Especially in our Covid-19 crisis, chief executives need to think differently about how to manage adversity. Those using emotion and intuition as well as practical rationalisation and data may achieve better results through the crisis and in the long-term.
This more humanly holistic management style can drive collaboration and nurture creativity within and beyond the enterprise, in a virtuous circle of high performance.
One of the clearest recent examples of the benefits of intuitive thinking in business – the clarity of inner voice – is Paul Polman, who recently retired as chief executive of the world’s largest consumer goods company, Unilever. He was named as the company’s new CEO in 2009. The effects of the 2008 financial crisis were at their harshest, and Unilever faced daunting challenges to its brand strengths, revenues, profits and share price.
His appointment was expected to result in tightened strategies, slashed expenditures, sell-off of underperforming brands, closure of some divisions and factories, and a workforce cut. Instead, he shocked the business world by launching a radical sustainability initiative as the new mission and heartbeat of the company. Unilever’s ‘Sustainable Living Plan’ was to be its reason for being – not revenues, margins, or profits; Polman saw these as flowing from his vision of Unilever as a human-centric company which would now prioritise advancing the health and well-being of the billions of people who used its products.
He also announced the cessation of Unilever’s quarterly financial reports, believing these caused short-term thinking. An immediate effect was an 8% fall in Unilever’s share price.
But he persevered, and inspired the company to embark on a transformational journey. By the end of his tenure in 2018, Unilever had generated shareholder value increase of almost 300%, and the company is now admired as a pioneer in the re-design of supply chains to match green, sustainability and people-first agendas.
Polman’s inner voice will have urged him convincingly in 2009 – but how he must have fought the doubts and the doubters to stay true to it in those first few years that followed!