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Unilever CEO Paul Polman on finding career success and encouraging corporate responsibility

May 17, 2018

Polman

Paul Polman, CEO of Unilever, is the featured speaker at Mason’s 51st Spring Commencement Ceremony Friday, May 18, 2018.

Q: Why is it important for major corporations to be good stewards of the world, and how do you balance the need to meet shareholders’ expectations with the desire to be a good corporate citizen?

A: Businesses cannot thrive long term in an unhealthy world. We already have a situation where our planetary boundaries are under threat, where 1.3 billion people live in extreme poverty, and where 1 in 9 people still go to bed hungry. Left unchecked, climate change will further undermine the fragility of our planet as well as push 100 million more people back into poverty. Business cannot succeed in a failing society, and there is no case for enduring suffering.

So, it’s not a question in my mind of balancing different or conflicting needs. The fact is shareholders—like all stakeholders—can only benefit over the long term if companies are willing to pursue responsible sustainable business models that serve the needs and interests of the societies and environments in which they operate. In fact, I believe that this is the only model in the future that consumers and citizens will give permission to exist.   

In the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), agreed to by all the nations of the world, we have a roadmap on what needs to be done to address these global challenges and ensure that by 2030 we eradicate poverty in a sustainable and equitable way.

Q: What is the best piece of advice you ever received, personally or professionally, and how has that advice helped shape your life and career?

A: There is a quote from the Dalai Lama I read many years ago that has stuck with me: “If you seek enlightenment for yourself simply to enhance yourself and your position, you miss the purpose; if you seek enlightenment for yourself to enable you to serve others, you are with purpose.” I have tried to follow this guidance throughout my life.

I also embrace the principle of the universal “Golden Rule” and always aim to treat the planet and others as you would want to be treated yourself—in other words, with dignity, respect and compassion.

By serving others and being willing to reflect on how they are thinking and feeling, you are better able to reach decisions that serve the interests of the greatest number of people—as well as inspire others to join you on your own journey. 

Q: What is the best thing you did in college, or early in your career, that prepared you to be successful?

A: Meeting my future wife, Kim, in college was certainly one of the best things that happened to me! We met in a class called “collective bargaining” and occasionally joke that we are still working on it now. I certainly couldn’t have achieved the things I have without her.

The opportunity to study overseas—in my case at the University of Cincinnati—was also hugely important. It helped to give me a broader perspective. Being willing to work or study in a different environment—and thereby open your mind to new ideas or alternative ways of thinking—is so important in a world that is increasingly connected and interdependent.

Finally, I learned that hard work and commitment really do pay off. I had to hold down two jobs to help pay my way through college, while keeping on top of my studies. It didn’t go unnoticed, and as a result people were willing to take a risk on me. You earn trust through hard work, commitment and being trustworthy. That is a daily commitment.

Q: What advice do you have for the new college graduate who may or may not have a clear sense of direction for their life or career?

A: Life can take you in different directions and we often end up on a different path than we expected.

When I finished high school, I initially wanted to study medicine. But in the Netherlands, where I grew up, medical school admissions were allocated by lottery and I missed out. I also considered becoming a priest for some time. Ultimately, I settled on a business career, which has been varied and endlessly fascinating. Working in consumer goods in particular enables you to be in an industry that reaches billions of people every day, giving you the opportunity to touch many people’s lives in meaningful ways.

To give advice based on my own experience, I would say:

  • Look for a deeper sense of purpose. Be guided by your inner moral compass to go beyond self-interest. It’s not easy, but remember, the harder right will always trump the easier wrong.
  • To live your purpose, be sure that you pursue what you do with passion. If you do what you love, and love what you do, you will also have a higher chance of being successful.
  • Finally, maintain a positive attitude in all that you do. An environment that embodies your values is key. Look for opportunities, not obstacles. Be a “glass half full” person. And if the glass appears half empty, redesign the glass.

Q: What attributes do you look for in the people you hire?

A: We think about an individual’s talent, their potential, and whether they share the company’s values of respect, integrity, responsibility and a pioneering spirit. As we navigate a complex and uncertain world, trust and reputation become increasingly crucial assets. 

We look for people who are purpose-driven, systemic thinkers and who are comfortable working in inclusive and collaborative ways—because none of the challenges we face can be solved by any one organization alone. 

These are people who are motivated and inspired to be part of something bigger than themselves, to work in a business and on brands whose aim is to find solutions to the many societal and environmental challenges we face.