"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.