Eight Tips for Young Business Leaders

Young people represent the future.

I am often asked by students and young professionals what advice I have on their careers and on leadership. I certainly don't have all the answers, but here are some of things that I have learned and found useful over the years.

1. Be aware, and engage.

In today’s highly transparent and interdependent world, we are all increasingly one community. More than ever we need leaders with an acute sense of awareness of the world’s challenges. Employers are looking more and more for skillsets that reflect people's awareness of the world around them.

Many of us live in a world often removed from the reality that others face – whether it be a lack of food, the effects of climate change, unemployment or inequality. Leaders take a high level of interest in some of these bigger challenges. But interest alone is not enough. Leaders act as well, understanding that actions ultimately change things. Leaders are courageous and see the need for transformational – not incremental – change. They can identify the complexities out there, discover their root causes, and drive for action. They are total system thinkers.

I also think self-awareness is essential. Being authentic and operating with full transparency is the only way to truly excite - and inspire action in - those around you.

2. Be eager to learn, and unlearn.

This world is changing fast. In any position in any company it’s important to work hard on learning new skills every day, but sometimes you also need to unlearn some of the old conventions of the past. Understand your specific market, industry and the challenges it faces. At Unilever we look for people who are nimble, adaptable and can easily learn new skills, plus have a high level of resilience and above all curiosity.

3. Have a sense of purpose.

One of my biggest lessons is that in order to pursue sustainable business models to build companies for the long term, businesses need to be purpose-driven and value-led. Most importantly in this volatile world, be guided by your internal compass, not by external pressures.

Having purpose is also increasingly important to people at work – we know that 50% of our graduates cite this as the main reason for joining us – and it attracts the best talent.

Many people are not in as fortunate a position as we are. The world will only function if we make it inclusive and work for everyone. It will not always be equal, but as a minimum there should be equal opportunity. So this sense of purpose is very important to succeed and connect with our consumers and others around us. After all, you cannot have a healthy business in an unhealthy world.



4. Be humble.

One of the things we say in my part of the Netherlands is: "Don't forget your house number." It means don't forget where you came from and keep your feet on the ground.

My parents grew up during the war, and my father never went to university because of it. He had two jobs his whole life and insisted that my five siblings and I to go to university. So one of the things I definitely learned from him is to work hard and to make the most of every opportunity, but also to work for the common good. Ultimately I think that the moment you discover in life that it's not about yourself - that it is about investing in others – you're on the path to becoming a better leader.

If you are reading this article, you are likely to belong to the 2% of the world population that is educated, financially independent, has a lot of freedom and can live and work where they want. In that case, it's our duty to put ourselves to the service to the other 98%. Business has a role to play in that – be it through empowering women, being part of efforts to tackle climate change or working to eliminate poverty and under-nutrition.

5. Have a long-term view.

To run a business successfully you have to think long-term. You want to be serving your customers in decades, centuries to come. So in a world of finite resources for example, it makes sense to find ways to source all of your raw materials sustainably. Instead of focussing on how business could serve the long term needs of society which in turn secures their survival, too many have focussed on serving their own short-term interests. But the good news is that many are realising that things have to be done differently - more sustainably and more equitably - if we want to be around for generations to come.

So I believe a good leader has the ability to look beyond the here-and-now, and be guided by long-term solutions to long-term challenges.



6. Take calculated risks.

Nothing can substitute experience. If you win, you will be happy. If you lose, you will be wise.

The first day I became CEO, in order to focus more on the long-term, I stopped quarterly financial guidance. I figured they're not going to fire you on the day they hire you. The share price went down 8% because people thought bad news was coming. But I hoped that if we continued to do the right things for the business, the ultimate valuation would be what it should be. The share price since then has nearly doubled.

Taking risks also means sticking your neck out at times and being able to handle the criticism from sceptics that sometimes comes with that. And as I mentioned above, a strong internal compass helps.

7. Do something that makes you happy.

Perhaps most important of all: do something that are you passionate about. Doing what you like to do goes hand in hand with liking what you do. However, fewer than 30% of people are happy at work nowadays - a frightening statistic given the time that we spend there. I always say that the best chance of success is if the individual's values are aligned with the company’s values. Then people feel at ease. They fit in. They are accepted. They feel motivated and don't have to pretend to be someone other than themselves. They also strengthen the values of the company, and they tend to be more successful.

Equally it’s important that your colleagues are happy, fulfilled and reach their potential - that's what good leadership is. It is your job to ensure that the people who work with and for you are smiling.



8. Collaborate

Lastly, never underestimate the power of partnerships.

Many of the challenges we face today are just too big and complex for any one organisation, sector - or even for governments - to resolve alone. Only by working in partnerships can we hope to develop the long-term solutions that are needed. An African proverb says: "If you want to go fast go alone, if you want to go far, go together.”

That means business, governments, NGOs and consumers all working together for a common good. It can be tremendously powerful, but requires a high level of trust to start with. I have seen many times that these types of transformative partnerships can create tipping points to drive change at scale.

Paul Polman is CEO of Unilever and Chairman of the World Business Council for Sustainable Development.

You can follow Paul on Twitter @PaulPolman.

Unilever has been named as a leader in the 2015 Dow Jones Sustainability Index (DJSI) results.
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