By Anne Bahr Thompson as featured in Medium on 3 July, 2020; and Business Fights Poverty on 7 July, 2020.
The most successful businesses have always continuously evolved to stay relevant and remain competitive. Yet sometimes it takes a crisis to jolt our best intentions into action. Whether that crisis affects a business, an industry or, in the case of the novel coronavirus pandemic and the systemic problems it has exposed, the world, it’s essential to reflect — and act — on the lessons it teaches us. Although this particular crisis is not “over,” it has universally prompted greater awareness of the notion that we must radically — and thoughtfully — reshape life as we have known it so that everyone across society equally has an opportunity to survive and thrive. And as it has, five key lessons are emerging for businesses to act on immediately….
1. Plan for disruption as a norm and safeguard people’s health and well-being. Since the turn of the millennium, futurists and strategists have told us that disruption is the new normal and that the pace of crises will accelerate. Civil unrest and COVID-19 are merely the latest events in a world increasingly defined by unforgiving, rapid-fire change. Safeguarding employees’ — including those who work for partners in the supply chain — and customers’ health and wellbeing is now a must do factor for CSR and reputation management. Publicly advocating for the things employees and customers care about is next, with civil rights and social justice being the triggers that have followed the “Occupy Wall Street” and “Me Too” movements. Being well positioned and agile enough to navigate change in a way that befits your brand, aligns with company policies, and demonstrates thoughtful, sincere and courageous leadership is fast becoming a key factor for success.
2. Political polarization is now a strategic business issue. 2019 was a year in which CEO activism grew, and 2020 may become a year of employee advocacy. Companies must ensure their policies, operations and culture are coordinated or demonstrate they have a plan in place to change behavior before joining any movement in solidarity. Although silence is increasingly seen as admittance of guilt, taking a stand demands both caution and genuineness. Workers at Adidas, for example, complained to The Wall Street Journal that the company wasn’t in a position to condemn racism, citing dismissed complaints of racism, a potential design incorporating the Confederate flag, and a former co-worker who used the N-word. And more than 100 employees of Estee Lauder demanded the removal of the company’s heir and board member Ron Lauder for donating more than $1.6M to organizations that support President Trump stating his association with the company was not in alignment with corporate values and damaging to relationships with Black employees and the Black community.
3. True leadership is defined by sincerity, humility and grace, not false bravado. With business focused on disruption, beating out the competition, and maximizing profit, it’s no wonder many successful leaders have behaved arrogantly and been ego driven. While remote work and virtual teams accelerated the shift in leadership models that the ‘Me Too’ movement triggered, the call for racial justice demands further change: that leaders sincerely reflect on their own biases, operate with humility, and advance with agility or grace. And those who don’t or haven’t done so in the past — such as Bon Appetit’s editor and chief and CrossFit’s CEO — are being called out for their bravado. Adam Rapoport stepped down after an old Halloween photo showing him in brown face emerged, and a food writer accused Bon Appetit of mistreating people of color. And, Greg Glassman was forced to resign after an insensitive tweet about George Floyd sparked media backlash and sponsors cut ties. Great leaders have always been guided by a sense of moral purpose, and as aligning social impact with profit moves to the forefront it’s essential this is paired with sincerity — in other words, speaking from the heart like Rose Marciano, Mark Benioff, and Paul Polman who are on the forefront of balancing purpose and profit.
4. Doing good is an investment, not a cost of doing business. 49% of respondents in an April Morning Consult survey stated they consider whether or not companies take care of their employees as one of their top five purchasing considerations. More than 50% of respondents to Kearney’s Earth Day survey said they are more likely to buy environmentally friendly products as a result of COVID-19. And, an unpublished PwC study showed that 75% of US consumers believe companies should maintain changes they’ve made due to COVID-19 that have a positive environmental impact. Investors have noticed this shift and many experts have stated that Covid-19 is a major turning point for ESG investing. According to Morningstar, sustainable funds attracted record inflows amid market turmoil, and many of these funds are outperforming the broader market for the year.
5. Purpose is a lifelong journey, not a one-off destination, calculated communications or a check the box exercise. Nascent cultural shifts have accelerated with the latest crises, and people are increasingly demanding that brands live up to their purpose and values, not only their product claims. Brands need to be clear about who they are, what they do, why they’re doing it, and intentionally consider how they behave, what their impact is on others, etc. to effectively and consistently navigate change. To survive the next disruption, whether it be big or small, it’s essential every company build up goodwill. Clarity, transparency, and sincerity define game play today.