Advocacy and Career Success in the Age of Remote Work

Renee Dye, PhD, Associate Professor, Emory University’s Goizueta Business School

This final post in my three-blog series grapples with the complicated issues of where and how work will take place in the wake of COVID, how the careers of ambitious employees will advance in a post-pandemic world, and how businesses should be thinking several moves ahead as they consider how to attract, cultivate, and retain talent

Remote work is not new.  Technology – especially the advent of high-speed internet – has made working from home possible for many years now.  However, past employees who have opted for remote work have tended to be individual contributors (think a call-center employee or an HR analyst) who value flexibility and/or cannot commute; and who think of their role in the language of “job” rather than “career.”

Then along came a little Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome-related virus called COVID-19 that changed everything.

Suddenly, even the most ambitious among us were wonder-struck with visions of succeeding in their challenging careers from the comfort of their own home offices or dining tables.  If we could make it work for a year, couldn’t we make it work forever?  And why pay sky-high real-estate and property taxes in a congested metropolitan area when you could really spread out between the land and the sky in Montana? (There are 2.6 million head of beef cattle in Montana…and just over a million people.  Just saying.)  Surveys indicate that between 63% and 98% of workers surveyed would prefer a more flexible or fully remote model to returning full-time to the office.

No one knows with any real certainty how this discontinuity is going to net out for employees who are able to work from home.  Some employers (most notably and publicly Big Tech) are opting for full-time remote work options, while others (most notably Big Banks) are reeling their employees back to the office.  The final outcome will probably be very different across employers and may emerge as a new short-term axis of competitive advantage in the talent market.  In this tight labor market, employees who are so inclined can shop among prospective employers for the most liberal work-from-home policies.  And 2021 surveys from McKinsey, Prudential, FlexJobs, and others indicate that between 30% and 42% of employees might give their employer the boot if they’re forced back to the office.  

The next ten years of workplace evolution will be a path-dependent dialectic between worker desires and employee needs.  A potent cocktail of a public health-induced economic coma, massive economic stimulus payments to individuals, and severe worker shortages in certain sectors have for now given workers the upper hand, as evidenced by the brisk rise in wages after decades of stagnation and stubbornly high job openings.  But the current imbalance between labor supply and demand will likely equilibrate in the next 18 months.

Over the longer term, we are in uncharted territory as to the ultimate effects on company culture and company competitive success – hence the sustainability of work-from-home practices.  A Gen-Xer who got her first computer in the late 80s – a Mac Plus with an astounding 20 MGBs of hard-drive storage! – I tend to default to the non-digital world.  But my students, who are mostly digital natives, have a different philosophy and orientation to the possibilities of remote work and remote community creation.  Several years from now, we’ll have irrefutable evidence about the evolution of remote-work practices – and I’ll be the first to acknowledge that new technologies like virtual reality may change the world of work as we know it.

However, we do have some glimmers of insight emerging about how employees behaved during Covid and feel about remote work from a wave of recent empirical studies. 

The data around worker productivity in the pandemic work-from-home era is ambiguous.  Anglo-American workers tended to report elevated levels of productivity.  For instance, a January UK study found that 89% of employees rated their productivity as high or higher than pre-pandemic levels.  However, studies from other countries like Japan and Austria had a larger percentage of workers reporting decreased productivity.  More uniform across countries was a reported increase in quality of life by respondents, often attributed to time reclaimed from commuting. 

And how did workers deploy that newfound free time?  Nine out of ten respondents in the FlexJobs survey self-report pursuing some type of professional development or new skill attainment during the pandemic:

  • Online professional development (51%)
  • New professional skills (44%)
  • Studied for or earned a new degree (7%)
  • Attended virtual professional development events (41%)
  • Studied for or earned a new certification (28%)
  • Engaged in volunteer work, internships, projects, or side jobs (22%)

If we’re being optimistic, we could assume that these employees are upskilling to be more valued by and valuable to their current employers, but I think it’s more prudent to assume that they’re upskilling and networking to look for new employment opportunities.  Over half of all employees in the United States report that they’re looking to change jobs in the next year! Or in the worst case, they may be negotiating secret second jobs at the same time they’re supposedly working full-time for you, as an August Wall Street Journal article documents.

And I think it’s no surprise that employees would so aggressively pursue new professional development pursuits at the time they feel the greatest disconnect from their current workplaces.  The counter-balance to the overwhelming desire expressed for more flexible work options are the palpable sentiments of loss and loneliness embedded in some of these same surveys.  The UK survey concludes that

“Many miss the workplace as a source of social interaction – those opportunities to contribute new ideas, learn from others and feel connected to the organisation. Digital communication has not been an adequate substitute for these interactions that enrich working life.”

These sentiments are not equally distributed across workplace demographics.  A  PWC survey published in January 2021 documented that workers with less than five years of experience with the company felt the most dissatisfaction with remote work and wanted to return to the office more frequently.  They reported being less productive remotely and valuing more in-person time with managers and company trainings than their colleagues with more years with the company.  The FlexJobs survey found that one of the most common concerns employees expressed about remote work was that their future career path would be negatively affected by not being physically present in the office. 

We all recognize that where work is done post-pandemic is going to differ materially from pre-Covid times, given the overwhelming desire for greater flexibility expressed by workers.  Employers that accommodate this desire while striving to preserve the best aspects of workplace culture – and to enable the career aspirations of their top talent – will be better positioned for long-term competitive success.  I believe the most effective organizations will implement models of “structured flexibility,” in which employers are intentional about convening their communities of workers in person on designated days of the week or hours of the day.  Enabling workers to be remote the other day(s) of the week should cause employees to value those in-person experiences even more ardently and to invest their all in collaborative work and community strengthening on those days they are in the building.

On the other hand, employers who stampede to acquiesce without qualification to at-will flexible work options may inadvertently be helping to mold a more disaffected, less committed cadre of workers who value quality of life higher than professional achievement.  I am all for robust labor markets in which employers must meet the compensation and benefit demands of top talent.  However, if the collective long-term effect will be to produce poorer company cultures with diluted employee engagement, less compelling career-path narratives, and greater emotional ease of exit, we are going to increase churn and costs at a macro level while benefiting no one except workers – and that only with respect to compensation and convenience.

There’s no judgement here: only you can make the determination of what’s most valuable to you in your life.  The most common reason that workers cited for not wanting to go back to the office after the headache of commuting was not having to deal with organizational politics.  Shunning the “politics” of the office is really a rejection of the human-centered nature of organizations.  Organizations are not meritocracies, and decisions about worker performance and advancement are made by people, not processes.  If you acknowledge that fact and still want to disengage from organizational “politics” in favor of your individual contributions delivered fully remote, that is your prerogative.  I would wager, however, that if your individual workstream-oriented job can be done entirely offsite with minimal management oversight, it is also at the greatest risk of outsourcing and automation. 

Until we have greater clarity around the future of hybrid work, my counsel to those career aspirants just entering the workforce in this unsettled time of maybe-I-do or maybe-I-don’t work-from-home cohort is to Get Thee to The Office (or whatever shared flexible workspace your employer has procured).  Once secure in your career trajectory, with a handful of strong and powerful advocates in your corner, you can play the work-from-home card more frequently.  But for now, it is going to be much, much more onerous to successfully cultivate advocates through remote channels.  Phone- and video-based conversations simply do not permit the same richness of human interaction, which leads to greater empathy and intimacy, which leads to much stronger relationships.  Life is dynamic and interdependent: your decision to work from home will put you at a disadvantage to someone who chooses to work in person, assuming management is also doing so. 

Recently, the Managing Partner of a Top 10 law firm described to me two very different interaction patterns with two young associates in his firm.  One associate was back in the office every day, hustling to interact with partners she wanted to work with and recruit as advocates.  Another chose to work from home.  While the current account balance of billable hours may not be meaningfully different today, he predicts that in two years the more engaged and proactive associate will have outpaced the other by three additional years in career advancement towards election.

Leaders may have the best of intentions in trying to treat all their employees equitably, but I believe that remote relationship-building will invariably be upstaged by the in-person experience.  It’s like the difference between live-streaming a concert versus attending in person.  Live-streaming was the best we could muster during Covid, but let’s face it: it was just awful.  The highest number of ticket sales for a live-streamed concert for a 4800-seat performance venue I sit on the Board of was…380.  Enough said.

To wrap up: my strong recommendation is to get yourself back into the workspace where you can be most effective in identifying, attracting, and cultivating powerful advocates who can turbo-charge your odds of ultimate career success.  Avail yourself of every opportunity for in-person interaction, because chances others will be doing so even if you’re not.

Works Cited

(  March/April 2021 of 2,181 FT workers  Survey of 2,000 FT American workers conducted March 2021.  Prudential’s Pulse of the American Worker Survey.  PWC Survey of 133 Executives and 1200 FT employees  in 3 sectors (FS, CP, and Tech/Media/Telecom) in Nov/Dec 2020  August 13, 2021 WSJ article on employees with two full-time jobs  Work After Lockdown, University of Southampton, January 2021.  1,035 survey respondents and 38 interviews with managers from 2 sectors: Professional, Scientific & Technical (PST) and Public Administration & Defence (PAD)  “Working from Home, Quality of Life, and Perceive Productivity during the first 50-day Covid-19 Mitigation Measures in Austria”  Survey of 1010 Austrian workers

Morikawa, M. (2020), COVID-19, teleworking, and productivity,,

Making Yourself a High-ROI Investment for Advocates

Renee Dye, PhD, Associate Professor, Goizueta Business School, Emory University

In my previous blog post, I made the case that your odds for career success are dramatically increased if you cultivate one or more advocates.  This post will focus on how you can prevail in your efforts to attract effective advocates. 

Perhaps you’ve had the stomach-dropping experience at work of watching a colleague engage in schmoozing that makes you think they’re plugged into the organizational network in a way that you’ll never be able to achieve.  It may appear that access to inside jokes and outside social events are the hallmarks of attainment when it comes to advocacy cultivation.  And while social relationships sometimes go hand-in-hand with advocacy, I want to give you a different, more empowering way to think about the relationship you’ll have with a potential advocate.  This re-framing is especially potent for individuals who have fallen into the “only people like me will advocate for me” or the “advocacy is about friendship” mindsets.  

Here’s the secret to reworking your mental model: Your relationship with your advocate should be first and foremost a mutually beneficial ongoing series of transactions, with clear give and take on both sides.  That advice may feel jarring and coldly calculating, but it makes you think about what you have to offer – not just what other people can do for you.  Think of it as your AVP: your Advocacy Value Proposition.  No high-performing business expects customers to invest in a product or service that doesn’t deliver a robust value proposition.  Similarly, you shouldn’t expect a high-ranking leader within your organization to invest in you and your career development without presenting to them a compelling value proposition.  There are dozens, or hundreds, or even thousands of employees that a senior leader could potentially advocate for within their organization; so what can you do to develop and communicate your AVP so that you stand out to them and enlist them in your cause? 

Advocacy carries its own risks; if a protegee fails, then their advocate’s status within an organization is weakened; conversely, when a protegee succeeds, an advocate’s reputation is strengthened within an organization.  When I have personally gone to bat for an individual in all three of my career incarnations – consultant, senior leader, and academic – only to be subsequently disappointed by that protegee’s performance, I have quietly yet definitively withdrawn my support.  Leaders everywhere do the same.  Relationship and reputational capital are precious resources, which take decades to amass and years to replenish if squandered.

You have to convince an advocate that you offer a higher-potential, lower-risk return on their investment in you than other candidates.  Below are five key actionable levers that are entirely within your control to pull to your advantage.

  • Deliver exceptional results.  No excuses, no compromises.  Your AVP will never get off the ground if you don’t produce truly excellent work that impresses and delights your managers.  While excellent work is not in and of itself sufficient to cultivate advocacy, it is absolutely necessary.  No advocate is going to put their reputation on the line on behalf of an employee who produces shoddy work that fails to have organizational impact.  There is not a single student or employee for whom I will fall on my sword unless they have produced distinctive, insightful work for me; and the students who have completed truly exemplary projects have the right to earn my advocacy.  One of the most comprehensive surveys on advocacy (or “sponsorship,” as the authors term it, finds that “[t]he most successful protégés…recognize that sponsorship must be earned with performance and loyalty—not just once but continually (Hewlett, Marshall, and Sherbin, “The Relationship You Need to Get Right,” HBR Oct 2011)
  • Signal your dedication and engagement every chance you get.  Too many folks labor under the false belief that if they just keep their heads down and produce good work, rewards will invariably follow.  That may have been true in school, but it is just not true in organizations.  In my experience, women more often fall prey to this fallacy.  If you keep your door closed and focus just on your work, you’re going to be at a disadvantage to others who make themselves more highly visible.  And I don’t mean working late nights or needing to socialize regularly, as this example shows: a manager at an advertising agency had two high-performing employees, a woman and a man, who both did excellent work.  The woman kept to herself most of the time, while the man was in her doorway several times a week offering insights and suggestions on the business.  When the manager had one promotion opportunity to award, she felt like she had not choice other than to give it to the man, who demonstrated higher engagement with his career.
  • Create a relationship of reciprocity.  Find a way to help make the individual you want to cultivate as an advocate successful.  You may need to be creative, and sometimes that will mean pitching in on a project that is unrelated to your job.  Back when Covid hit in the spring of 2020 and schools shut down, my special needs son was struggling with virtual education.  One of my students reached out to me to inquire whether his wife, who had been furloughed from her job as therapist, could be helpful as a teacher’s aid to my son (for pay, to be clear.)  She worked with our family for three months and was an absolute Godsend.  That same student also offered to work with me in developing gorgeous Tableau graphics for my blog posts (again, for pay).  While not directly related to the core professor/student dynamic, these ancillary activities strengthened our relationship and catalyzed me (unbeknownst to him!) to proactively lobby for him with a friend who is a partner at one of the top consulting firms, where he now has an Associate role. 
  • Communicate your career aspirations clearly and with conviction.  It’s hard for people to help you along in your career journey if they don’t know where you want to go.  While saying that you want to be challenged and to continue progressing in your career is laudable, it’s not nearly as actionable as saying that you want to be a Regional Sales Manager or Major Account Executive or Partner within five years.  Formulating a credible, ambitious set of career goals demonstrates maturity, initiative, and ownership – all traits that advocates like to see.  And it clarifies and simplifies for them when, where, and how they can activate their sponsorship to accelerate your career propulsion.
  • Embrace opportunities and mine them for every possible learning and development.  While it’s important to communicate where you want to go, being inflexible in how you achieve your goals makes it harder for people to help you.  Most senior leaders have had a wide array of experiences in different roles and geographies by the time they make it to the C-Suite.  Your advocate may put your forward for a role that you hadn’t imagined was next in your flight path.  Take time to understand how it will strengthen you as a leader – and that any assignment is a temporary step in a longer journey to success – and take it on with alacrity and enthusiasm.  Americans have grown more sedentary not just in their activity levels but in their residency patterns: “Only 9.8 percent of residents in the U.S. changed their residences in 2018, down from 20 percent in 1985…. It’s the lowest rate since 1947 (Agovino, “Americans Aren’t Moving.”  Feb 2020).  While Covid and younger generations are going to be wild cards in their longer-term employment effects, we do know that 84 percent of Millennials are willing to relocate for a job and 82 percent believe they will be required to relocate if they want to advance their careers.  In addition to geographic relocation, you should also be willing to move to another function.  High-performing Executive Team members possess competency in every area of the business; how else can you help establish strategic frameworks and make resource allocation decisions beyond your specific domain in the C-Suite?
  • Never lose an opportunity to tell potential advocates the difference they’re making in your life.  While reciprocity is always the best way to demonstrate gratitude, don’t overlook any opportunity to express your gratitude to a current or potential advocate.  We hear a lot about “expressing gratitude” in our society today, and I am a steadfast proponent for the transformative power of identifying and appreciating the many aspects of our lives in which we are blessed.  I fear, however, that many of these exercises in gratitude are more internally than externally voiced these days.  People love to hear that they are making a difference in your life – and appreciate your taking the time to write a thoughtful note or email to tell them how they’ve meaningfully inspired, trained, or supported you.  Your communications need to be specific and articulate to be credible and effective – and making them so will force you to reflect deeply on how someone has positively altered your life.

I can’t promise that pulling the levers described above will ensure the successful cultivation of a powerful and passionate advocate, but I can promise that doing so will increase your odds dramatically.  Develop an acute understanding and crisp articulation of your Advocacy Value Proposition, identify potential advocates, and begin to take specific actions to help you cultivate them.  Sitting back and waiting to be “assigned” a mentor or advocate puts you behind more proactive employees, and each day you lag behind translates into (1) a lower likelihood of achieving your ultimate career aspirations; (2) a longer timeline to achieving your aspirations; and (3) lost income due to lower compensation levels.

What are you waiting for?  If you’re waiting for the dust on hybrid and remote work to settle, I strongly encourage you to read my next blog posting on Advocacy in the Age of Remote Work.

Works cited

Hewlett, Marshall, and Sherbin, “The Relationship You Need to Get Right,” HBR Oct 2011)

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An Organization Is Not a Meritocracy

Renee Dye, PhD, Associate Professor, Emory University’s Goizueta Business School

This blog post is the first in a three-part series that summarizes the key messages I deliver to my students, in the hopes that it can catalyze and support the career success of a broader group of ambitious employees who aspire to make it to the C-Suite.  Most of my lessons are derived from my own unlikely personal journey from literary scholar to top-tier management consultant to C-suite executive for a publicly traded company, but they are also heavily informed by leading researchers like Sylvia Anne Hewlett.  In the final blog, I discuss the impact of remote work on career success.

A survey of MBA graduates from my school a few years ago produced a startling insight: of all the skills that we provided to our students during their MBA tenures, our students felt most unprepared to navigate “organizational politics” in their careers.  The reason that I found this fact so astonishing is that today’s students, who are Digital Natives and in part Social Media Natives, are the most connected and self-promoting generation the world has ever seen.  Yet today I find that my students continue to exhibit little practical understanding of how career success is forged…so much so that I now devote an entire class session in my core Strategy class to demonstrating the importance of relationship management and advocacy cultivation. 

One of the paradoxes of the Gen-Zs and Generation Alphas is their intuitive understanding of the phenomenon of social media…at the same time they maintain an almost ideological conviction that the workplace – apart from systemic biases – is otherwise a meritocracy, where talent is perfectly and objectively evaluated – and the best and most deserving rise to the top.  Surely a cursory exploration of Instagram and TikTok would convince even the most skeptical of the fundamentally idiosyncratic nature of success in a networked world?  The Real World is likewise characterized by outcomes in which success is imperfectly correlated with capability level.  Someone whose capability level is less than yours may lap you in the race to the top of the organization.  That may seem unfair, but that’s because you’re making the mistake of assuming that career success is predicated purely on capability.

Capability is not unimportant; far from it.  As I tell my students, though, capability is table stakes these days as the level of education and skill sets continues to advance among individuals.  If you’re not smart and capable you’re not getting in the door.  But once you’re in, your career path and ultimate career success will be more determined by (1) your level of aspiration and unflagging commitment to achieving your goals; (2) your performance outcomes in your individual roles; (3) your work ethic and conscientiousness; and (4) the relationships you have with other people within your organization.  And the relationships that matter the most are the individuals with influence and power over your future career opportunities.

Let me put it starkly: without career advocates (notice the plural), it will be much, much harder to make it to the senior management ranks.  Full stop.  Some facts to bear this assertion out:

  • People with advocates are 23% more likely to move up in the careers
  • Women with advocates are 22% more likely to ask for a stretch assignment to build their reputations as leaders

Ultimately, having an advocate confers a career benefit of 22-30%, depending on who’s doing the asking and what they’re asking for.  That’s increasing your odds of making it to the C-Suite by nearly a third!  If anecdotal evidence is more your thing, here are a couple of quotations for you:

  • A lot of decisions are made when you are not in the room, so you need someone to advocate for you, bring up the important reasons you should advance” (Catalyst Survey, as quoted in Elizabeth McDaid, “Mentor vs. Sponsor,” September 3, 2019)
  • When you get to the level in your career when decisions are not just being made by an individual manager, feedback from other leaders becomes crucial.  Rosalind Hudnell, Chief Diversity Officer, Intel.  As quoted in Hewlett, Sylvia Ann, Melinda Marshall, and Laura Sherbin. “The Relationship You Need to Get Right,” HBR 2011)
  • “I was great at building businesses and had tons of cheerleaders, but I had that typical Asian keep-your-head-down-and-you’ll-get-taken-care-of mindset.”  My boss had to take me aside and tell me that if I didn’t actively cultivate her as my sponsor, I would never progress beyond senior associate” (quoted in Hewlett, Sylvia Ann, Melinda Marshall, and Laura Sherbin. “The Relationship You Need to Get Right,” HBR 2011)

To reiterate: an organization is not purely a meritocracy where talent and hard work speak for themselves; and it’s much, much harder to advance within an organization without effective advocates. 

So what does an effective advocate believe and do?  You can apply three simple tests to determine whether an individual has the requisite attributes to serve as an advocate for you:

  • An advocate has a deeply favorable, almost messianic impression of your talent and prospects for future success
  • An advocate has the status, power, and/or influence within the organization to improve your likelihood and/or timeline for advancement within the organization
  • An advocate will put their own reputation on the line to lobby for you to secure advancement opportunities (i.e., stretch roles or compensation increases) instead of or ahead of other individuals in your cohort

Notice that the career-catalyzers described by the three tests outlined here bear almost no resemblance to the individuals we typically value for their mentorship.  Mentors provide a safe, non-judgmental space for individuals to confess to their frustrations and fears of inadequacy – and ideally to receive some behind-the-scenes coaching…or perhaps just some heartfelt commiseration.  And mentors can be just about anybody you trust.  A mentor looks a lot like a therapist, while an advocate looks like the star coach of that D1 sports team you want to get recruited for out of high school.  Tellingly, women report having more than enough mentors, but they are only half as likely as men to have advocates.

I want you to pause here and reflect upon the individuals within your orbit at your organization.  How many qualify as the-real-deal advocates?  How many are better classified as mentors?   How many are just random people you’re proactively “networked” with through a platform like LinkedIn but have no meaningful relationship with?

If this exercise has left you feeling under-resourced, no worries: I’ll discuss in the next blog post how you can be more successful in recruiting advocates.

The New ESG…P?

Nature abhors a vacuum.  So, apparently does civil society.  With our political leadership increasingly MIA – Missing in Action or MIsAligned—when it comes to fundamental governance issues about which our populace cares deeply, the private sector is stepping in to enforce common sense and the rule of law.  Of course, that star has been rising for over a decade now, evolving through the more obligatory phase of “corporate social responsibility” to the activist ascension of “ESG.”  Dick’s Sporting Goods undertook the highly symbolic step of discontinuing gun sales in the wake of mass shootings; CVS took cigarettes off its shelves.  Both were attractive product categories, yet both concluded that the social ills caused by them were antithetical to their company’s purpose and values.

Nike decided to take a knee with Colin Kaepernick, which was a decidedly socio-political stance unlinked to a specific product/market decision.  Since the tragic spectacle of the armed incursion into our nation’s Capitol last week, and with the spectre of a similar riotous mob descending upon the upcoming inauguration, several businesses have decided to take more action that is even more expressly tied to the business of managing our nation.

Airbnb has announced that it is cancelling existing and blocking future short-term rentals in the DC metropolitan area.  Several law enforcement agencies have advised the public not to visit DC during the inauguration, but clearly Airbnb has reason to doubt the force of their guidance.   What better way to discourage visitors than to deny them temporary housing?  It’s difficult to imagine that a company the likes of Marriott could follow suit, given the necessity of maintaining operating cash flow during an already challenging economic time.  Airbnb’s status as mostly a pure platform play without significant staff and infrastructure costs to bear enables them to stare down the financial impact without unduly angering shareholders.

Delta led the major US airlines in announcing that they would refuse checked baggage containing weapons for all flights into the DC metropolitan area.  Many state and local governments have approved the militarization of our public spaces by sanctioning the right to bear arms indiscriminately.  Private businesses, however, can limit the presence of weaponry within their domains and are increasingly doing so.  Some restaurants and retailers here in Atlanta have installed metal detectors and/or security guards who frisk entering patrons to ensure that weapons are not brought onto their premises.  US Airlines realized they had a powerful role to play in limiting the transport of deadly weapons into a potentially incendiary socio-political gathering scene and played their cards.

Twitter has garnered the most press with its highly public and ceremonious de-platforming of our Tweeter-in-Chief.  (One wonders what the last four years would have looked like if Twitter had made a categorical decision not to host accounts from any elected officials from the beginning.)  But other social media platforms and payment processing engines have quickly followed suit to disable the calls to violent action and their associated fundraising on platforms like Parler.  And this decision is spurring the most rancor: the de-platformed, who believe their First Amendment rights are being violated, are loudly objecting.  Those groups and individuals should re-read the Constitution.  They are still able to speak as much as they want; they simply are no longer permitted the exponential amplifier of a privately-owned and -administered social media site, which has clear rules of conduct for inclusion. If Congress passes legislation dubbing these sites public utilities and regulating them as such, then arguments for free speech would become legitimate, but we are a long way from that outcome…antitrust suits by the DOJ and State Attorneys General notwithstanding.

In more conventional corporate public service, Disneyland has announced that its Anaheim-based theme park—one of the parking lots to the Toy Story attraction, to be precise—will soon open as a “super POD (point of dispensing”) for up to 7,000 Covid vaccine recipients daily.  Granted, this action is a tad more self-serving than the other corporate actions: until this pandemic is under control, Disney’s theme park revenues are way down.  But LA and every other major city has no shortage of public or quasi-public facilities where they could host super-PODs.  LA’s Dodger Stadium, San Diego’s Petco Park, and Sacramento’s CalExpo are also enlisted in the mass vaccination effort.  The fact that a private company like Disney has stepped up and offered its considerable crowd-management expertise speaks to the void left by a disjointed and mismanaged vaccine roll-out by some among elected and appointed officials.  And a big Sheriff Woody cowboy hat’s off to Disney for stepping up to this public service for Southern California.

It is unclear whether this new assumption of the mantle of quasi-political governance by leading corporations is situational and temporary, or whether we are embarking on a new phase of ESG that intentionally subsumes elements of governance where our political systems are dysfunctional.  Large companies continue to accrue size, power, and followership; and they may channel a more representative and unified voice from American constituencies than our elected officials at this point in history.  If so, we can continue to expect to see corporate capitalism exercise influence in these domains and others in the future.


Let me introduce you to the fascinating world of fungi.  You probably know fungi best as the mushrooms that tend to spring up after a good rain and may think they extend no further or deeper than the bottoms of their stalks.  But mushrooms are merely the fruits – the fungal fruiting bodies, to be more precise – of the mycelial networks that produce them, most of which are in the soil and may be invisible to the naked eye.  Fungi are neither plant nor animal; while they grow subterranean branching transport systems (mycelial networks) like plant roots, they cannot produce their own food; while they consume food from external sources like animals, they can’t really move around. Some types of fungi can enter into symbiotic relationships with plants, especially trees, “bartering” nitrogen they extract from the soil for carbohydrates produced in photosynthesis by plants.

Mycelial networks are composed of fast-growing tubes called Hypha, and their cell walls contain Chitin – the material found in insects’ exoskeletons that makes them hard.  (More later on why that’s important.)  Mycelial networks can be vast: the largest organism on the planet is a single colony of Honey Mushroom fungus in Malheur National Forest in East Oregon that’s over four square miles and between 1900 and 8650 years old. And mycelial networks represent a large percentage of all the biomass on the planet. Mycelial networks perform many indispensable tasks for our species, including decomposing wood and other matter that would inconveniently pile up.  (They also can cause disease and death to plants and animals alike, but that’s another story for another time.)

Fascinating indeed.  But we should also care about Fungi because they can help us innovate solutions for some of our more intractable problems.  Like trash.  We are one wasteful and messy species, producing 2.3 million tons of trash every year. 

Fungi are excellent decomposers, and some species, like the White Rot Fungus, can be trained to eat just about anything – even a monotonous diet of cigarette butts, as Radical Mycology founder Peter McCoy has demonstrated. Brazilian scientists have successfully cultivated fungi out of dirty diapers.  Fungi can help clean up unintentional waste as well: mycoremediation start-ups are hoping to deploy fungi to clean up toxic oil spills, and neighborhood groups in California are using fungi to try and remediate the toxic runoff of the devastating 2018 wildfires. 

But fungi aren’t just good for breaking things down.  They may be an important component of future material creation harnessing the diversity, and malleability of mycelial networks.  The chitin in the cell walls lends strength and structure to materials produced from fungi.  Albany, NY-based Ecovative creates, designs, and manufacturers mycelial-based packaging and building materials, counting Dell among its clients.  Mycelium-based materials can be engineered to have desired properties by adjusting the diet it is fed in a controlled environment – and it can be grown in just about any form you can imagine using molds.  And unlike other common building materials, mycelial products can decompose quickly and even be repurposed with a fresh infusion of mycelium.  Although still an experimental building material, it holds immense promise.

It’s no surprise that the VC community is investing in interesting fungi-focused start-ups that may represent the future of multiple industries.  The table below features five notable fungi-based companies, with nearly $850M in collective funding from investors like the CVC units of 3M, Danone, Tyson, and Mars, as well as prominent individuals like Mark Cuban.  Although most of these are in the food industry, expect to see many more springing up in the building products and environmental remediation industry spaces in the years ahead.

Retail: A mass extinction event?

We all know that until about 66 million years ago, dinosaurs more or less ruled the earth.  Then along came a dose of Really, Really Bad Luck, known more scientifically as the Cretaceous-Paleogene extinction event.  Imagine: you wake up one morning, have your cuppa joe, and smack!  Mass annihilation comes at you in the form of a gigantic asteroid that crashes near the Yukatan peninsula, sending up a toxic cloud of dust and sulfuric acid – and possibly global firestorms and impact winter effects – wiping out 50-75% of all the animals and plants on earth. 

Compared to that violent prehistoric episode, the current pandemic may seem like a gentle kiss from the bowels of the earth delivered by Batmail.  However, the business world may well be in the throes of its own version of mass extinction: the retailers who have dominated US consumption for the last 50-100 years.  At last count, there were 10 major retailer bankruptcy filings, as the chart below shows.  But don’t chisel the numbers in stone: the store carcasses are piling up by the day.

Covid may have delivered a kiss of death, but these companies were hardly paragons of health prior to the onset of the Pandemic.  Digital had been steadily attenuating the sales of brick-and-mortar retailers, although let’s keep in mind that the vast majority of the $3.8T in US retail sales still take place in brick-and-mortar stores (okay, okay, it’s hard to sell gasoline online).  2019 saw online retail sales reach 12-16%.  (There’s some squishiness in how the numbers are collected: The Fed Reserve of St. Louis pegs it at 11.9%, while Statista has a much frothier 15.9%) …and it’s too early to tally the new totals in the wake of Covid.)  

Certain segments of the retailing industry have been much more transformed by e-commerce.  In the apparel industry, digital sales grew to 34.4% of total US sales in 2019, up nearly 20% from the previous year.  And again, pre-Covid numbers.  Hence it’s not surprising that this wave of bankruptcies over-indexes on apparel and department store.  Compare that with consumer electronics, where digital sales have only claimed 14% of total sales.

Even retailers who seem to have been keeping pace with the transition to digital haven’t been spared: Sur La Table, with online sales estimated at 30% — exactly in line with the industry average for home goods pre-Covid – still faced bankruptcy.  These retailers are saddled with the expensive legacy of physical stores while having needed to invest tens or hundreds of millions of dollars to build out their e-commerce capabilities.  There is no Faustian bargain here, only hard choices.  Within this economic formula, the winners will continue to be the mega-retailers like WalMart, who can afford to invest the money to quickly build out e-commerce – and push massive amounts of product through.  Its $3.3B acquisition of in 2016 signaled real commitment, even if its ROI has been ambiguous and it was just the most visible indicator of the many billions of investment in ecommerce WalMart was making.  Ecommerce sales have surged at WalMart – around 35% in 2019 and estimated at 74% during Covid – but it’s unlikely it’s in the black with its ecommerce business yet.  It’s having to play a long game against ecommerce dominator Amazon, which has 40% market share of US ecommerce sales.  No surprise that WalMart continues to grow market share, notching 2.6% growth in 2019. 

And the other winners are the ever-proliferating digitally native retailers who have never had to invest in expensive stores and continue to spring up like mushrooms after a good rain.  MeUndies, anyone?  The barriers to entry to boutiquey digital brands and storefronts are negligible: you can outsource site creation, product design and manufacturing, logistics, and fulfillment, leaving the founders in charge mostly of digital marketing.  Granted, there has been an interesting trend of “pop-ups,” where digital retailers like The Real Real and Glossier are crossing over into the physical store space, but it remains to be seen whether this is a novelty trend or one with staying power.  Amazon, of course, is investing meaningfully in building out its own stores, as well as leveraging its Whole Foods and other pick-up locations to augment its digital footprint.

So what to do with those expensive storefronts for our legacy retailers?  Retailers have been slow to aggressively rationalize their store portfolios, for sure.  They’re going to have to do it within bankruptcy proceedings, and perhaps they’ve been waiting for that air cover to justify an unpopular, expensive, and demoralizing move as the larger economy has partied on.    With so many stores slated for shut-down, it’s an interesting question what will become of that expensive mall space.  Mall landlords have a vested interest in supporting and promoting engaging customer experiences that will entice consumers into their properties.  Simon Property Group had already invested in apparel brands Nautica and Aeropostale via SPARC, its JV with Authentic Brands.  SPARC just announced a “stalking horse” bid of almost $200M for Lucky Brand, which will give them a strong, premium consumer brand to try and transform into a viable retailer in today’s environment.  And, of course, it helps keep the storefronts occupied.  We may see increasing numbers of these vertical integration plays as landlords attempt to save the mall business model, but as my students will dutifully tell you, I am bearish on vertical integration as a strategy in any industry.

But retailers have also been slow to innovate the in-store experience to prevent customers from defecting fully to the Digital Dark Side.  Walking into a J. Crew store today is not meaningfully different from walking into a J. Crew store 30 years ago.  Ditto for other retail market segments.  Think through the last time you visited one of these stores: Neiman Marcus (luxury); Macy’s (mass); Target (discount).  Anything there knock your socks off?  Nope.  Perhaps they’ve improved marginally on brand portfolio, merchandise presentation and assortment, inventory management, and service, but interesting technologies that could have advanced the frontier of the customer experience have been in very short supply.  Sure, we’ve had some investment in products and experiences like smart mirrors and digital dressing room, but they’ve been the exception.

And the last nail in the retailing coffin, which we would be remiss without discussing, is the high levels of debt these companies carry.  Private equity investors adore the retailing industry, because it throws off hefty amounts of free cash to service high debt loads and repay the PE investors.  But many retailers already have high debt loads in the form of operating leases from their landlords.  So, caught between low margins and high debt, retailers don’t have a lot of wiggle room to navigate even a fully visible encroaching financial crisis – never mind a sudden sock to the gut like Covid.  So it’s not surprising that the retailing titans are the hardest hit of the publicly traded companies during the pandemic.

So, will this be mass extinction for the current cohort of retailing powerhouses?  Unlikely.  Toys R Us’s annihilation is an unhappy exception to the bankruptcy norm, where companies will typically emerge leaner and fitter to fight another round.  A better analogy is perhaps the aftermath of the Black Death in Europe, where 10-30% of the population perished.  But the C-P extinction event may be instructive in another way.  The apocalyptic aftermath enabled previously over-shadowed species to thrive and evolve, such as our proud forebears, the small mammals.  New customer engagement and retailing models will emerge, perhaps expedited by the retail space being left vacant all across America.

Click through the slideshow below for data analysis on five key retailers. Each dashboard includes three principle charts comparing the bankrupt retailer with a peer group. The first is a plot of EBITDA margin vs. Debt/EBITDA multiple, demonstrating the challenging position of high debt with low margins that several now bankrupt companies found themselves in. The second compares the ecommerce sales of the bankrupt retailer to peers and the industry average. As expected, retailers that have been hit especially hard by the pandemic have subpar ecommerce sales. Finally, the third chart compares either Capex as a % of sales or Debt/EBITDA multiples for the past 4 years. Retailers such as JC Penney, New York and Co, and J Crew failed to properly invest in innovation (as measured by CAPEX) potentially due to their crippling debt burden. For full functionality, view the dashboard here.