Development Goals, and also an active SDG advocate pushing the famous 2030 development agenda. So can you share with your listeners – because many of them have heard at some level about the UN SDG goals – but why is that framework so critical, not just for us only, but for children, the next generations? And it could also be an incredible growth opportunity for the economy on top of that.
PAUL POLMAN: Yeah, so the Millennium Development Goals were started by Kofi Annan, the then Secretary General in the year 2000, and it had a simple objective to half the number of people living in poverty over the period 2000 to 2015. Believe it or not, we actually achieved that three years earlier. At that time, poverty was defined as one $1.25 an hour, and, in fact, China was a big part of it, but also other parts of the world. Then we were all together in Rio for the Rio +20 conference in 2012, and countries like Brazil at that time and Columbia said, you know, you can’t go halfway. You don’t go halfway to the moon and then come back because the food is better at home, so we all went together and said we can learn from the millennial development goals. The societal problems have changed. We increasingly see these planetary boundaries, the shortcomings of our linear extractive production model, the cost of climate change. All these things were more transparent. And out of that, after two and a half years working on this High Level Panel, for which I represented the business community, came the Sustainable Development Goals that really are there to not leave anybody behind, to finish the job over the period 2015 – 2030. It was a very simple objective, Jean Philippe, to irreversibly eradicate poverty and do that in a more sustainable and equitable way. 17 goals, goals ranging from no poverty, no hunger to gender equality, to fighting climate change, to protecting our forests, our lands, our oceans, to getting peace and justice and ultimately goal number 17, partnership. What we increasingly see is companies adapting these Sustainable Development Goals. And why are they doing that? Well, very simple. It actually turns out that the Sustainable Development Goals, which were signed by 193 countries, is actually a great moral framework for the world, but not only a great moral framework to mirror your strategies of, but more importantly also it is becoming an enormous business opportunity. Most of these Sustainable Development Goals need business, not surprisingly, because business is about 65% of the global economy, 80% of the job creation, 95% of the financing now. We cannot achieve these goals without business. We are at a point that the cost of not acting is actually becoming higher than the cost of acting. Now you take Covid has cost us $17 trillion in Europe and the U.S. alone to save lives and livelihoods. I agree with you, we’re not out of the woods yet, that’s infinitely more than it costs us to implement these Sustainable Development Goals. We’re spending 10-12% of our global GDP on conflict prevention and wars. We’ve just added extra cost to that now in this unfolding tragedy. That’s infinitely more again than it would cost us to implement the Sustainable Development Goals. So one of the reasons why you see the financial market moving is that they understand that companies that position themselves better for their future are actually also more financially resilient and more attractive to invest in, so it is becoming the bigger business opportunity. Of course not everything can be solved in one goal. We have 15 years to do that. But study after study shows that by all means it’s possible and that 60, 70% of what we need to do can already be done now more profitably than the way we are currently doing it, and hopefully by making these changes, we restore the biodiversity, we alleviate poverty, we protect this planet for future generations, and create a more equitable society, and I think that’s an objective that is in our hands fully to deliver on, hence the need for courageous leadership. At the end of the day, it really boils down to that to individuals and how we behave collectively.
JEAN PHILIPPE: Paul, you decided to turn—you turned a page a couple of years ago after your amazing impact with Unilever and instead of just retiring, playing golf, and enjoying life, that I’m sure you like to do as well from time to time, you decided to do a lot more, and you co-founded IMAGINE that helps build those net positive companies that we’ve been talking about, by giving more than what they take, and help building those partnership industry-wide collectives, I think as you call them, to deliver change at speed and scale. Can you elaborate on your own theory of change and give one concrete example of one industry that you are very determined to transform as a net positive industry, to have a significant impact on one or several of the UNSG goals that you just talked about?
PAUL POLMAN: Yeah, thanks for asking. And I indeed created IMAGINE with Valerie Keller, who had worked with Unilever during my transition period. Our theory of change is a very simple one. It’s bring enough CEOs together by industry sector across the value chain, so there are some key elements in there, CEOs, because we want fast decisions, we don’t have much time, by industry sector critical mass. If you get 20 to 25% of an industry sector together, you can actually create tipping points and actually across the value chain. Many of the issues are created because we work in siloes and we don’t work together across a value chain. If we created higher level of trust to do that, we can actually solve much bigger issues, so we look at the industries that have the biggest impact on the Sustainable Development Goals. Obviously there’s the overall energy transition which gets enough attention, but besides that, you have industries like fashion or food or tourist and travel that actually have a huge impact on all of these Sustainable Development Goals, so you take fashion, for example, where we now have pulled together 70 fashion companies across the value chain, some of the biggest ones in the world, and together they’re looking at decarbonizing their business models, for example, by jointly purchasing green energy. Some of them are too small to do that alone. We’re looking at moving to regenerative cotton, a very destructive crop. Again, no company individually can make that transition happen in the world, but together they can. Internalizing targets for nature, science-based targets, which is very important, and this industry is keen to do that. Getting rid of single use plastics in the B2B delivery. It needs totally new standards of how clothes are delivered to the different parts of the value chain. These are things you can do by working in cooperation, but it’s as much for us the human transformation to get the courage as it is the systems transformation, and what we find is that if we bring these CEOs together, then collectively they become more courageous. Ultimately some tougher questions need to be answered, like human rights in the value chain or decoupling growth from resource use. These are the tougher discussions, but we’re building towards those. We’re doing that now with food where we have 30 of the biggest food companies together working on how can we stave off a looming food crisis because of the tragedies unfolding in Eastern Europe? How can we ensure that all the potentially 6, 7, 8 million refugees don’t end up with humanitarian aid in a shortage of food. Having these companies together working in tandem on these type of things even in times of emergency is a tremendous difference versus each of these companies working alone. So it’s all meant to help them on this transformation towards becoming a net positive company and taking some of these bottlenecks away, not least the feeling that if I do something right and the others don’t, I might be at a competitive disadvantage, so collectively we can address most of these issues.
JEAN PHILIPPE: That’s very inspiring, Paul, and I really look forward to seeing, experiencing the courageous fashion or the new ways of developing fashion in a responsible way. You know, this reminds me of a couple conversations I had in my podcast. I mean, I was having a chat with Jeroo Billimoria, she’s a serial social entrepreneur; she basically brought together a global network of national states, financial entities, educational institutions, and being able to increase the financial capabilities and inclusion of 40 million children, and you managed to get that done across 70 countries changing their policies to achieve that. Now, I’d like to finish really with the last question. When you think about all the listeners of the podcast, they are coming from many different works of life and horizons, so not just business leaders and CEOs, you can have students, you can have entrepreneurs, you can have, you know, people reflecting their families. What would be your coaching for them so that they can really build I would say what I would call this super parallel in their lives, super parallel to grow their positive mindset, and the way we discussed that together, to align their deep sense of purpose, with the way they can contribute to a better world.
PAUL POLMAN: Yeah, so I’ll get to that, Jean, Philippe, but building on what you were saying before, although I’ve started now several social enterprises after my life in Unilever, actually already did that before, but I honestly believe that over time we should see an emerging of this what we now call separate social entrepreneur movement with the business commitment. There is no reason why all companies cannot have that same mentality of social entrepreneur where ultimately we’re trying to put these regenerative business models out there, that actually create enough profit so that we can do more of it and get into this virtual circle of making this a better world, not a world that is just for a few, so that mindset I think is for everybody.
JEAN PHILIPPE: I’m with you.
PAUL POLMAN: Like the CSR techs in India, by texting companies 2% CSR is to me an insult. All companies should ensure that they don’t have negative footprints, and that should be their business model, and obviously the goal of that for all of us is becoming two billionaires, and the definition for me of billionaire, which is touching a billion people, not just having a lot of money in your bank account, so coming to the courageous leaders and your question in the career, I would say the first advice I would give to the people there perhaps is be sure you join companies that embody your values, and it’s a privilege for companies to have you, so carefully select them. Then try to operate under this very important sweet spot of doing things that you like, doing things that you’re good at, but most importantly also doing things that the world needs. You know, Mark Twain said there are two important moments in life, the moment you are born and the moment you found out why you were born, so it’s important to live your purpose, which is different than living your passion, to be honest. I have to confess, I don’t play golf, but passion is really pursuing your own objectives, but purpose is really putting yourself to the service of others, and we’re talking here about the deeper meaning of purpose. I think if you can achieve that and inspire others through your actions and your values, your circle of influence would grow, and you probably will have a very fruitful life and be part of something bigger than you could have created by yourselves.
JEAN PHILIPPE: There are so many challenges that we as a society face today. We have to change our energy systems or food systems or transport systems, and increasingly society expects CEOs to be societal leaders, playing a bigger role than just managing their own companies. It’s not easy being a CEO today, but a good leader is first and foremost a good human being and true leadership. It’s putting yourself to the service of others. So be courageous, courageous in finding and unlocking the purpose in yourself and also in your company and don’t be afraid to take responsibility for your impact, also be consistent in what you do. It will go a long way towards building trust. It will inspire others along the way as well. Well, Paul, thank you so much for this wonderful dialogue. Wishing you all the best in all of your ventures. In the next episode, I will be speaking to Microsoft’s own Executive Vice President for human resources and Chief People Officer Kathleen Hogan about the importance of role modeling.
KATHLEEN: I remember saying, no, care doesn’t mean you’re somebody’s best friend, you don’t’ have to go out to dinner with them, but it does mean caring about them as a human being and helping them navigate so that they can do their best work at Microsoft.
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