Building Sustainable Legacies


There is hope – alternatives to cloning Paul Polman!

I am not the only one to have suggested that if we want to save the (corporate) world, we have no choice but to clone Paul Polman. As a matter of fact, this is one of the comments Kate Robertson (Co-founder of One Young World), who received a Dr. Honoris Causa from BSL along with Paul, made to Paul and me on Saturday. The idea of cloning Paul Polman has two elements:

  • First, it is a great compliment to Paul who has in the past 4 years risen to be recognized as the most admired “poster boy” of corporate sustainability – a direct result of his relentless drive in not only transforming Unilever but also be co-initiating a long list of coalitions both in front and behind the scenes in a great many domains that were traditionally considered beyond reach for a CEO.
  • And second, it expresses a certain frustration if not desperation of many observers that there are not many in these influential positions who define their responsibility in such a way that what they do truly serve society and the planet while – of course – ensuring the continued success of the organization they are leading.

BSL Swiss Sustainability Hub Forum

Reflecting back on our big BSL day last Saturday, 20th September, I cannot but help realize that our two big events converged into something bigger. Paul Polman was a part of both events in a significant way – maybe this was part of the magic (more here):

  • The Swiss Sustainability Hub: the kick-off session to set up a Coalition to bring Switzerland to assume a leading role in the sustainability movement (short for: all people living well and within the limits of the planet)
  • The annual BSL Graduation with more than 500 participants from more than 40 countries

Mark Drewell, outgoing CEO of GRLI and one of our BSL Academic Advisory Board members, shared his impression of the event as follows: “the change of energy from previous years was palpable. You have now accomplished the shift at BSL – the community is really there and there is a powerful sense that there is not only willingness and desire to contribute to this new world we need, but also competencies, determination and real action.

And indeed, as I observed our graduates receive their diplomas, proudly spending a moment with their classmates and continuing the bond they started to build during their studies, I sense more determination, clarity, courage and passion to find a way to contribute to this world than I have ever picked up before (and it is not that we have lacked high-spirited students in previous years!). Bruno Oberli, the Director of the Swiss Federal Office for the Environment (FOEN) commented on it during the Swiss Sustainability Hub panel discussion. We had our audience vote on who should drive the launch of the Swiss Sustainability Hub, government or business, and just about everybody broke the voting rule by holding up both options. Bruno laughed and said: “If you are able to shift beyond either/or to a new paradigm of both/and that easily, then we really don’t have anything to worry about as you understand the key element of what we need in future: a pragmatically new way of considering our options!”

A big part of this sense was also how smoothly and collaboratively our BSL team worked for, during and after this big event. Despite perfect preparations, events like this always require many miracles behind the scene dealing with changes, emergencies, adapting what was planned to the emergent reality. There is nobody I would like to rather work with than the BSL team consisting of Aurea, David, Denitsa, Katarzyna, Mary, Massimo, Olivier, Teresa and Yasmina. If everybody assumes their place and space with the same sense of service, dedication, passion for the common good and spirit of collaboration as our team, then maybe there are alternatives to cloning Paul Polman.

If the BSL team and our graduates have this sense of purpose, then we know that it is possible to create environments that stimulate such alignment of purpose, competency and cooperation. We all know that there are many many teams and individuals who are truly connected to an inner sense of purpose in many places around the world. And maybe rather than waiting for cloning technology to get up to speed, we  simply need to trust in the human capacity and in the emerging leadership that is happening across so many organizations at so many levels. What we can do in the meantime is getting better in building the right environments and capacities to speed this up. Educational institutions are an obvious starting place AND any other organization that has people showing up for work. This reminds me of what Mischa Liatowitsch, who graduated on Saturday from our MBA program, said during his studies (see short 1 minute video here).

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Deep “new” change vs. changing the titans – a comment on George Monbiot opinion on Unilever

Let me be honest – I love Monbiot’s columns: they are sharp, edgy, provocative and to the point. They challenge present thinking and strive for more. I also think that Unilever is one of the way to few examples of a multinational working honestly on making the world a better place. I think we should clone Paul Polman – he is that good! So Monbiot’s critic on Unilever certainly got my attention – if you haven’t read it, here it is: http://www.monbiot.com/2014/04/08/loved-to-death/. As usual a real Monbiot piece of work. And I think he makes the point well in many ways of challenging Unilever for not yet having managed to be as coherent as they probably wish across all brands and divisions. I can think of a bunch of examples that would greatly support Monbiot’s case. Yet, I also think that Unilever more than any other similarly large multinational has initiated significant change both inside their organization and in their markets including consumers and investors. But, or better, and, there are still dark and blind spots. Look at Nestle and you see more dark than bright spots, despite their Creating Shared Value (CSV) claim – what they do with their water strategy and what they claim outrages me! It is tough for a large multinational to change course – maybe impossible. Just a few degrees of change, however, brings significant leverage and change due to the sheer size and relative impact of such large organizations.

Of course a few degrees is totally insufficient – we need radical, deep change. And we need it now. But, much like in any other industry or field of practice – business schools included – such radical and deep change does not happen in the established, large organizations with the famous brand names. Transformational change happens in the fringes, with small, relatively unknown players who have little to lose and much to gain. Such organizations are still lean, agile, fast and thus innovative. Like sailing boats compared to streamliners! I am in favor of supporting those streamliners who dare to embrace change, even if its just a few degrees and I am willing to celebrate those who are ahead of the pack and are undertaking radical big change that from the outlet looks impossible, yet inspires others to follow (and Paul Polman at Unilever is leading such radical big change). I believe we should focus our criticism on those who are fast asleep and have not yet woken up to the new realities of a resource-constrained, climate-changed world. Our criticism should tear them out of their sleep and their comfort zone, shake them up and get them to sit up straight and think – fast. Our students have created a consumer opinion poll to show companies in the food sector what consumers think of their sustainability initiatives – vote here to express your opinion, share the link and we will ensure the world hears about the results!

Monbiot talks about a critical issue: the lack of healthy food. Lets take a look at it. Indeed, since food has become a processed and heavily industrialized item, “healthy food” has become an oxymoron. To get the nutritious value an apple had in the 1950s, we would today need to eat 25 apples we buy in our supermarkets – “an apple a day” won’t keep the doctor away anymore! Sugar, salt and fat are our top 3 societal enemies that are and will be costing us not only unimaginably big health bills but are also ruining us as healthy, capable and caring human beings. Just take the combination of stress and sugar – it will turn anybody in a monster, unable to breathe, care and slow down. I recently wrote about this in the Transatlantic Blog. The pharmaceutical industry must love all of this, the number of emerging new conical deceases  are sky-rocketing, assuring life-long medical dependencies and revenues. Read what Michael Moss (salt, sugar, fat) has to say about it! I believe that the single biggest opportunity for food companies today is to turn their practices upside-down and to step back from feeding the world junk. To remove all the unhealthy, addictive ingredients and to serve us healthy, nurtious food that supports our well-being, happiness and health. There is chocolate without added sugar (thanks to Villars in Switzerland, a hugely innovative, small chocolate producer at the fringes!). It is possible! It is also unacceptable – I agree with Monbiot – that food companies including Unilever boycott and prevent proper “traffic-light” labelling of our enemies sugar, fat and salt. They managed to prevent a law to pass in Switzerland and I am sure in many other countries – scandalous! It feels like back in the days when tobacco companies tried to manipulate research that proved that smoking was bad. Unilevers of this world: embrace the challenge and return healthy food to us with your great distribution and brand power that you have. You can not only save the world, but build the foundation of a society that can start to heal itself and become well again. BSL is a place to help make it possible: we are a platform where engaged citizens work on burning societal issues. Our food-waste collaboratory on May 6th is such an example: we are committed to reduce consumer food-waste by 50% by 2018. What could you do in your space and what are you going to do to make a difference?