Daring to Change


We are living times of tremendous change… Or are we? Sometimes it doesn’t seem like it.

A few days ago, a trader caused UBS to lose 1.5 billions euro, as if the famous Société Générale case had never existed. It seems that we are doing the same things again and again, without consideration of the need to change our ways of doing business and life.

Anyway, times of turmoil could also be seen as opportunities for change. Changing the way of living and doing business requires courage and vision. For those who want to take advantage of the current situation, there are not only quick wins opportunities, but also tremendous opportunities for creating a new future, the one we’ll be proud to tell our offspring we took an active part in.

“Without dreams and utopia, there can be no change.” this sentence comes from a French worker who was asked why he would vote for the candidate of extreme left-wing party at the next presidential election.

The fact is that, in the current situation, more and more people could fall into the fantasy of extreme political systems, as they are the only ones, which offer a “dreamt future”.

Although I don’t think that the corporate world has the same responsibility as the politicians in creating a new future, I do believe companies are accountable for making this world a better place to live in – and communicating extensively about their commitment to that aim.

Here are three examples of visionary decisions taken by three different companies, starting with a 15 years-old decision that has the advantage of being measurable in terms of outcomes, both on society and the company’s side. These examples are not the only ones but are to me revealing of the kind of visionary leadership that could lead to a new future.

Almost 20 years ago, E. Leclerc hypermarkets, number 1 (in terms of market shares) French retail chain, decided to stop giving away free plastic bags. The reason was simple. Serving around 20% of the population, Leclerc was one of the major contributors to the pollution of sea and land, as their free plastic bags used to take around a hundred years to decompose

Replacing free plastic bags with paid-for, re-usable bags was a courageous decision though, as the other retail chains did not follow the initiative, it created a competitive gap.

Moreover, at that time, pollution wasn’t as “popular” as it is today, but Leclerc, despite strong opposition from its shareholders (the owners of the hypermarkets in that system), kept on selling expensive bags.

10 years ago, under the threat of public regulation, the retail sector finally decided to stop giving away free plastic bags, replacing them with bags that you had to pay for, like Leclerc.

Did that change anything in people’s everyday lives? The answer is definitely ‘Yes’. You can now go to French beaches or countryside and enjoy the beautiful landscape without those small but numerous white plastic scars everywhere.

As you can imagine, this change did not only improve the quality of French landscapes. The Retail sector is known as a tough, low margin business, where companies are not playing to seem nice and caring. Therefore, this initiative is also to be looked at from a business perspective. Here the outcomes are great as well and the calculation quite simple. Instead of giving away millions of free plastic bags, hypermarkets are now selling re-usable bags. On top of that, consumers used to use the free plastic bags as trash bags. As they are now paying for re-usable ones, they are buying more trash bags as well.

There are some CEO’s who dare to think in this way nowadays. Paul Polman, CEO of Unilever is one of them. “Since Polman took charge of Unilever in 2009, the company has stopped providing earnings guidance and quarterly profit updates to investors, a move that caused the share price to drop by 8% as worried investors pulled out their money.” (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/finance/financetopics/davos/8261178/Davos-2011-Unilevers-Paul-Polman-believes-we-need-to-think-long-term.html)

Polman argues that short-term profit is one of the causes of the pressure on raw materials, and especially on agriculture. He wants the world economy to take a new approach on agricultural production by, for example, forcing the speculators to disclose their positions on food raw material.

A more recent example is a CEO who has accepted the risk of seeing his career ruined in order to make his dream come alive.

In a highly political context, he is leading a business project that will force the main stakeholders of the organisation to either come along, or risk missing an important opportunity, as the project evolves and makes a real change in the market. It took 3 year to make this project happen, during which his role has been threatened many times by the various stakeholders, and the journey is not finished yet.

During that time, he also had to manage the operations as if nothing would never change. I’ve had the opportunity to accompany him on this journey and I can testify that it has not been easy all the time. However, if the project comes to a positive result, it will ensure sustainable and profitable growth, respectful of current trends in finance regulation and will also enable the country to maintain the majority of the current workforce in that sector.

How is that possible? Using the current state of the financial markets as an opportunity, the CEO invented a response to the increasing demand for qualitative information about financial products. He therefore created an infrastructure that would lead on to place the country as a worldwide reference in the market of financial information.

These 3 examples show the relevance of having a vision that is not only – anymore – focusing on profitable growth, but also integrate elements of sustainability for the people and environment. Sustainable growth should now take into account the impact of business on people’s life.

I believe that the future star products and services will be the one that not only bring more comfort or technology, are the cheapest or the most luxurious, but that are also coming from companies which demonstrate a commitment to the health of our society.

Today’s leaders have learnt to focus on short-term maximization of the profits. Tomorrow’s leaders will have to learn how to make the world a better place. Who are these leaders? What are their competences? Are you one of them?

Here are 3 series of questions you can ask yourself to know more about your tendency towards sustainable leadership:

1. at the organizational level:

– What are you doing today to make it possible to invent a new future for your company and society?

– Do you allow your workforce to contribute to that reflection?

– Is there a clear and well-known process that enables your staff to take the time to reflect and suggests the business improvements that lead to sustainable growth?

2. at the personal level:

How often in the last 12 months, have you taken the time

– to read new books?

– to attend non-business-related conferences and events?

– to ask your associates for their input about the business?

3. at the existential level:

– what is your life goal?

– what is the true reason for your involvement as an executive?

– for which higher reason are you ready to loose your social status?

– what do you want to change to the world?

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