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In Conversation: How Can Past Practices Hurt Your Company?

October 8, 2020 • History Factory

The following is an excerpt of a conversation featured on the latest episode of History Factory Plugged In between host Jason Dressel and History Factory CEO Bruce Weindruch. The pair discuss the importance of knowing one’s history—especially in today’s hypersensitive environment.

Jason Dressel: Well, Bruce, let’s jump into it. You’ve recently written some articles about this topic of what we’ve come to call the “Perils of the Past.” And you’ve been doing this a long time. So, I guess the first thing I’ll ask is what prompted you, right now, to write these articles about the potential vulnerability of an organization’s history?

Bruce Weindruch: It’s interesting. I have always, I think since I founded the company, put myself in the shoes of the client. I serve as the advocate for the client. I think I’m motivated by the client, by the client’s history, by where the client is today. The article was really prompted by that. I was thinking to myself, “They’ve got to be thinking about this. They must be thinking about this.” And indeed, what we have found of course is that they are. Our clients are telling us that. They’re thinking about it, and we’re blessed in that we have such great clients—best to work for, best in class, best cultures. And so, I figured I’m going to try to articulate what they either may be thinking or what they should be thinking about. So that’s why now. It was more of my own personal response to what’s going on, vis-a-vis the way I think our clients are either thinking about it or should be thinking about it.

JD: Yeah. And as you of course know, we commissioned this study and survey, and when we did that with the counsel and direction of our partner on that, they intentionally structured the questions in a way that would not be misleading, so that respondents’ opinions would be too subjective. But obviously, given our work and the articles that you’ve written, you’ve got some specific past practices in mind that you view could be potentially problematic for companies and brands. So, what are some of those? What are some of the past practices that you feel may be particularly uncomfortable for companies or brands to confront in the current environment?

BW: Yeah. And yes, you’re right. It’s unfortunate, as someone trained in business history and has spent a lot of time studying the history of business, you can’t pick up a newspaper on any given day, particularly the business section, when there used to be such a thing—actually, when there used to be such a thing as a newspaper—you can’t read a business story online as a historian and not feel like you’re seeing a car crash getting ready to happen again. I sometimes find myself just going, “Oh, no.” The kinds of things that are problematic for companies are the kinds of things that have just happened over history. And so, it depends on really literally how far you want to go back. You can go back to literally precolonial days, if you wish, and then work your way through the American experience, whether it be child labor laws, whether it be slavery.

I view our role is to have that kind of perspective, and not only just know that it happened but know what it was. Not only it happened—what did it mean? So those are the kinds of practices.

JD:  So how do organizations reconcile this? How do they come to grips with these challenges?

BW: We would always advise a few things. First of all, know the facts. Understand really what happened. As much as knowing the facts, know who you are today. If you are an organization that is mission-driven, purpose-driven—we hear so much about it—that’s who you are. That’s the yardstick by which you should be comparing yourself.

Because if you don’t do that, you’re not going to be able to get to tomorrow. That notion that we refer to as repent and reform. That’s the process one has to go through, whether it’s with your customers, communities, investors or your employee base. You’ve got to go through a process to, in a sense, reconcile that past behavior with your current belief system so that you can move forward. Or else you’re stuck.

JD: You’ve dedicated your whole career to helping businesses use their history as a positive asset and as a source for good. Do you think that history is becoming a liability and that there’s a case against history?

BW:  We’ve always known about the liabilities. So the fact that history could be a positive asset always required a little balance-sheet work. And so, right from Day One, our methodology was Start with the Future and Work Back. And our archival basis always said, “You’ve got to be truthful. You’ve got to be honest. You have to deal with it. It’s only a skeleton until you bring it out of the closet.” So we always knew the liabilities were there and always brought them to the attention of the client. The fact that it’s become a point of contention with the companies is kind of interesting. It allows us to use the exact same methodology we’ve always used. We’re not changing anything, but it allows us to talk about it.

So yes, today it’s a liability. There’s no question about it. I would think for the faint of heart, they will retreat. That relates, again, to knowing oneself. I think organizations that would retreat in the face of history are doomed to become it.

For more information on the “Perils of the Past” survey, listen to the rest of the podcast, including Bruce’s three surprising takeaways, and download the report for its full findings.

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