In the wake of George Floyd’s murder over the summer, Corporate America united to send a resounding message to consumers, employees and suppliers: we need to do more and better to uplift the Black community, and corporations must play a more pivotal role.
By mid-2020, over 1,000 organizations including Proctor & Gamble, Nike, Coca-Cola and Sephora to name a few, joined hundreds of small businesses in pledging public support for solving racial inequity through donations, hiring, retention, promotions, training, grants and beyond. While an all-the-above strategy is welcomed to usher in a new generation of leaders who reflect the rising majority-minority in the United States, can commitments alone change an internal corporate culture? And most importantly, how do Black employees and executives ensure that new allies remain steadfast and focused on a change agenda that will ultimately boost business growth?
As a scholar-practitioner, teaching at Columbia University and advising clients on how to authentically engage with diverse communities in a way that creates mutual value, the mounting level of social unrest paired with the lack of corporate accountability exposed major flaws across teams, organizations and industries. To help solve the challenge of well-intentioned leaders operating without a playbook on brand activism, I collaborated with a dozen leading voices in culture and conducted research among 2,500 Americans, producing the WARC Guide on Brand Activism in the Black Lives Matter Era. The research was clear: good intentions are not enough; action must be swift, meaningful, and measurable. And most importantly, the real work must begin internally within the walls of corporate America in order to have a positive lasting impact on Black communities.
Often underrepresented across industries, not only must Black employees navigate demanding systemic change but also actively participate, guide and lead senior managers to ensure progress happens ethically, effectively and empathetically. To help ensure your organization’s efforts are successful in 2021, there are five considerations to corporate activism, and mastering each of them will serve as an onramp to sustainably shift social-economics toward win-win outcomes for the bottom line and society.
1. Create a Hive Effect Through a Community
Civil rights activists and change agents understand the African proverb:
“If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”
A foundational principle for change is converting allyship into ongoing action by fostering a community that is committed to going far together. To impact change, strong communities need to be aligned around the values that unite them, the mission that drives their action and the mutual commitment to each to provide symbiotic support (emotional, mental, and beyond).
In 2020, we saw a number of community-building models: employee resource groups developed within organizations, peer groups developed across companies, associations formed and public pledges abounded. Each model has merit and challenges, and change agents should weigh which pathway is best for their organization — to operate with company resources (e.g., employee resource group) or agnostic of management for industry change (e.g., association, peer groups and public pledges). Within marketing and advertising, groups including 600 & Rising and Allyship & Action have emerged to form communities around creativity. Within beauty and fashion, public pledges like the 15% Pledge have started forming a new community of culturally conscious business leaders. Across large companies, Pull Up for Change has rallied a watchdog community of corporate activists & allies.
To foster strong purpose-driven communities, the mission should be (1) to develop plans of action for an organization or industry; (2) to collaborate with management and/or leaders to implement and manage a change agenda and most importantly (3) to serve as a healing circle for members who need recharge and respite.
2. Focus on fixing systems
Color of Change president Rashad Robinson is a contemporary civil rights activist who believes in fixing structures rather than attempting to reform people. The former focuses on systems while the latter blames individuals for conditions often outside their control. For instance, rather than fixing the structure of recruitment and retention, companies often try to fix Black applicants through training or education that often pushes an assimilation agenda rather than having the organization demonstrate cultural flex.
For a systemic-level change, focus on evolving three areas within your organization:
- Practices and Processes (hiring, promotions and performance reviews are conducted that impact mobility of black talent)
- Policies (who gets to represent the company externally in media and for events)
- Programs (where to invest resources and metrics for on-going accountability for advancing cohorts of individuals through initiatives)
As scholar and author Ibrahm Kendi notes, being anti-racist requires proactively dismantling and creating new systems that operate deliberately and intentionally towards racial equity. Within a corporate environment, small business or institution it is important to reorient organizational design to encourage, celebrate and reward expressions of cultural diversity. The goal of any community then, whether internal or external, should be to first take stock of the current way your system operates and set processes to objectively shift equity to reflect society.
Launched in December 2020, the McKinsey Institute for Black Economic Mobility serves as a data and strategy center for advancing the black community, focusing on macro issues and institutions from employment to housing. In creating change, maintain a grounding in macro context with short-term, measurable actions frequently.
3. Establish a Firm and Clear Line of Success
In pursuing change, corporate activists need to seek the path to progress, not the path to perfection. Foremost, systemic change requires identifying, assigning and tracking accountability. Using a more traditional organizational design
, consider developing a RASCI to organize key initiatives, clearly going beyond goals alone to define the who (Responsible, Accountable, Supporting, Consulted, and Informed).
Intent alone is no longer good enough; leaders must use written frameworks that can outlast the tenure of a single dedicated set of employees or executives to allow momentum and sustainability. Within corporate governance, boards and leaders “treasure what they measure,” so until diversity, equity and inclusion evolves from a DEI statement to tangible KPIs or OKRs, key performance indicators or objectives and key results intent will not translate into progress.
Ursula Burns, the first Black female CEO of a Fortune 500 company, Xerox, never believed in quotas until 2020. As an intersectional leader, despite breaking a glass ceiling for both Black executives and women, her recent interviews offer a somber reality that boards and management have been getting it wrong for decades: targets matter because corporate intent has to be measurable and not philosophical. Following the leadership of progressive institutions, hard targets are now coming to diversity, equity and inclusion starting with women. In late 2020, though, companies have started to progress towards clear targets for racial minorities, most notable Starbucks.
Mellody Hobson, co-CEO of Ariel investments in Chicago, and a current board chair of Starbucks and board member of JP Morgan Chase, has long advocated for companies to be “color brave.” Over the past decade, her financial investment philosophy of “slow and steady” has elevated into new meaning for return of human capital investments. The long-term impact of not being color brave has now become transparent — lack of measurable targets helped contribute to shirked accountability. Counter to the bedrock capitalist notion given by Adam Smith that people are driven to act with “moral sentiment,” we now know that civil rights activists, change agents and communities can no longer expect “good intent” to lead to meaningful progress.
4. Act at Scale
Since 2000, the household income and wealth of the Black community has declined. During the same period, every other racial group outperformed the Black community, which is on a trend to have zero wealth by 2040. Economically, the Black community cannot afford piecemeal, delayed, or slow drip solutions; change must be radically delivered at scale.
Consider the institution of schools: to curb the hand of desegregation and inequity in education, at scale, Brown vs. Board of Education was implemented with a cohort of five young girls rather than one-at-a-time. In our modern society, we recognize that the only way to achieve racial equity on the impending economic timetable of doom, only cohort goal-setting will produce meaningful results.
Robert F. Smith, the wealthiest Black billionaire in the United States, who controls Vista Equity Partners, has proposed leaders double down on internships — at least 50% of incoming classes have diverse candidates including Black employees. In a multicultural-majority society, companies must start shifting to immediately reflect the society they operate within. Economics dictates that changes within corporate America are immediate, bold, and broad-sweeping to rebalance the inequities that have persisted across generations; otherwise, leaders risk turning their companies into corporate colonies systemically locking Black employees into modern serfdom.
5. Stay Focused on Economic Outcomes
A long-time author, activist for empowerment, and advocate for the Black community, Dr. Claud Anderson strongly recommends setting the goal for the advancement of Black people should not be social admission, acceptance, or tolerance, but rather access to economic gain (e.g., equal pay, business ownership, wealth accumulation). Over the course of his 50-year career in politics on local and national levels, he has found that only through creating a new economic narrative will minorites start to see progress, and research supports his urgency.
Since 2002, John Rice, the founder and CEO of Management Leadership for Tomorrow (MLT), has paved the way for over 8,000 racial minorities to prepare for, enter, and graduate from top business schools. In 2020, the brother of former U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice penned advice from their father in The Atlantic, noting a lesson that the former Tuskegee Airmen armed with a Ph.D. in economics taught them about how to achieve change by making the cost of racism economically infeasible for organizations and institutions. We must reframe the diversity, equity, and inclusion conversation from how well a minority can assimilate into a predominately White culture to how White leaders are penalized economically, though compensation, for not making space for diverse candidates in changing an organizational system to be more inclusive.
Faced with a surge in public pledges from large corporations to support the Black community, social injustice rising, and an economic doomsday clock counting down, we need a radical revolution, bold commitments, and swift meaningful action in 2021 and beyond. The five considerations in this article will help ensure we as Black leaders are prepared and fortified for the road ahead on the path to progress, going farther than we ever have before, on a timetable that requires a commitment of immediate action in realizing results.
Kai D. Wright is a strategy advisor, an author (Follow the Feeling: Brand Building in a Noisy World), and a lecturer at Columbia University. He writes and teaches about the intersection of marketing, communication, tech, and culture. He is the founder & curator of blacklist100.