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Unilever commits to sustainability first

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in Leaders & Managers,Leadership Skills

Unilever, a global giant with dozens of brands including Dove, Lipton and Ben & Jerry’s, competes with consumer goods behemoths such as Nestlé and Procter & Gamble.

But you’d never know it by talking with its CEO.

Paul Polman, 58, prefers to discuss Unilever’s commitment to sustainability in its business practices than its stock performance. He readily admits that another leader could boost Unilever’s share price more quickly.

Many CEOs of global consumer products companies face pressure to maximize quarterly earnings. So they treat short-term profits as a top priority.

Polman, by contrast, favors a long-term value model. He mobilizes his employees to tackle large social and environmental challenges such as climate change and disease prevention.

Astonishingly, Polman admits that an outside investor could buy up Unilever’s stock and exert enough influence to close all of his sustainability initiatives. Such a move would drastically cut costs and lift the share price, he guesses, by up to 20% for a year or more.

It’s almost unheard of for a CEO to speak so openly about such matters. But Polman, a Dutchman, champions leadership traits such as humility and integrity with disarming clarity.

Even the firm’s leadership training program is unconventional. Rather than teach people about bold decision-making and overcoming resistance, it focuses on guiding participants to heed their “inner compass.”

Polman, who became Unilever’s CEO in 2009, encourages his managers to ally with nongovernmental organizations and other partners to advance sustainability projects around the world. He also wants the company’s roughly 174,000 employees to embrace transparency as a way to earn public trust.

—Adapted from “Embedding sustainability drives greater profitability, says Unilever CEO Polman,” Jo Confino, www.theguardian.com.

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