Business Chief Legend: Paul Polman
Anyone worth their sustainability salt knows the impact Paul Polman made at Unilever. CEO of the consumer goods giant for a decade (2009-2019) and the first outsider to lead the Dutch-Anglo company since its founding in 1929, Polman developed an ambitious plan, to separate the company’s growth from its overall environmental footprint, and to increase its positive social impact. It was a risk, but one that ultimately paid off.
Unilever’s pioneering and now-famed decade-old Sustainable Living Plan not only helped the company reach 1.3bn people through its health and hygiene programmes, but also delivered consistent top and bottom-line growth, both positioning Unilever as a sustainability leader and demonstrating that a long-term, multi-stakeholder model can exist alongside excellent financial performance. In fact, under Polman’s decade-long leadership, Unilever was one of the best performing companies in its sector.
This delivery of – and commitment to – long-term, sustainable capitalism isn’t something Polman left at Unilever’s door, however. Both, while he was leading the charge at the company and since departing, Polman has practiced what he’s preached, and since his retirement from Unilever in 2019, continues to preach what he has practiced.
Because Polman not only pulled off Unilever’s pioneering plan, proving ‘corporate can be clean’ to the wider business world, but he played a significant role in developing the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, and established the Business and Sustainable Development Commission, whose flagship report mapped the economic prize for firms that align with the goals
And such significant ‘responsible business’ achievements have resulted in a significant number of awards, not least France’s prestigious Chevalier de la Legion d’Honneur for his role in the historic 2015 Paris Agreement, a British Knighthood, and 13 honorary degrees.
Since his retirement from Unilever in 2019, Polman has dedicated himself to advocating the Goals he helped develop with the co-founding of Imagine – a social venture that aims at galvanising industry leaders around the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals.
So, when he’s not working with organisations to help them realise business as a force for good or rallying business leaders into purposeful action, he’s actively mentoring young leaders (as Chair and Counsellor of One Young World), and putting his money where his mouth is, both as an active philanthropist to a number of causes and a charity founder (Kilimanjaro Blind Trust).
And with the pandemic having “put us back probably 20-30 years on the sustainable development goals” as Polman recently told CNBC, with whom he co-founded the ESG Council in April, Polman is even more fired up in convincing business leaders to accelerate their corporate responsibility efforts. Kudos to that.
5 minutes with... Janthana Kaenprakhamroy, CEO, Tapoly
Founder and CEO of award-winning insurtech firm Tapoly, Janthana Kaenprakhamroy heads up Europe’s first on-demand insurance platform for the gig economy, winning industry awards, innovating in the digital insurance space, and leading with inclusivity.
Here, Business Chief talks to Janthana about her leadership style and skills.
What do you do, in a nutshell?
I’m founder and CEO of Tapoly, a digital MGA providing a full stack of commercial lines insurance specifically for SMEs and freelancers, as well as a SaaS solution to connect insurers with their distribution partners. We build bespoke, end-to-end platforms encompassing the whole customer journey, but can also integrate our APIs within existing systems. We were proud to win Insurance Provider of the Year at the British Small Business Awards 2018 and receive silver in the Insurtech category at the Efma & Accenture Innovation in Insurance Awards 2019.
How would you describe your leadership style?
I try to be as inclusive a leader as possible. I’m committed to creating space for everyone to shine. Many of the roles at Tapoly are performed by women and I speak at industry events to encourage more people to get involved in insurance/insurtech. Similarly, I always try to maintain a growth mindset. I think it’s important to retain values to support learning and development, like reliability, working hard and punctuality.
What’s the best leadership advice you’ve received?
Build your network and seek advice. As a leader, you need smart people around you to help you grow your business. It’s not about personally being the best, but being able to find resources and get help where needed.
How do you see leadership changing in a COVID world?
I think the pandemic has proven the importance of inclusive leadership so that everyone feels supported and valued. It’s also shown the importance of being flexible as a leader. We’ve had to remain adaptable to continue delivering high levels of customer service. This flexibility has also been important when supporting employees as everyone has had individual pressures to deal with during this time. Leaders should continue to embed this flexibility within their organisations moving forward.
They say ‘from every crisis comes opportunity’, what opportunities do you see?
The past year has been challenging, but it has also proven the importance of digital transformation in insurance. When working from home was required, it was much harder for insurers to adjust who had not embedded technology within their operating processes because they did not have data stored in the cloud and it caused communication delays with concerned customers at a time when this communication should have been a priority, which ultimately impacts the level of customer satisfaction. This demonstrates the importance of what we are trying to achieve at Tapoly in driving digitalisation in insurance and making communication between insurers and distribution partners seamless.
What advice would you give to your younger self just starting out in the industry?
Start sooner, don’t be afraid to take (calculated) risks and make sure you raise enough money to get you through the initial seed stage.