“Deeper Purpose”: Lessons for a High-Flying Dutchman


by Oliver Balch, Freelance Journalist
30th March, 2019


Ever heard of a man called Paul Polman? Unlikely, I’m guessing. How about the company, ‘Unilever’? Perhaps (it’s partly-Dutch, after all) but perhaps not (it’s hardly a household name).
a
Even if neither name resonates with you, I’m ready to bet that both have touched your life somehow. Inadvertently or incidentally, maybe. Yet touch it, they almost certainly have.
a
How can I be so sure? Because Unilever is huge. Like, really, really huge. It owns hundreds of major brands, many of which you will find in your cupboard or fridge at home. Helmann’s mayonnaise, Dove soap, Walls ice-cream, Axe deodorant, Vaseline … err, that greasy jelly stuff.
a
And Paul Polman, until recently, was the person in charge. So what? So a lot. The decisions that he and his senior leadership take have a ripple effect that result in real, tangible and potentially very significant effects on your life and the life of the world we all inhabit.
a
A few numbers to give you a sense of the magnitude of all this. Unilever’s total employees: ‘172,000’ (that’s eight Dutch armies put together). Total revenues: €53,700,000,000,000 (almost ten times the budget of the Icelandic government). Total customers: over 2 billion per day (equivalent to more than one in four people on the planet).
a
This is all a way of teeing up the importance of Polman’s sense of purpose. More than any other chief executive over the last decade, this super-successful Dutch business leader has spelled out a vision for business that goes beyond mere profit-making.
a
Turning a profit matters, of course. Multinational companies like Unilever aren’tt charities. They exist to create returns for their shareholders. Until the capitalist system changes (watch this space?), that is the way it is. But profit shouldn’t come at the cost of the rights of individuals or the future of planet Earth. This core message – known in business jargon as the ‘triple bottom line’ – is Polman’s chief legacy.
a
The details of his management philosophy can be left for your Economics and Global Politics class. What is important here, on the eve of this year’s Yes Conference, is the question of how he arrived at his vision of a more compassionate, less destructive form of capitalism [Note: I’m not saying Unilever is perfect; think, ‘palm oil’ & ‘deforestation’].
a
The answer to this ‘how’, I’d wager, can be found in his driving sense of purpose. Yes, ‘purpose’. An innocuous word, I know. Just two simple syllables. Yet right now, by which I mean today, aujourd’hui, hoy, vandaag, there is no single more important word in the English language.
a
That’s a bold statement, but I’m 100% convinced it’s true. A sense of purpose is what motivates our actions and directs our decisions. It gives us a goal and a reason to go after it whatever stands in our way. Without purpose, we’re flotsam, being taken wherever the current leads us. With purpose, we’re like a GPS homing device, fixed on a specific course of our own choosing, with (hopefully) rocket-fuel in our shoes.
a
When Polman was asked about what makes a good leader, he cited a number of factors: be a human being (not often a CEO says that), passion for the job at hand, hard work and personal ethics.
a
These are all well and good, but none made it to the top of his list. You’ve guessed it: that honour went to a sense of purpose. To quote this high-flying Dutchman’s own words: “The basic skills of leaders are always the same: be driven by a deeper purpose …”
a
In his decade or so at the head of Unilever, Polman put social and environmental purpose at the centre of the company’s strategy. Every brand, he argued, had to have a reason for being that went beyond merely generating a profit for shareholders. Not all achieved this by any means. But the leading examples – Dove’s work on women’s body image, for example, or Ben & Jerry’s championing of environment causes – are genuinely inspirational.
a
Not all of us are set to be titans of business. Maybe a life in politics lies ahead for you. Or perhaps a career in the charity sector or in sport. The options are vast. With the start that UWC Maastricht gives you, life after school could take you in any manner of wild and wonderful directions.
a
Forgive me if this sounds preachy, but let me say it anyway: the education and life skills picked up during your school years will help you navigate the road ahead. This is undeniable (and a reason you have to sit through ten+ years of lessons and homework). Rest assured: it will pay off. Push a door and these are the tools that will help it swing open.
a
So you’re set up, but the question(s) is this: Which door will you choose? And, once inside, which will prove the most impactful and rewarding?
a
No-one can answer these questions but you. Not your parents. Not your tutor. Not Paul Polman. Only you. That’s because the answer lies in your personal sense of purpose, which only you can possibly know.
a
Do you have a “deeper purpose”? If so, fantastic. Cherish it, cultivate it, and, above all, bundle up all your courage and pursue it wherever it may lead you. If not, then find one. And fast. Not just for your own sake. For all our sakes. The future will be determined by purpose-led leaders.
a
A final thought (if I may). To lack purpose is to sleepwalk through life. There lies mediocrity at best, and planetary meltdown at worst. To have purpose, in contrast, is to assert sovereignty over your life. Therein lies hope – for you, your future, and, more importantly still, for the wider world around you.  

193 views