"What's your purpose? Take a long hard look at who you are, what you want to do with your life, and how you convert it into something bigger than you."
- Jonathan Donner, VP of leadership development, Unilever.
The corporate version of the chicken and egg question is this: what comes first, people and planet, or profits? For Milton Friedman and generations of Ivey League-educated executives, the pursuit of high returns and healthy bottom lines has been the sole raison d'être of business. In their new book Net Positive, former Unilever CEO Paul Polman and sustainability expert Andrew Winston present an irrefutable argument that nothing can be further from the truth. Private enterprises and public corporations can enjoy financial gains because of sustainability, not despite it. The big game is no longer profits with a side purpose. Today, to play big is to seek profits through purpose, to add value through values.
The proof of the pudding is in the eating. After ten years at the helm of Unilever, Paul Polman's scorecard was impressive, with a total shareholder return of 292 percent, far outrunning the 131 percent for the FTSE index. Yet, the CEO's magic did not come from the CFO's playbook but from a bold vision to do away with short-termism and put sustainability first. Unilever launched its Unilever Sustainable Living Plan (USLP) in 2009. In 2020, USLP had hit or exceeded most of its goals. For example: over $1.4 billion in costs avoided, 1.3 billion people helped with improved health and hygiene, 100% renewables for electricity in manufacturing, 65% reduction in CO2 from energy in manufacturing, zero waste to landfill at all factories, 67% of agricultural raw materials sustainably sourced, water use down 49% per ton of production, global gender parity in management (women are 51%).
To succeed, USLP needed strong leadership throughout the entire organization. The HR team and leadership guru Bill George created the Unilever Leadership Development Program (ULDP), a one-week program to help executives find their purpose. In the words of Unilever's Vice-President of leadership and development Jonathan Donner, ULDP was a journey to "take a long hard look at who you are, what you want to do with your life, and how you convert it into something bigger than you." ULDP was launched with the top 100 executives and extended to the top 1,800 people in the company. A one-and-a-half version of the program is now offered to all Unilever employees globally.
Paul Polman and Andrew Winston challenge business leaders with an existential choice: to continue the pursuit of the shareholder-first model that forces shortsighted decisions, hurts business, and endangers collective wellbeing, or to build organizations that grow and prosper over the long haul by serving the world – that is, by giving more than they take. Their ultimate question is this:
"is the world better off because your business is in it?"
Whatever your role, seniority, or influence in your organization, Net Positive comes as an inspiring playbook on how to play big in business and for the greater good, and an invitation to wake up, grow up, and show up as a courageous, conscious leader.
"Everest is about pain and struggle, physically, but most importantly, mentally. It touches the rawest emotions in your psyche."
- Theodore Fairhurst, entrepreneur and adventurer.
If flourishing as an adult or inspiring as a leader requires us to face and make peace with some of the darkest thoughts that take over our minds, we may learn a great deal from artists, entrepreneurs, athletes, or adventurers. There is a book on my coffee table that speaks of this. Our guests inevitably reach for it. Maybe it is because its title says it all: Dare to Reach, co-authors Emmanuel Daigle and Theodore Fairhurst, two Canadian high-altitude mountaineers from Quebec. Since Ted has been one of my best and closest friends over the last ten years, what follows is no usual book review. Yes, I will. With you, I will share some of the stuff Ted did not dare to share or do.
Adults evolve, grow up, and wake up in various and mysterious ways. Some learn through the pains and challenges that life throws at them; others work with a therapist or a coach or walk spiritual paths to precipitate personal transformations. Others like Ted and Emmanuel seek and meet their better selves on the world's highest mountains' summits. In Ted's own words: "Everest is about pain and struggle, physically, but most importantly, mentally. It touches the rawest emotions in your psyche. It is a beautiful beast, huge, glorious, but implicitly unpredictable. It demands your psychological tenacity. You must be stubborn, you must hold fast, you must know why you are there. You must see what you don't want to see but be able to remove it from the mind's eye. You must focus on one thing, or you will die. Your capacity for resilience determines your outcome. You are both at one with Nature, but also her archenemy, struggling to survive her powerful grip. There are demons, and there are angels, which one you see determines whether you live or die." Read on...