Episode #19: Paul Polman – Leadership with purpose

29 January 2019

Paul Polman, sustainable business champion

In this episode, I talk to Paul Polman who, until just a few weeks ago, was the chief executive of Unilever.

Paul needs very little introduction to many of the listeners of this podcast. For the last decade, he has been one of the highest profile champions for sustainable business worldwide. He’s shown that leading a business with purpose can help create new models of sustainable wealth creation whilst also delivering a fair return to shareholders.

In this interview we talk about how he got to where he is, and what he’s learned along the way. We talk about some of the obstacles to sustainable business, and what we need to do to take the next steps forward.

Paul is hugely experienced on the global stage, both in terms of what it means to tackle real poverty on the ground, and also how to build systems for top level change at scale. I learned a huge amount in our discussion and I think you will too.

Show notes

What did the world look like to the young Paul Polman as he left school and prepared for adult life, and what were his first steps? (1:45)

What was the influence that first started Paul on the path towards caring about social impact and sustainability? (8:04)

What were Paul’s top priorities when he took over the leadership of Unilever? (11:22)

What have been the main learnings on how to make impact in difficult markets whilst being successful? (15:04)

Some of the challenges of having a global company that is also hyper-local in its approach (22:20)

Can businesses really deliver for the long-term when the business orthodoxy rewards the short-term? (24:25)

What sort of system can deliver sustainable value in the long-term? (30:36)

How can businesses successfully create sustainable value when there are so many corporate raiders waiting to dive in on a short-term opportunity? (36:42)

The importance of including impact on society as a key feature of leadership (41:54)

Looking back having stepped down as CEO, what stands out from the last ten years at Unilever? (43:36)

Paul’s personal purpose (46:04)

One practical change Paul would make before hanging up his gloves (46:44)

Advice Paul would give to his younger self (48:09)

Impressive change makers that Paul finds inspiring (48:24)

Mistakes Paul has made that led to a positive outcome (49:34)

One habit Paul would like to change (50:13)

A book that has had a powerful impact on Paul’s thinking (50:51)

Paul’s advice to young people who want to be successful and make an impact on the world as well (52:45)


Paul on Twitter

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