‘When enough business leaders take a bold stand, political action is de-risked. Youth movements, civil society, and NGOs move from adversaries to allies. Other companies join in a race to the top’ (Imagine, https://imagine.one/)

The first time I heard Paul Polman KBE speak, he was still CEO of Unilever. He spoke about the UN Sustainable Development Goals – the Global Goals. It was one of the most powerful, moving and motivating talks I have ever heard – before or since. I have often since wondered why it had such a profound impact on me – the subject matter was not new to me – I was writing a school curriculum which had the 17 Goals woven into it; I knew about efforts towards the Circular Economy; I was beginning to take personal action, albeit insufficient. 

Whilst he spoke with prodigious command of his material and faultless fluency, he employed no special oratorical devices. Softly spoken, he simply made compelling listening.

In the end, I deduced that the power for me in what he said came from two things – his moral conviction at a personal level and the fact that this was actually leading the behaviour of the business he was running. This was unusual. How many great business leaders adopt a business model driven by moral conviction? Corporate responsibility is not unusual anymore, I know, and businesses increasingly seek to establish their ethical credentials; these are good things, but they are different from a leader deciding that morality will drive the business. Whilst there are notable examples of globally-renowned, morally-engaged philanthropy made possible by personal wealth derived from company profits, there are fewer serving leaders prepared to take the business risk involved in changing the business model for the common good.

In the end, it seems that businesses now working like this, and more and more are doing so to some degree, reap benefits not just in terms of knowing they’re doing the right thing, but in profits, too. 

There are plenty of studies which tell us that millennials – who will make up the considerable majority of the workforce by 2030 – place the highest value of all on ethical and responsible behaviour when it comes to selecting the company they want to work for. They will take a pay cut for it and won’t take a job if they do not believe that the employer-to-be operates ethically – although a majority sadly still do not currently believe that business leaders are working towards the good of society.

When Paul Polman returned and spoke in Newcastle a few weeks ago, one of his underlying themes was leadership. He spoke of the work he is doing now across the globe with CEOs to create change in the norms of global capitalism; and of the importance of the right kind of business leadership for the future.

Not many years ago, the leadership conversation was founded on how to identify ‘USP’ superiority and to gain competitive advantage. This in itself is not inherently wrong – there is satisfaction in success and justified pride when effort results in excellence. However, in its raw form we are learning that this is not sustainable – it creates a race to the bottom in the impact is has on people and planet; and we may now hope that the tide is turning. Personal and shareholder profit really are no longer the sole preeminent business drivers; no longer can the natural and human resources we used to squander so carelessly be taken so much for granted.

May we even venture to hope that the belittling of humanity at the stroke of a microscopic bug might awaken us to the need not only to work for a different kind of capitalism, but also to renew our global responsibility to work together across borders. Not now for profit so much as for the shared goals we can and should all be working for at pace.

Alison Shaw – Professor of Practice for Student Success and Progression at Newcastle University, Vice-President, NFER; Chair, Helix Arts; Vice-Chair, Northumberland College; Trustee, The Common Room of the Great North; Member, Newcastle University Business School International Advisory Board; Board Member, North East Initiative on Business Ethics; Advisory Board member, Dynamo North East; Advisory Board member, FIRST Network; and Member, North East Local Enterprise Partnership Digital Strategy Steering Group.