Late last week Paul Polman announced that he would step down as CEO of Unilever at the end of the year. His tenure as leader of the giant consumer goods company has been remarkable in many ways. But his most significant achievement has been to inspire fellow CEOs to look beyond financial results, to address the world’s pressing societal issues.
Polman has been a singular force on climate change. His early declaration of the Unilever Sustainable Living Plan sets out to decouple Unilever’s growth from their environmental footprint. The plan has revolutionized the discussion from government regulation to private sector innovation. From concentrates to recyclable packaging to a thorough review of supply chain in favor of smallholder farmers, the company has used its buying clout to force the recalcitrant to see the light.
Paul created a platform for Unilever Brands to have a purpose and focus on sustainability for people and the planet. The Omo Dirt Is Good program recognizes the need for children to get outside and play. Across the world, the brand supports the creation of playgrounds and funds multiple ways to give children more access to play and the outdoors. The Dove Campaign for Real Beauty takes on the issue of self esteem and confidence amongst women and girls (only 4 percent of women consider themselves beautiful). Most recently, Dove financed Real Beauty Productions, with Shonda Rhimes, producer of Grey’s Anatomy, the first all-female production crew for advertising, as part of its commitment to change the perception of women.
The Unilever product portfolio has been adapted to the new reality of global and local commerce. There have been dozens of acquisitions of start-up brands, such as Dollar Shave Club and Sir Kensington, which are premised on e-commerce and are still led by their founders, attracted by the opportunity to move beyond the home market. The command and control approach of most MNCs is no longer the way at Unilever; look at the freedom afforded Ben and Jerry, founders of the eponymous ice cream brand, to speak up about politics and invent funky new products.
The employees of Unilever now are hunters, not farmers. This is the No. 3 most popular place to work in the world, after Facebook and Google. They are moved around the world (an example is my pal Rob Candelino, a Canadian who rose in the U.S. organization to head of haircare and is now running Thailand). They believe in their mission.
Paul is a modest man with an inner light that shines brightly when he speaks. His commitment to the founding values of Lord Lever and to the principles of his Dutch upbringing (hard work, team over individual, family above all else) should be emulated by future leaders in all sectors. His move from Unilever is the end of a wonderful chapter; be clear that this man has much more to give to our world in his next one.
Paul, on behalf of all of the Edelman people (especially myself) who work on the Unilever business, it has been our privilege to be part of your journey to make business the most trusted institution in the world.
Richard Edelman is president and CEO.