Some reflections after our Little Big Conversation with Paul Polman
Sandra Pina, CEO of Quiero and Sustainable Brands Madrid
It is becoming increasingly urgent for brands and organisations to assume their responsibility as drivers of systemic change. We need a true mindset change, covering fundamental areas such as the training of future leaders with a humanistic vision, an end to the short-termism of the financial markets, listening to all stakeholders, or an intelligent management of purpose and its impact. These are some of the reflections that we have deepened after our talk with the inspiring Paul Polman, in the second Little Big Conversation of Sustainable Brands® Madrid, which we held in collaboration with Andema on 27 June in Madrid. I would like to share some of these insights with you.
What kind of business leaders come out of business schools? We agree that companies led by empathetic, purposeful leaders with a sense of humanity would have a better long-term future and a greater capacity to deal with sustainable challenges and change in general. But are business schools modelling such people? I personally was not taught anything like that. To the extent that we unite the human dimension of the person with their professional dimension, the leader will become greater and we will be closer to creating reliable leaders.
Systemic changes: long term, new criteria. One of the pillars of sustainable change in the long term and from the macro point of view has to do with the end of short-termism in the financial markets. Polman decreed the end of quarterly reports in his time at Unilever, for example. He continues to advocate the idea of focusing capital on the long term to support a sustainable economy. Another key is to redefine what is valued and measured in GDP. There is an urgent need to quantify, measure and value social, human and environmental capital. There are still few companies that are attempting this exercise, they are isolated cases and have not prospered at the mainstream level.
Mindset change: going to the moon and back. Systemic change, then, requires behavioural change, both individual and collective. And behavioural change in turn requires a change of mindset, which is the starting point and the hardest thing to activate. In our Little Big Conversation, we claim the value of the moonshot as a strategy for vision change. A trip to the moon and a different look on the way back. It is not just a matter of adapting, but of seeing everything from a new prism, from a new system. Paul reminded us of the need to break down barriers, to set unattainable goals that make you feel uncomfortable, and recommended backcasting, thinking from a position of the future, asking ourselves what does the world need to exist in 2050? The answer is that wealth in 2050 has to be in tune with planet Earth, it has to be regenerative, it has to be there for future generations, it has to be more equitable.
Does every brand need to have a purpose? The organisation needs a «what for», a raison d’être that makes it relevant and valuable to its stakeholders and to society. Moreover, it needs to activate that purpose and measure its real impact. However, most brands on the planet do not have a purpose. The reality is that they don’t need one either. Not every product or service in the world is going to save lives or regenerate forests. Sometimes it is enough for brands to be honest and authentic and to be good products. That is the space from which they have to contribute to the company’s goals and purpose.
Trustworthy companies. According to the latest Edelman Trust Barometer, citizens’ expectations of companies are growing, while trust in governments continues to decline. According to this study, 58% of citizens would choose to buy or be ambassadors for brands that act in accordance with their values and 80% would invest in accordance with those same values and beliefs. Citizens demand change from companies because they perceive them as decision-makers with power and influence. Much of this vision is generated through the company’s listening and dialogue processes with its stakeholders. On the other hand, the transformative capacity of the company is strengthened through multi-stakeholder work. The union by sector, or geography, or common interests, in short, the union of the different actors to jointly bring about changes that they would not achieve on their own, through advocacy partnership formulas that add power of influence and drive systemic change. We cannot forget that the system is all of us, united, but first, also as individuals.
Make sure to read Paul Polman and Andrew Winston’s book «Net Positive Impact: How Courageous Companies Thrive by Giving More Than They Take», recognised as the best business book by the Financial Times, The Economist, The New York Times and Bloomberg. The Spanish edition of the book was launched in June 2022. It is sure to raise questions for you too.