As the world emerges, blinking, from almost two years of lockdown, it’s safe to say that the period of reflection has been, for many of us, transformative. The ‘great re-evaluation’ is taking place in all parts of society. The ‘resignation wave’ (up 20% since 2020) has given an electric shock to the corporate world, but it isn’t simply the world of work that’s being changed forever. Health and welfare policies, social justice and inequity, our democratic norms — everything is up for grabs.
If 2020 was the year the world stood still, then 2021 is proving to be the year when we all asked ‘What’s it all about?’ However, whilst it may yet be too early for the retrospection to end, at the Power Of Us Agency, we believe in turning mirrors into windows. The book of the same name argued that companies could learn a lot from the way social movements grow, connect and think. Our current research seems to indicate that they’re doing just that. A recent survey we carried out — of organisational priorities since Covid — points to health, well-being and re-connecting their people as being leader’s current fixations. Our friends at sparks & honey also produced a report, ‘The Equity Effect’ that points to a heightened urgency for more equitable organisations.
So, it’s fair to say that businesses are increasingly sounding like social movements: Ben & Jerry’s, Tom’s shoes (Forbes called them a ‘do-gooder’ company),Tony’s Chocolonely, and many more are not only nailing their colours to the mast more, they’re taking action to make the world a little better. As BrewDog’s CEO, James Watt, discovered over the summer, however, if you’re trying to make the world a better place but haven’t got your own house in order, you’ll incur the wrath of your community. The problem for James was, I believe, that he genuinely believed that BrewDog has a healthy and positive culture — so the shock of hearing his culture described as ‘toxic’ was all the greater. (This is why organisations really need to measure their culture, and why we have developed an online tool for doing so)
BrewDog’s fate is well understood by social movements. But if companies are thinking more like social movements, then the converse is also true: movements have become adept at networking, sharing knowledge and marketing — just getting their message across. Whatever one thinks of the ‘Insulate Britain’ roadblocks, you’d be hard pressed to disagree that they don’t have a very good case for insulating social housing. Another recent development has been the way movements have become adept at selling things, mainly merchandising. If ‘Wokonomics’ has become a big deal for companies, then so has ‘commercialisation’ for activists.The on-going battles that the Black Lives Matter movement has pursued to control its name, and merchandise, are familiar to anyone on Wall St.
So, if Social Movements are thinking more like corporations and vice-versa, will there come a time when they meet in the middle?
People like Yvon Chouinard, founder of Patagonia, would say they already have. The company’s corporate goals and its social activism aims are inseparable. Nike has given over $40m to black advocacy groups from sales of Colin Kaepernick-themed apparel. And 98 Society’s founder, Sierra Dowd is a social activist and an entrepreneur — her clothing range solely exists to draw attention to sexual assault (In the United States, someone is sexually assaulted every 98 seconds).
Four years ago, Bryan Walker and Sarah A. Soule wrote a seminal article for the Harvard Business Review (“Changing Company Culture Requires a Movement, Not a Mandate”) They argued that corporations could not dictate their culture to their people — it had to grow from the bottom-up. That’s why the way we approach culture development with organisations is at odds with so many of the bigger consultancies.
Movements and multinationals were once sworn enemies — now they’re realising that they have a lot more in common than they thought.
The Power Of Us Agency was launched on October 11th 2021. It’s a culture development agency with expertise in people, purpose and culture. Its goal is to help leaders harness the power of their people to transform organisations. The first of a suite of online tools — a comprehensive cultural audit of organisations — is available NOW.
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