Unilever chief Paul Polman wins CMI Gold Medal

28 January 2015 -


Leader of consumer goods giant honoured for his emphasis on long-term, sustainable growth and corporate responsibility initiative

Jermaine Haughton

Unilever boss Paul Polman has been named as this year’s winner of the prestigious Chartered Management Institute (CMI) Gold Medal Award. As the firm’s chief executive since 2009, Polman has been recognised for his track record of courage and passion in advocating a long-term approach to business growth – and building a strong sense of purpose for Unilever in a highly competitive market.

Polman’s dedication to putting people at the centre of his management approach has received particular acclaim from CMI, as his willingness to develop and empower Unilever’s staff over the past four years has produced a strong management team and sustainable success. Under Polman’s leadership, the multinational consumer goods firms has invested in key lifestyle issues such as improving health and wellbeing, reducing environmental impact and enhancing livelihood through its corporate responsibility initiative the Unilever Sustainable Living Plan. In a particularly radical move, Polman has abandoned constant profit reporting and quarterly guidance to ensure his firm focuses on long-term goals.

Polman – who will receive the medal at the CMI President’s Dinner in April – argued that authenticity and integrity are key qualities that today’s leaders require to build sustainable growth for their firms. “Businesses need to be at the heart of developing solutions to the long-term issues people care about,” he said in a statement. “That is the way to build a successful and sustainable growth model. We also need the right standards of leadership across business – with managers who are authentic, have high levels of integrity and are driven by a deep sense of purpose. I’m very grateful that CMI has chosen to recognise me in this fashion, and it will be a privilege to receive the Gold Medal in April.”

Among the distinguished list of past CMI Gold Medal winners are former National Trust director Dame Fiona Reynolds, Olympic Delivery Authority chair Sir John Armitt and easyJet chief executive Carolyn McCall. Last year, Polman was among the high-profile business leaders who testified to the Commission on the Future of Management and Leadership. The resulting Management 2020 report – published by CMI – called for senior figures to focus on the People, Purpose and Potential of their organisations: values that, according to CMI chief executive Ann Francke, are embodied in Polman’s approach.

“Paul’s leadership shows how management can be reinvented for the 21st Century,” Francke said. “Building a sense of social purpose, leading people and maximising the potential of the next generation are at the heart of good management, and it’s clear that Paul has led real change in these areas at the same time as delivering business growth. This award is well deserved.”

As the cover star of the latest edition of Professional Manager magazine, Polman has shared his essential tips for high-quality leadership at all businesses. They include:

1. Don’t be too internally focussed

Paul Polman “To be a good leader, you have to be very engaged. You have to be really in touch with what is going on in the world. Sometimes we get too quickly into our own comfort zone, because we are all among like-minded people in the office. It’s important to find out what the issues are and how people live. Take the time to break out of your bubble.”

2. Try to drive the trust factor higher

PP “From my experience, organisations that have a high level of trust are organisations where you have a higher level of cooperation. These are also the organisations where you have a higher level of innovation because you don’t need all the rules and regulations, you don’t need to write everything down.”

3. Refocus on how you encourage people to develop

PP “Managers often think that their team members have weaknesses that they, as managers, have to worry about. I disagree. For leaders it’s far more important to focus on the strengths of people, and make the most of these strengths, because we are all different.”

4. Think about the deeper purpose of your business

PP “We can’t all go and join the Peace Corp. We have to produce products, we have to sell them, we have to make money so it’s sustainable. But it is possible to do this with a very deep sense of purpose and leave the world a better place.”

5. Give your people the courage and the permission to do things differently

PP “When Unilever stopped giving quarterly reporting, people asked how I did it. I just did it. In fact, I did it on my first day as I figured ‘they can’t fire me on the first day they hire me.’ That worked out well!”

For more thoughts on authenticity in management and leadership, sign up to this forthcoming CMI seminar.

Image of Paul Polman courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons.

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