Reset: Black History Month in businesses, why the best ideas come last, in praise of Covid-sniffing dogs

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THE VIRUS

The latest virus forecast: The US has had a 33% decrease from two weeks earlier, averaging about 156,000 new cases per day. Experts are voicing concern about a possible reversal of the current decline as new variants spread across the US. But there’s an opportunity for this to be a turning point and statistics suggest that vaccines could contribute to a permanent decline in Covid deaths soon. The hoped-for arrival of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine could mean availability of shots for every US adult by June.

The business impact: US GDP fell 3.5% in 2020, the biggest decrease since 1946. Two and a half million restaurant industry jobs evaporated last year as over 110,000 eating and drinking places in the US closed, either temporarily or for good. Restaurants that closed permanently on average had been in business for 16 years. The US personal savings rate approached 14% last month, the highest level since 1975. Economists predict pent-up household spending will kick back in this spring. Almost 70% of retailers now offer contactless payments.

FOCUS ON BUSINESSES AND BLACK HISTORY MONTH

Black History Month, which begins tomorrow, takes place in a changed context around racial equity compared even to a year ago. For a sense of how things might be different, I reached out to Minda Harts, author of The Memo, the founder of a career development company for women of color, and an adjunct assistant professor at NYU. Here’s what she said:

Do you think Black History Month will be celebrated differently this year by businesses, given the greater focus on racial equity in the workplace?

Unfortunately, I am not so sure. Currently, companies and organizations are requesting Black creatives to participate in their Black History Month celebrations and providing no compensation because the company hasn’t allocated a budget for Black History Month. This signals to me that some companies and organizations are not ready to make a tangible investment in their Black employees’ advancements and belonging. Black and brown employees want to be celebrated every day. Actions like this are not demonstrating that Black employees matter. 

What opportunities does it present businesses with? What should they be doing?

In 2020, for the first time, many companies were coming to terms that there has to be a racial reckoning inside of the workplace. I see Black History Month as an opportunity to make some real commitments to advancing the business case and making sure that work is working for every employee, not just some. I would ask companies to look at what they have done since making those commitments in 2020 and use this month to be transparent about how the needle has moved to benefit their Black employees. And if there haven’t been any statistics or policies to celebrate—this is the time for leadership to apologize for dropping the ball and recommit to equity. You can’t celebrate Black people’s advancement in America if you haven’t done your part internally—it comes across as disingenuous to their Black employees. Additionally, Black History Month should be celebrated by every employee, not just Black employees. This month is a great time to show allyship and solidarity. 

How should businesses’ tone reflect the state of racial equity? Should they focus more on the deep problems of caste-based thinking and inequalities around income, incarceration, health, etc., rather than a more traditional Black History Month focus on Black leaders in American history?

I believe that this is an opportunity for transparency and for managers to ask their Black employees what good looks like to them. And Black employees should be encouraged to hold leaders accountable when they don’t see racial equity taking place—without backlash. Most Black employees want to be shown in a tangible way their careers matter. And they want to know what steps are being taken to improve what is going on inside the company. Sometimes companies think they have to make grand gestures, like climb to the top of the Empire State Building and declare Black Lives Matter—when it’s the everyday actions and interactions to humanize Black and brown employees’ workplace experience that matter the most. What actions are being taken to root out the conscious and unconscious bias that happens daily on video conferencing to pay inequality? Those are the deep workplace issues that affect the day-to-day lives of Black employees that need to be addressed. 

You can watch a video interview with Harts. You can read more advice on how to approach Black History Month from Paradigm, and dive into its origins in a 1920s effort to focus “explicit attention on structures of domination.” 

Content from our partner McKinsey & Company

Make your conversations count. Throw away whatever rule books you have. Inject some surprise and suspense into routine interactions. This is just some of what former IDEO global managing director Fred Dust told us when discussing his new book in the latest edition of McKinsey Author Talks

WHAT ELSE YOU NEED TO KNOW

Coca-Cola is using financial leverage to force law firms to diversify. General counsel Bradley Gayton this week sent a letter to law firms the beverage maker works with, writing: “Quite simply, we are no longer interested in discussing motivations, programs, or excuses for little to no progress—it’s the results that we are demanding and will measure going forward.” 

  1. Coca-Cola is requiring firms it works with to have at least 30% of billable time staffed by diverse attorneys, with at least half of that by Black lawyers. The company will withhold 30% of fees from firms that don’t comply, and reconsider working with them.

Gayton’s letter is a model of transparency and specificity and a really good reminder of how companies should use their buying and contractor power to further racial equity and practices like good jobs and climate action. That’s in contrast to traditional approaches, where businesses have employed outside contractors to distance themselves from responsibility. 

The club of S&P 500 chief executives will soon get a Black woman member. When Rosalind Brewer takes over as CEO of Walgreens Boots Alliance in March, she will be one of just five S&P 500 chief executives who are Black. 

  1. Former Xerox CEO Ursula Burns and Mary Winston, former interim CEO of Bed Bath & Beyond, are the only two previous Black female S&P 500 chief executives. 

  2. With Brewer’s ascension, the three largest US pharmacy chains will be led by women for the first time.

Is the GameStop uprising a new anti-establishment movement like Occupy Wall Street with broad implications for businesses? Some fans of the online mob driving the price of the videogame retailer’s shares to insane levels and squeezing hedge funds betting on a GameStop decline have argued that it’s a “superior version” of the 2011 Occupy protests. 

  1. Financial writer Matt Taibbi calls out the hypocrisy of establishment players’ condemnation of the mob in an essay worth reading, declaring “it’s delicious, not so much because [the mob is] right, but because the people running for cover are so wrong, and still can’t admit it.”

  2. Quartz’s Tim Fernholz is less amused, noting that the Occupy movement’s demands “included universal basic income, debt relief—and a financial transactions tax to curb short-term investing.” Fernholz adds: “A decade later, is the dream really unfettered access to leveraged options trades?”

Old-school investing publication Barron’s is counseling readers: “The GameStop Revolt Has Just Begun. Get Ready.” That said, it’s too early to say this “stick-it-to-the-man moment” will be much more than a pitstop for bored, FOMO-fueled, profit-seeking, mischief-making young investors. But one very clear takeaway is that people can mobilize online with unprecedented speed and impact, and business or financial players judged to be hypocritical or greedy are especially vulnerable. 

Companies are taking advantage of the dropoff in business travel to target permanent reductions in carbon emissions. Law firm Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer has a plan for a 30% drop in travel-related emissions by 2025, largely by flying less. The firm plans to continue with many virtual meetings post pandemic and encourage staff to take trains rather than flying.

  1. I’ve written about how Swiss Re has introduced carbon pricing that applies an internal surcharge on activities such as business travel, seeing the current moment of reduced flying as a prime opportunity to roll it out. 

The new Silicon Valley perks to benchmark your organization against include home-office design consultations  and parent coaching. Buzzy tech firms that used to offer elaborate free food, gyms, and other in-office services have had to overhaul their benefits over the past year—and now are evaluating which changes to make permanent. Remote personal-assistant services, expanded childcare, therapy, and financial-planning services are among the perks on Silicon Valley firms’ menus.

Here are some of the best tips and insights from the past week for managing yourself and your team:

  1. Persevere in your creative tasks. Researchers find that productivity drops off during work sessions, but creativity does not. Too often people cut short the brainstorming process—when in practice your best ideas are more likely to be your last ones. The researchers, who studied people writing cartoon captions, recommend setting aside more time for idea generation, and generating more ideas than you think you need. 

  2. Avoid common traps when giving women performance reviews. Describe their impact in concrete terms like increased sales, focus on their achievements rather than their potential, and discuss their leadership skills rather than their compassion. Research suggests specifics help strengthen the case for promotion, and that people are more persuaded that women deserve advancement based on their achievements (whereas with men, people focus on their potential.)

  3. Get more out of books by skimming them. You can look over the table of contents and conclusions of each chapter to identify sections to focus in on. You might read 10% of a book and take away one idea from it—but that’s better than nothing. And don’t hesitate to put down books that you’re only reading out of a sense of obligation that you need to finish them. (You can also quickly take away the essential ideas from recent books through the summaries I’ve been publishing.)

  4. Use sponsorship to promote underrepresented groups. Sponsorship differs from mentorship because the sponsor commits explicitly to being in their colleague’s corner.  “A mentor will talk with you, but a sponsor will talk about you,” explains Heather Foust-Cummings of Catalyst. Researchers suggest business leaders make efforts to connect to younger employees and start with taking on mentees in order to establish relationships—especially with women and people of color—that could lead to sponsorship. 

CODA

Bring on the dogs—please! Dogs were used to sniff out Covid infections among fans lining up to attend a Miami Heat basketball game this week, as part of a plan to make it possible to bring back some spectators. 

  1. Dogs had 94% accuracy in detecting Covid infections according to a German study, and have been deployed in some airports outside the US. 

Umm, why are we not using dogs to sniff infections in places like schools and hospitals, and not just to allow people to attend NBA games they could watch on TV instead?

Wouldn’t it be great if we could just decide that the coming decade will be a new “Roaring Twenties”? The 1920s post-war and post-pandemic explosion of “living gaily on gin and love” will almost certainly have an analog as soon as this summer, as pent-up Americans resume partying and travel with a vengeance. 

  1. But how the parallels hold beyond that depends a lot on whether new technologies like artificial intelligence yield the productivity gains and lifestyle improvements that electricity and automobiles generated in the 1920s. Bloomberg Businessweek and Medium’s Steve LeVine both detail what it would take for us to see a new economic and cultural boom worthy of the Roaring Twenties moniker. 

And if it is a new Roaring Twenties, maybe champagne sales will recover. They’re down 18% by volume over the past year. Alcohol sales more broadly have risen amid the pandemic, but the shutdown of restaurants and bars appears to have hit champagne consumption particularly hard.


The handbook for this new era of business doesn’t exist. We’re all drafting our own as we go along—and now we’d like to start doing so together. You can sign up here to receive this briefing by email.