‘Captain Planet’ by Adi Ignatius, Harvard Business Review, June 2012

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This is quite an unusual contribution for HBR, an interview by Adi Ignatius (HBR’s Editor in Chief) with Paul Polman, CEO of Unilever. Its Q & A format is more typical of what you might expect to see in a national newspaper, rather than the world’s most prestigious business magazine. It is in reality, an excellent public relations communication, explaining in some depth Unilever’s strategy, in particular the emphasis on environment and sustainability.

It is nevertheless a highly informative article, largely because the questions asked by Ignatius are penetrating, and Polman’s responses are open and informative. The calibre of the interviewer became obvious to me as, while reading through the article, I kept saying – ‘why doesn’t he ask him about that?’ – and this was soon followed by that very question.

The article is particularly revealing about the risks of Unilever’s strategy and it is to Polman’s credit that he is highly open about these, accepting that he is ploughing new furrows and learning along the way.

It is surprising to find that Polman – who still seems a new appointment – is already in year four of his tenure and that this is getting close to the average lifespan of CEOs in top companies. There is, throughout the article, a clear commitment to the long term and a belief that he will be there to see it through; otherwise he would be content with the shorter term earnings targets of most other CEOs. There are however no references to other CEOs taking the same long term route, which confirms how far his strategic approach is ground breaking and how he is prepared to stand out from the crowd. He has already shown his ability to challenge existing practice by abolishing quarterly reporting and earnings forecasts but this strong emphasis on environmental goals is a much bigger step.

The article also reveals that there has been some good progress so far; the percentage of materials sourced sustainably has already increased from 10% to 24%. The interviewer follows up by asking how this has benefited shareholders and the reply here is interesting and less convincing than some of the other responses; ‘It’s clear that if companies build this thinking into their business models, it will accelerate growth’. This begs the question as to whether this applies to one company, working in isolation, or whether it needs a critical mass; if it is the latter, it would have been more convincing to hear of others following suit. When asked why more CEOs have not followed, he blames the short average tenure of 3-5 years, which encourages them to do no more than ‘hunker down’.

He clearly has the confidence that he will stay for the long term and has the advantage of relatively good operational and share price performance so far. There are some interesting revelations about the culture that Polman is creating, which may have even more impact than the sustainability strategy. For instance ‘We’re creating a culture where it’s OK to take risks and OK if some of them don’t work out.’ This is very different from the Unilever that we have seen in the twenty plus years of MTP involvement. The other striking comment is ‘you get what you measure’; the plan is to hold people accountable for delivery, to make even the environmental targets ‘hard-wired’ into the business.

There is a lot in the article that is impressive at the personal level; the fact that he has frozen his own salary for six years and that bonuses are fully transparent and payable for long term performance, with high level targets. It was also interesting to hear that he started business life as a maintenance man in P&G’s Cincinnati HQ while taking night-school classes, before rising in P&G, moving to Nestle and finally ending up at the top of Unilever. His advice on career success is to create opportunities, select one and ‘go for it’.

As I read the article, I was struck by the similarity to managing football clubs; Polman clearly hopes to be the Alex Ferguson of international business, staying longer than all those who go for short-term fixes. He would probably prefer this label to the name given him in the author’s title and headline – ‘Captain Planet’. Sounds more like Disney than HBR.

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