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Chief empathy officer

Unilever CEO fosters link with Perkins school to build connections

By Katie Johnston Chase
Globe Staff / June 24, 2010

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WATERTOWN — With red masks covering their eyes, the executives fumbled for spoons and tried to guess what they were eating.

Is that passion fruit? Tarragon? Wait, are those . . . pop rocks?

The melon soup shots with ginger and basil gave one group the most trouble. “I couldn’t tell whether it was medicine or juice,’’ said Michael B. Polk, president of global foods and home and personal care for Unilever, the consumer products conglomerate that sells brands such as Lipton, Slim-Fast, and Axe body spray.

Polk and about 40 of his fellow Unilever executives from around the world were at Perkins School for the Blind last week to get an idea of what it means to be blind — and to learn about their boss’s passion. Unilever chief executive Paul Polman first got involved with Perkins after climbing Mount Kilimanjaro with a group of blind climbers five years ago and is now the chair of the school’s international advisory board and president of the Kilimanjaro Blind Trust, which supports Perkins programs for blind children in East Africa.

Unilever touts its commitment to social responsibility, and Polman brought his vice presidents and division chiefs to the Per kins campus, in part, to help them become more authentic leaders who are in touch with society. By interacting with blind students and faculty, he said, “people will realize what is possible if you’re against the odds, and how important communication is and how people are able to communicate.’’

But the visit — which followed a 2 1/2-day strategy symposium at Harvard Business School and ended with a Red Sox game with a group of Perkins students, parents, and staff — wasn’t just about business.

“These are very personal experiences that I think make you grow as a full person,’’ said Polman, who is from the Netherlands. “You cannot be a half person that only focuses on work and the business.’’

While others rotated through the blind taste-test stations, Dave Lewis, president of the Americas for Unilever, asked Mona Jomaa, the mother of a blind student, how long it took her to learn Braille. Jomaa took classes at Perkins for four months, but she doesn’t use her fingers.

Sighted people read Braille with their eyes, Jomaa told Lewis: “Your fingers are not as sensitive as blind people’s.’’

Across the aisle, chief marketing officer Keith Weed talked to Jim Denham, the school’s assistant technology coordinator, about a portable note-taker that can translate Braille into spoken words and connect to the Web.

“Real creativity and innovation come through fresh perspectives,’’ Weed said later. And a company that sells soap and pasta sauce to people all over the world — 2 billion people a day use Unilever products, he said — needs to be familiar with the diversity of its marketplace, he said.

Hearing about the unique challenges Perkins teachers face while trying to help their students succeed is inspiring, said Miguel Kozuszok, Unilever’s chairman for the Southern Cone, which includes Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, Paraguay, Peru, and Bolivia. “It’s a different kind of leadership that we learn here.’’

Other companies have brought employees to volunteer at Perkins, said president Steven Rothstein, but a visit by an entire global leadership team is rare.

“I wish every company had a CEO and leadership team that understood the balance between the business side, which is critical for making money and providing quality services, and looking at the role of the company in society,’’ said Rothstein, who recently ran the Vision 5K race in Boston blindfolded, with guidance from a sighted person.

Opening its doors to the executives wasn’t simply a feel-good mission for Perkins. Unilever helps support Perkins-affiliated schools in Russia and Argentina, and a Perkins spokeswoman said other relationships may grow out of the company’s visit.

Having a boss who is committed to these kinds of causes has a big impact on a company and its leaders, said Louis Font, president of Strategic Talent Group, a consulting firm that works with chief executives and their staffs.

“The modeling behavior that a CEO displays is the most powerful influence within the organization,’’ said Font, who pointed out that these kinds of efforts can make employees take more pride in their organization and demonstrate its values to potential employees.

Kees Kruythoff, Unilever’s chairman for Brazil, likened the Perkins visit to the time he stayed at a family’s home in Soweto, South Africa, to observe their product needs and how they live.

“The most important thing for us is that we stay connected to our consumers,’’ he said.

Polman made just such a consumer connection during his visit to the school, in fact. While chatting with Jaimi Lard, a Perkins spokeswoman who graduated from the Deafblind Program in 1986, he remarked that she had beautiful skin.

It turned out she uses Ponds, a Unilever skin care product.

“I’m sending her some,’’ Polman said.

Katie Johnston Chase can be reached at johnstonchase@globe.com.