When I wrote my first book, I had the privilege of interviewing Earl Graves, the founder of Black Enterprise magazine and a highly successful entrepreneur that inspired many people beyond business. I was excited to ask him about the steps he took to reach his goals, and the guiding principles that had helped him sustain growth for several decades. What he told me was surprisingly simple, and even more profound. His words:
“People need to know what you say and what you do are going to be the same.”
That was it. This coming from a man that was with Robert F. Kennedy on the fateful day he was shot, a former board member of American Airlines and the Boy Scouts of America, and founder, editor and publisher of one of the most successful publications serving entrepreneurs nationwide.
Those words go through my mind more frequently and rapidly than ever as I watch the civic and business reactions to the modern-day lynching of George Floyd. I read wonderfully profound statements — carefully crafted by marketing and PR executives, speech writers, and humanitarians across all industries — that express their values and commitments to never engage in any kind of discrimination: racial, gender, age, religious, and so on. And I wonder. I wonder how realistic it is that these companies will ever truly change, or bluntly, really do anything about social injustices in their local communities or beyond.
Many of you are likely behind a brand’s statement of commitment to never practice racism. However, words at times like these are cheap. Eloquence is often offensive as it projects ideals that have not been adhered to when they should have, and likely won’t be sustained for long, if ever, if entire cultures don’t change. Many of us agree that there are many wrongs with this crisis and others impacting society, but really don’t understand how we are part of the wrong, even though we claim, “we don’t talk like that” or “we don’t think like that.” The wrong that many of us commit is trying to resolve issues with just words and thoughts, not actions.
The only way for business leaders to effect the change they write about in their statements is to back them up with a solid action plan. As you ponder putting out statements about your brand’s commitments and values, ask yourself, your executive team, and staff members:
- What is the goal behind our actions?
- What actions are necessary to reach our goal?
- How will you involve every employee and every aspect of our business?
- How will you measure and repeat our success?
Doing what is politically correct at the moment based upon how the wind is blowing is not adequate, or acceptable. Customers demand more of brands. They support companies that have longstanding commitments to social responsibility, and not just when under pressure or a microscope. In fact, consumer behavior research from Cone Communications shows that more than 80% of consumers will switch to brands that practice social values.
Hosting an annual diversity fair at work and encouraging people of various groups to listen to one another for a day is not going to cut it, either. Real change requires real actions that are built upon reflection and introspection as to how individuals and company cultures or practices could be contributing to a problem.
Another friend whom I interviewed for my second book, Toby Usnik, who just authored his own book, “The Caring Economy,” has been advising brands of all sizes to build a corporate social responsibility (CSR) plan that is actionable and measurable. He advises businesses to look at their CSR programs as not single acts or commitments to do A or B, or a point of arrival, but rather a spectrum of caring. This spectrum of caring embraces the totality of a brand’s character, behavior, actions, expenditures and values. Usnik says:
“Once a brand declares its place on the spectrum through it public reporting, it should then strive to move further up the spectrum to an even more responsible and caring place. One that is recognized by all its stakeholders.”
Usnik reflects on what he calls “darker angels and “better angels.” Darker angels continue to maintain the status quo even when they know what they are doing is wrong and dangerous. Better angels are those who spend the time to identify what they are doing that could be wrong, dangerous, harmful to others, socially unjust in anyway, subtle or more overt.
He cites a social app brand that decided to confront racism by removing race and ethnicity filters. This alone is a serious step forward. Imagine if employee applications did not ask race, gender, or ethnicity questions? What would that mean for processes based on equality and qualifications? Yes, these are optional to complete, but many of us choose to do so to give ourselves every chance possible of making the short list. But again, why do these issues get asked if they really don’t matter and have a possibility of driving biases or discrimination.
Bottom line, as marketers, we must look at corporate social responsibility programs as more than blanket statements about an ideal world and big cash donations to associations related to a given cause, and instead outline the actions we will take across all areas of our brands to effect change.
According to Usnik, who outlines action plans for businesses in his book, we must look at our social programs, commitments, and behaviors as “movements.” People will get behind and support movements more than protocols or rules that someone else imposes on them. Usnik suggests people review the standards and processes set forth by ISO 26000 – guidelines established by the International Organization for Standardization.
We need to identify actions at every level of an organization that contribute to the sum of a brand’s persona and character. We must look at our hiring practices, the questions we ask, our advertising images and statements, our treatment of employees, the actions of our managers and other leaders, the types of conversations we have with all of our constituents, down to the adjectives we use.
How Do Change and Commitment Build Brands?
We as humans, consumers, and citizens want to be part of something that not only furthers our values; we want to be part of the change we want to see in the world, as Ghandi stated. When the brands we work for enable us to do so, and self-actualize within our job environments, we are not just loyal, we are driven to help our businesses succeed well beyond our job descriptions. This kind of employee loyalty is key to success now and will be for years to come.
Per Cone Communications on CSR and consumer choice and loyalty, and other studies by Nielsen, consumers make purchasing choices according to values and how much a brand gives back to people, causes, and the earth. Some of the brands who will rise above the chaos now and in the future largely because they operate according to an established list of values for supporting people, causes, and our planet are Patagonia, Tom’s Shoes, Gymboree, Warby Parker, Uncommon Goods, and many more. You can view a long list of brands that have committed to being good and doing good here.
I remember hearing the late poet and civil right activist, Maya Angelou, explain in an interview that she once asked some of her friends at a party at her own house to leave immediately because they were making derogatory comments about a racial or ethnic group, and she would not allow that energy in her home.
Years later, I remember this statement and try to reflect on it regarding the energy I put into my work; at home for my family and self; as well as within my thoughts, words and deeds, in an effort to assure that my actions reflect the values I believe I have, want to have, and want to promote to others.
I encourage business leaders to ponder the same as leaders set the culture through their actions more than their words.
When it comes to addressing issues of the time, of the future, and of the past it really comes down to those simple words Earl Graves told me year ago:
“People need to know what you say and what you do are going to be the same.”