Recently on the Narativ Leadership Story Talks Podcast, hosts Jerome and Julienne had the opportunity to speak with Niall Dunne, CEO of Polymateria, a company working on solving the enormous, worldwide problem of plastic pollutants. Niall began his career as a track and field athlete representing Ireland in the 800m run, but his opportunities and experiences eventually transitioned him into the business world with a focus on sustainability that led him down the path of purposeful leadership.
In this episode, Jerome, Julienne, and Niall discussed the journey that brought Niall into the world of climate conscious innovation, as well as the principles of ethics and integrity of purposeful leadership that allow his company to defy the odds and persist in their work of tackling plastic pollutants worldwide.
Niall’s Story: An Athlete’s Focus
Niall believes there are many factors that combined to guide him to his current work with Polymateria. He explained that the discipline and teamwork skills required to be a serious athlete are the exact same qualities that lead many athletes to bring their passions into the business sector. At the same time though, he admitted he felt many of his opportunities were unexpected and seemed to line up specifically to guide him to where he needed to be.
“I’m a great believer in synchronicity, and sometimes it’s just the right time,” Niall explained.
Niall’s drive for purpose brought him to New York from his native Ireland, where he found respite from the monotony of work and schooling in his athletic pursuits. Though his athletic career hit a rough patch after he sustained a significant leg injury, with time and the interventions of certain “angels” in his life he was able to make a full recovery and finish out his track career with new drive and perspective.
As his athletic career was winding down, and his father more persistently pushed him to get a “real” job, Niall’s draw toward greater purpose brought him into the business world. He knew he didn’t want to spend his life at a desk doing meaningless work though. In time, his yearning for purpose brought him to work for a company in risk management, which gave way to his next job as a sustainability officer, eventually working with some of the largest organizations in the world to reduce their carbon footprint.
In 2018, Niall’s work put him in the path of the founders of Polymateria. Having been deeply affected the previous year by an episode of David Attenborough’s Blue Planet, which depicted the death of a whale calf due to ocean plastics (an episode that subsequently went viral and was viewed by millions), Niall decided to join Polymateria and dedicate his athlete’s focus to tackling the world’s overwhelming plastic problem.
Principles of Purposeful Leadership: Purpose, Integrity, Data
During the interview, Niall and the hosts took some time to discuss the factors that drive the sustainability and scalability of a company, especially one dedicated to affecting change. Niall is confident in the lesson his years of experience have taught him: for a company to weather the challenges of growth, there must be a clear understanding of why the company exists in the first place. To illustrate, Niall explained the principles of purposeful leadership that sustain his company—purpose, integrity, and data.
Purpose is at the heart of sustainability, according to Niall, and understanding purpose requires introspection and understanding of the problem the organization is working to solve. In Polymateria’s case, the problem being addressed is not only the problem of plastic pollution, but the lack of innovation toward actual solutions. With that purpose in mind, a lot more can actually be done to confront the problem than if the purpose were unclear.
“Working back from the problem is so important to be truly purposeful,” Niall stated.
The next factor, integrity, is one that Niall and the hosts discussed at great length during the episode. Throughout his career, Niall has become hyper aware that major companies often pay lip service to environmental movements to dodge scrutiny but then make no moves to actually fix anything. He is adamant that the lack of integrity inherent in approaches like this will cause major problems for a company down the road.
Separate from any moral value one might place on integrity, it is simply a better business decision to ensure that your company abides by its stated values no matter the situation. There is no better way to build trust and weather scrutiny than to be truthful and consistent. Where sustainability is concerned, a focus on integrity will take you a long way.
“What you do in a lab should reflect the real world,” Niall explained regarding the importance of good data in guiding the actions of a company.
Polymateria’s innovation strategy relies on an understanding of exactly what causes plastic to be such a harmful pollutant, and then using that data to develop plastics that can biodegrade in a safe and effective way.
Reliable data means reliable results, and a more sustainable company overall.
Whose Papers Do You Carry?
Toward the end of the interview, Jerome asked Niall to share an experience he felt was formative in leading him to where he is today. Niall related a story of a time following a severe leg injury—one he was not expected to fully recover from—when he was approached by a man at an event who asked him about his injury.
The man turned out to be a well-known doctor in the New York area who frequently treated the exact injury Niall was suffering from. He offered to treat Niall’s injury in exchange for Niall working for a time as a receptionist in his office. Over the course of several months, the treatment proved a complete success, and Niall was able to defy the odds and run again.
Niall refers to this doctor as one of the many angels who have crossed his path and influenced the course of his life. He continued on to say that as we go through our lives, we may have the opportunity to be an angel for somebody else in a similar way.
“You have to be conscious of when you’re carrying someone else’s papers,” said Niall, going on to say that it is up to each of us to be attentive to those situations when we can give someone else the help they need to get on track for their best future.
To end the episode, Niall directed listeners to learn more about the environmental campaign that Polymateria technology and innovation aims to serve. If you would like to know more, visit the Lyfecycle here. To learn more about Narativ and developing purposeful leadership through business storytelling, visit us here.