6 Leadership Lessons for Entrepreneurs from Paul Polman of Unilever

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Will it be awfully clichéd if I start this post with a done-to-death movie dialogue? I guess it would be but I can’t think of a better statement that serves the purpose. So here goes; with great power comes great responsibility (Spiderman, in case you are wondering). Paul Polman of Unilever lives, breathes, and exudes this powerful assertion. Whether it’s about taking an immovable stance on environmental sustainability or busting the practice of quarterly reporting to focus more on long term gains, Polman is challenging the status quo and is doing it well. Budding entrepreneurs and established business owners alike have a lot to learn from Paul. Here are some of his lesson on leadership and responsibility:

1. Good is Good for Business

“Why would you invest in a company which is out of sync with the needs of society, that does not take its social compliance in its supply chain seriously, that does not think about the costs of externalities, or of its negative impacts on society?" Paul said in a Guardian interview.

The Lesson

A company that has great financial figures but does not involve social and ethical elements as part of the equation, will, as years pass, lose rapport with general public. This means that business will go downhill. A smart investor would not pour their money into a company that boasts an impressive business growth strategy but falls short on its commitment to society and ethical principles, because these aren’t wish list items, but rather key business imperatives.

2. Everything is better with a little Humor

When talking about global business challenges and at the mention of Ben and Jerry's "caring dairy" programme which Unilever owns, Polman joked that he didn’t mind being a cow: "Those animals have massage and scrubbing machines, man, I wish I was a cow."

The Lesson:

It is OK to show your human side. It helps people see you in a different light and foster a personal relationship with you. What use is being at part of a company when people only see you as an imposing, unrelenting figure?

3. Get Comfortable with Uncomfortable

Many of our goals look as daunting now as they did when we announced them, but you have to set uncomfortable targets if you are to really change things, Polman commented on Unilever’s Sustainable Living Plan.

The Lesson

If you keep doing what you have always been doing, you will keep getting what you have always gotten. In order to really make a difference, whether in business or in life, you need to get out of your comfort zone and set targets that  will stretch your capabilities to the limit; only then will you see a palpable change in the status quo.

4. Green is the New Black

“[Businesses] have to recognize that the needs of citizens and communities carry the same weight as the demands of shareholders. We believe that in future this will become the only acceptable model of business. If people feel that the system is unjust and does not work for them, they will rebel against it. And if we continue to consume key inputs like water, food, land and energy without thought as to their long-term sustainability, then none of us will prosper,” Polman said in a Unilever letter from the CEO.

The Lesson

If you are trying to run a profitable business and your aspirations end there, you are in for a surprise. The rules of the game have changed. It is no more just a matter of whose share price is higher or who gives out better dividends; a new business model should be beneficial for all involved.

5. You can’t do it alone

"The issues we face are so big and the targets are so challenging that we cannot do it alone, so there is a certain humility and a recognition that we need to invite other people in. When you look at any issue, such as food or water scarcity, it is very clear that no individual institution, government or company can provide the solution,” he said in the Guardian article.

The Lesson

Whatever good you are trying to achieve through your business, remember that it is not a solo player. As much as businesses are averse to the idea of involving others in their CSR initiatives, it is vital to the success of any program. Whether it is a public private partnership or an industry wide collation having other organizations as part of your green agenda will make it more effective and grant it a broader impact.

6. Be Realistic. Be Modest.

Polman continues in the Guardian, “For those targets that have been met or exceeded, I point out that this is year one of a 10 year plan so the low-hanging fruits are a little easier and it will be progressively more difficult to achieve these targets. I would give ourselves an A minus on the scorecard but would also say we have to work harder."

The Lesson:

It is very easy to get carried away by small victories and although celebrating these small victories is good, dwelling on them for too long isn’t. The lesson for all entrepreneurs is to be realistic about what you have achieved and to recognize that these may be the easy wins and that the same level of accomplishment may not continue as the business matures. This realism paired with an implacable belief in your capabilities is the key to success.

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