2021

A Developing Story

Executive Summary

For 12 years, SYLVAIN has prided itself on being a progress-guided consultancy that leverages the might of corporations to benefit the greater good. But like many institutions, we left 2020 with an unshakeable sense that we—and our industry—needed to do more, to infuse and operationalize a progress-oriented mindset throughout our organization. In this report, we introduce a detailed Accountability Framework through which any consultancy can orient itself around progress, and we take stock of our own performance so far.

This framework is built around the five character traits we believe constitute a progress-guided consultancy: Just, Open, Compassionate, Discerning, and Consistent. We have broken down each trait by its individual components and provided a series of questions to help assess how well an organization has internalized them. Through this exercise, which we intend to repeat at regular intervals, we get a better sense of where we are meeting our ideals and where we have room to improve.

This report is largely an exercise in self-reflection. But as a member of the consulting industry—albeit a tiny one—we know that others in our profession grapple with many of the same issues. While the industry has done much to promote corporate social responsibility (CSR), diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI), and environmental, social, and corporate governance (ESG) standards in recent years, it is disheartening to see such efforts take on a gold rush mentality, leading to an epidemic of off-the-shelf solutions that ultimately harm consumers and weaken the drive toward social and environmental progress. This is why we have chosen to freely share our framework and welcome your feedback.

This report is our first attempt to formalize what has always been a gut instinct at SYLVAIN: to narrow the gap between delivering for our clients and serving the public. It is the story of how we got here, how we’re doing, and where we hope to arrive. Whether you are a colleague, a competitor, a client, a potential client, or just a curious reader, we hope you will find our journey enlightening and instructive.

Table of Contents

  • 01

    A Time for Progress

  • 02

    The Consulting Industry at a Crossroads

  • 03

    We Are Big for Our Size

  • 04

    So, How Did We Get Here?

  • 05

    A Framework for Accountability

  • 06

    So What? Putting Our Progress Metrics in Context

  • 07

    Adopting the Accountability Framework

  • 08

    Progress Gaps: A Grading System for 2022 and Beyond

  • 09

    Accountability Workbook

  • 01

    A Time for Progress

    It’s as true for private companies as it is for democracies: our day-to-day reality often falls short of our highest ideals. We define ourselves by what we believe is right, but we live in a compromised version of that utopia, sustained by the promise that we are a work in progress and that, one day, our patience will be rewarded with the full actualization of our principles.

    Over the past 18 months, we’ve seen what happens when that patience runs out.

    Blame it on the pandemic, a global social reckoning, widespread unemployment, or toxic conspiracy theories. Any number of stressors on our system could have been the final straw, or perhaps it was the cumulative weight of so many crises occurring at once.

    If there is no struggle, there is no progress.”

    Frederick Douglass

    The past year has been a wild ride, to say the least.

    US pulls out of Afghanistan US pulls out of AfghanistanRobert Nickelsberg/Getty Images News/Getty Images

    Rioters attempt an insurrection of the US Capitol Rioters attempt an insurrection of the US CapitolSamuel Corum/Getty Images News/Getty Images

    Facebook becomes Meta Facebook becomes MetaFacebook

    Angela Merkel steps down as Chancellor <nobr>of Germany</nobr> Angela Merkel steps down as Chancellor of GermanyPool/Getty Images News/Getty Images

    The Covid-19 vaccine is rolled out The Covid-19 vaccine is rolled out

    UN releases &ldquo;code-red&rdquo; report for the climate UN releases “code-red” report for the climate

    Kim Kardashian and Kanye West divorce (and then Kanye legally became &lsquo;Ye&rsquo;) Kim Kardashian and Kanye West divorce (and then Kanye legally became ‘Ye’)Mike Coppola/Getty Images Entertainment/Getty Images

    But whatever ultimately triggered our collective exasperation, the message to those of us in positions of influence is clear: the time for progress is now.


    At SYLVAIN, we have long prided ourselves on being a progressive organization that leverages the might of corporations to benefit the greater good. That sense of responsibility informs who we are, what we do, and why we exist. From race to health to the environment, SYLVAIN uses innovation, brand strategy, and organizational design to address the challenges of today.

    We firmly believe that no person of integrity and conscience could emerge from this tumultuous era unchanged. That also goes for us as a company, and, we believe, our entire industry. Over the past decade, many of the world’s largest consulting companies have launched lucrative CSR, DEI, and ESG practices, talking the talk of social progress in pursuit of accelerated growth. While these practices may contribute to real social and environmental progress, they are also profoundly out of proportion to the influence our industry yields over the ills that plague our culture and our environment. Social justice, sustainability, racial and gender equality—these goals must inform all the work we do, not just serve to fuel additional revenue streams.

    In short, the consulting industry can, and must, do better. And that includes SYLVAIN. Social progress has always been a goal and an animating force behind the work we do. It’s why we became a Certified B Corporation ; it’s why we have always maintained a strong portfolio of volunteer and pro-bono work and donate a portion of our profits, and it’s one of the reasons we are so diverse. But it hasn’t been enough. This report is a first step toward identifying what better looks like, the path that will get us there, and the steps we will take to achieve our goal.

    While the distance between our current reality and the honest realization of our principles may be vast, we are fully aware of that gap and motivated to do something about it. We are committed to progress, for ourselves and our clients, and to promoting an understanding of progress that serves our collective ideals.

    Social justice, sustainability, racial and gender equality—these goals must inform all the work we do, not just serve to fuel additional revenue streams.

    The distance between the present

    We call this distance a Progress Gap. A concept that rewards current progress and creates momentum for future progress.

    and our ideal future.

    02

    The Consulting Industry at a Crossroads

    ESG consulting has been a windfall for the industry. But a gold rush attitude is hurting clients and consumers.

    Given the distance we have to travel, and the rapidly dwindling time we have to get there, it is no longer morally justifiable for the consulting industry to remain bystanders—much less to actively worsen our predicament. Collectively, consultants reap $900 billion in revenue annually by advising the world’s most influential companies on the most consequential aspects of their businesses, from improving sales to resizing their workforces to acquiring other companies. In the industry’s darker moments—some not far in the past—large consultancies have actively promoted societal ills, from opioid addiction to predatory mortgages, in shameful attempts to drive greater profits, both for their clients and themselves. Knowing the consequences of these actions now, it would be an abdication of our most elemental responsibility to society, our clients, and our own humanity not to adopt an aggressive, sincere approach to social and environmental progress.

    It is to the industry’s credit that we long ago recognized we had a role to play in the ESG, CSR, and DEI movements. When ESG investing started becoming a significant factor in global markets, a handful of forward-thinking consultancies saw the opportunity to provide a competitive new service that would also help clients become better corporate citizens. That these new practices were motivated more by a desire to grow revenue than a sense of moral obligation is neither surprising nor regrettable—many of industry’s greatest contributions to society (railroads, vaccines, etc.) were a result of opportunity aligning with public need.

    But a decade later, as concerns over corporate governance metrics have moved from Wall Street to Main Street, socially responsible consulting, for lack of a better term, has grown from a niche market into a veritable gold rush, with consultancies practically tripping over themselves to launch specialized practices and partnerships that promise to help companies put sustainability, social justice, or diversity “at the core of their business.” Not surprisingly, in their rush to capitalize on the opportunity, some consultancies are making false claims about their own track records to establish their progressive bona fides and differentiate themselves from the competition. Others think nothing of promoting themselves as “human-centered” even as they maintain an abusive internal culture or serve clients that directly profit from environmental or human rights abuses.

    It’s easy to dismiss such violations as the proverbial gambling in the casino. Anyone who put their faith in global consulting firms to bring about a golden age of sustainability, diversity, and social justice probably wasn’t too familiar with the industry to begin with. But hypocrisy and exaggerated credentials may ultimately pale in comparison to more insidious ills that have infected the industry. Namely, laziness and greed.

    How does the epidemic of off-the-shelf solutions take advantage of clients and harm the public?

    An Epidemic of Off-the-Shelf Solutions

    Today, far too many consulting companies are offering cookie-cutter ESG, DEI, and CSR advice, urging vastly different organizations with unique challenges and business models to embrace the same practices, metrics, and reporting structures. Gone are the days when consultancies tailored their sustainability advice to a client’s particular needs, replaced by an age of ready-made, off-the-shelf solutions that emphasize annual reports over real-world impact (and enable consultancies to scale their new practices).

    Such insincere efforts not only take advantage of clients, they ultimately harm consumers and weaken the overall drive toward social and environmental progress.

    Consider the number of high-profile CSR executives who have recently gone public with their belief that ESG reporting standards—metrics that consultants have done more than nearly any other profession to mainstream—may be doing more harm than good. Earlier this year, Tariq Fancy former global chief investment officer for sustainable investing at BlackRock (a SYLVAIN client), called ESG investing “a dangerous placebo” that companies used to mollify investors without significantly changing their behavior. Almost simultaneously, Kenneth P. Pucker, former COO of Timberland, wrote in the Harvard Business Review that the impact of ESG reporting and measurement had been vastly oversold, noting that carbon emissions, environmental degradation, and income inequality—all standard ESG metrics—had only gotten worse even as the ESG movement has exploded:

    The focus on reporting may actually be an obstacle to progress—consuming bandwidth, exaggerating gains, and distracting from the very real need for changes in mindsets, regulation, and corporate behavior.

    But hypocrisy and exaggerated credentials may ultimately pale in comparison to more insidious ills that have infected the industry. Namely, laziness and greed.

    Not a Game to be Won

    We point out these failings not to suggest that we at SYLVAIN have sidestepped them, or that we have found a better way. Or even that we lament more than other consultancies—including those that have fallen victim to them. Like any for-profit business, our day-to-day operations have often fallen short of our ideals. We raise these issues because we know that we, like the rest of the industry, must do better. Because the last 18 months have renewed our commitment to being a progress-oriented consultancy that helps clients make tangible strides toward fulfilling their own ideals. Because we see that our window is short, so the recommendations we make, the services we sell, and the work we create alongside our clients must have real, scaled, and lasting consequences

    Like the industry at large, we must start by making internal progress before rushing to sell new progress-oriented service offerings. This will help ensure that we approach the work with the right intent and that we are equipped to tackle the big challenges effectively. And we want to do our part to help not only ourselves and our clients, but all consultants of good faith and integrity.

    This is an opportunity for all of us to transform and revitalize a mature industry at risk of decline. In 2013, Clayton Christensen—Harvard Business School professor, founder of consulting company Innosight, and author of The Innovator’s Dilemmapredicted that “the same forces that disrupted so many businesses, from steel to publishing, are starting to reshape the world of consulting.” That fear of disruption and irrelevance can be seen in the industry’s current scramble to reposition itself to fit a technology-driven landscape. But our industry’s credibility and viability in the next 10 years will depend on our ability to help clients become good corporate citizens as much as our capacity to increase their growth.

    We work in a competitive industry, but sustainability, diversity, and social responsibility are not games to be won. Approaching this the right way means doing the work internally to make sure that we are nurturing the right mindset in approaching these big challenges and we are positioned to respond to them effectively. How we respond to this demand will have tangible, long-term consequences for our industry, our clients, and the world.

    Before we can help our clients reorient toward progress, we need to take a hard look at how we operate and the impact we’re having on our culture and society. The heart of this report is a framework designed to help us (and any consultancy) assess our own progress so we can embody the change we hope to inspire. We believe that, in the end, our consultancy, our clients, and anyone in our industry who ventures to ask themselves hard questions will be better off as a result.

    See how our work with Twitter made online conversations more inclusive.

    Andrew Burton/Getty Images News/Getty Images

    Read More About Twitter

    The Future of Healthy Communities

    The rapidly evolving world of technology is rife with both rich opportunities and devastating consequences for society at large. So in September 2020, Twitter’s research team wanted a deeper understanding of how their members and moderators influenced the creation of healthy online communities. All in an effort to answer one of the most sought-after questions of our time—can we make the gray area that is the internet a safer place?

    They developed a three-pronged approach that led to the development of a long-term moderation strategy that will make online conversations healthier, safer, and more inclusive. All subsequent product launches included tools that allow community leaders and moderators to set and enforce standards beyond Twitter’s regulations. This toolkit, named Twitter Communities, rolled out in September 2021.

    Before we can help our clients re-orient toward progress, we need to take a hard look at how we operate and the impact we’re having on our culture and society.

    03

    We Are Big for Our Size

    SYLVAIN may be small compared to our competitors and clients, but our influence is massive.

    SYLVAIN is a microscopic piece of the overall consulting industry. But with our size comes significant advantages. We are nimble enough to thrive at the chaotic intersection of business, marketing, brand, social impact, and, of course, broader culture. And we have the flexibility to offer solutions based on our clients’ needs rather than our own menu of expensive tools and practices.

    Learn how we infused social impact into Uber’s business strategy based on its unique needs.

    Uber

    Read More About Uber

    Infusing Social Impact into Business Strategy

    Today, all brands are under intense scrutiny. Tech companies in particular often face criticism, warranted or not. Uber has been criticized for purpose-washing and the alleged unfair treatment of drivers. But for the past year and a half, we’ve been working with the company to put their commitment to social impact deeper in their business. How can Uber further its social impact through everything it does?

    We uncovered the key issues affecting Uber’s triple bottom line, ultimately developing a four-pronged strategy centered on equity, economic empowerment, sustainability, and safety. These efforts have improved the perception of Uber as a brand that is committed to the community, including a focus on safety, sustainability, and equity.

    A look at our physical footprint relative to the larger players puts our size difference in stark perspective.

    Employee headcount
    SYLVAIN Compared to IDEO
    75 vs. Approx. 700
    SYLVAIN Compared to Google
    75 vs. 135,301

    Our revenue is a fraction of what the large consultancies are earning. In 2020, McKinsey’s revenue from Covid-response consulting was five times our total earnings for the year. In fact, most of our clients dwarf us in terms of revenue, too.

    What we make compared to our clients and competitors

    SYLVAIN’s Gross Revenue
    Jan 2020–October 2021
    Estimated $22–28M
    Clients
    Amazon
    $386.06B
    AMEX
    $36.09B
    BlackRock
    $22B
    Diageo
    $11.79B
    Google
    $149.6B
    Netflix
    $25B
    NYTimes
    $1.78B
    WhatsApp
    $5B
    Competitors
    Accenture
    $44.3B
    IDEO
    $158.5M
    McKinsey
    $10.6B

    Amazon

    Google

    Accenture

    AMEX

    Netflix

    BlackRock

    Diageo

    McKinsey

    WhatsApp

    NYTimes

    IDEO

    Sylvain

    However, because some of the world’s top brands entrust us with their most sensitive and critical projects, our influence vastly outweighs our footprint. SYLVAIN provides guidance that affects the lives of millions of people around the world every day, and our influence has only grown over time.

    With a 100% client-retention rate and a robust new-business pipeline, we have watched our reach expand exponentially relative to our size. We are mindful of the awesome responsibility this places on us and the work we do, and we are committed to never losing sight of that responsibility.

    We see our size as neither an impediment nor a disadvantage. We believe that being smaller provides us with certain opportunities and freedoms that larger, more entrenched players cannot afford. We are frequently approached by clients to handle challenges that require a more personal and sensitive approach than they believe they will get from larger consultancies, and it is a point of pride that we are consistently able to design solutions to these challenges that benefit the client, our agency, and most important, the culture at large.

    See how our work with the WNBA lifted viewership and elevated muted voices.

    Read More About the WNBA

    Leveraging the League’s Mission To Empower Women

    In 2019, we worked with the WNBA to assert the league’s rightful place in culture. We saw this as much more than a chance to promote a sports league. As a brand that is deeply relevant to millennial women of color and their allies, the WNBA had an opportunity to elevate muted voices and have a tangible social impact. We designed a new brand identity that centered and celebrated that audience, which created an energy and urgency to live out the League’s mission. Since then, viewership rose 64% the League’s Instagram followers doubled, and most importantly, the WNBA doubled player salaries and increased benefits, becoming a model for empowering female athletes around the globe.

    It was a too-uncommon example of a project that was an unalloyed good, an effective effort that aligned with SYLVAIN’s values, achieved the client’s goals, and made people’s lives better.

    None of this is meant to suggest that we have figured out how to fully operate as public servants. We’re still a work in progress. And we have a long way to go.

    Like any sizable organization, SYLVAIN is a company filled with contradictions, a group of people with good intentions in complex circumstances. We are a for-profit business that is ultimately judged on our ability to increase the power and value of companies for their owners. It’s inevitable that those objectives will sometimes be in conflict with our highest ideals. How do we continue to grow as a business without abandoning those ideals or losing what makes us unique?

    This report is part of our process for finding and operationalizing the answers to these questions. It includes our approach to progress within and beyond our own walls. Perhaps most important, it is designed to offer the core knowledge and tools we’ve garnered in our attempt to generate progress thus far, and invite you—the reader—to join and urge us along in our journey.

    Our goal is to publish A Developing Story regularly moving forward as a way to continue embedding progress in the heart of our company, to operationalize our own progress-guided accountability framework, and to set ever-stronger standards of progress for us to aspire to.

    04

    So, How Did We Get Here?

    We’ve always been oriented towards progress, but a few moments compelled us further.

    A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Extinction

    In the summer of 2020, Sylvain Labs, as we were still known, was facing extinction. In the face of the pandemic, our clients had canceled or postponed nearly all their significant projects, and our new business prospects had dried up completely. We had managed to keep our team intact by reducing salaries across the board. But the situation was unsustainable. We needed work, and fast.

    In the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder, we began receiving briefs from all kinds of companies looking to increase their outreach to people of color. Unfortunately, what we saw was as disappointing as it was eye-opening. Far too many of the briefs were overwhelmingly performative, tone deaf, or simply insincere. Granted, the public pressure on organizations to immediately and loudly proclaim themselves anti-racist was unprecedented, likely leading to some misguided briefs from companies that would normally know better. But the fact remained that we had a choice to make: potentially save our company by aligning ourselves with disingenuous efforts to sidestep public criticism, or heed our conscience and risk losing everything we’d built together over the past 10 years?

    A Blast from the Past

    As we were grappling with this dilemma, we received an unexpected sign from our younger selves in the form of a breaking news alert.

    Several years ago, one of the world’s largest consumer packaged goods companies—knowing our reputation as a progressive consultancy—came to us for help modernizing a problematic brand. We did our research and consulted with some leading minds on the subject. We also consulted our own sensibilities, asking ourselves how this brand made us feel and what images it brought to mind. In the end, we concluded that the brand was not worth saving. The name and iconography were simply incompatible with modern sensibilities and needed to be discarded outright. We made our recommendation to the client—who promptly lost our number.

    Now, in the face of global demands for racial justice, that company was making headlines for doing precisely what we had recommended. This very old, very successful brand would be permanently retired, to the relief of many (and the righteous consternation of others).

    To the world, it was an acknowledgment that harmful portrayals of non-white people would no longer be tolerated as business as usual.

    To us, it was a reminder that our humanity and our conscience were a core part of the service we offer to clients. That there was no place in our business for simply being “yes people,” and that we built this company not to be bystanders but stewards of a better, more equitable society—and maybe, in this historic moment, the rest of the corporate world was warming to our vision of the future.

    What we saw was as disappointing as it was eye-opening. Far too many of the briefs were overwhelmingly performative, tone deaf, or simply insincere.

    There is no place in our business for simply being “yes people,”

    From Bystanders to Stewards

    instead, we must be stewards of a better, more equitable society.

    A New Perspective

    With our commitment to our longstanding principles renewed, we passed on all but the sincerest and most potentially impactful projects we had before us. And while Sylvain Labs returned to profitability by the end of 2020—somehow eking out 3% annual growth along the way—the road we chose was hardly the quickest or least painful path to get there.

    But we walked away from that moment with more than a temporary reacquaintance with our humanity. We walked away with a validated sense of our mission, our value, and what we owe to our clients. We remembered that while our clients help pay our bills, it’s the public that ultimately benefits from or bears the brunt of our work. In that regard, we must recognize our role as public servants and always keep in mind the impact our work may have on the most vulnerable and defenseless members of our society.

    See how we helped PGE bring eco-friendly services to low-income areas.

    PGE

    Read More About PGE

    Piloting Customer-Centric Innovation

    It is critical to ensure that society’s essential services (electric, gas, and water) are as efficient and accessible as possible. So when we worked with Portland General Electric (PGE) to develop a new approach to innovation—one that put its customers and clean environmental practices first—the mission resonated with SYLVAIN’S desire to place human needs at the heart of our work.

    We collaborated with PGE’s team to develop a set of innovation priorities that customers found most important and a toolkit to put them into action. As of Q2 2021, PGE is taking many of these new services to market. A successful rollout would affect energy distribution across Oregon, significantly improving both the resilience of their energy grid and the accessibility of eco-friendly services to lower income populations often excluded by sustainable premiums.

    Like most consultancies, we will never be confused with a charitable organization. But as advisors to the world’s most powerful companies, we are very much stewards of the public trust. As such, it is our moral obligation to work with our clients to align the actions of decision-makers in corporate America with the pursuit of social justice and environmental health. We must align our internal operations toward selling courage and tools for meaningful change to clients, not decks and proprietary technology. These insights are why we rebranded as SYLVAIN, a name that moves us away from any one person and toward a collective institution. We also adopted a new wordmark that represents the interconnectedness of our team—our connection to each other and society at large.

    See how we drove greater cultural relevance for The Museum of Modern Art.

    Noam Galai/Getty Images News/Getty Images

    Read More About The Museum of Modern Art

    Increasing Audience Focus at MoMA

    Established, legacy organizations have immense potential to positively influence society at large. We immediately recognized this when we worked with the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in October 2020 to help them refocus their offering and drive broader relevance in culture. They needed an audience-centric plan that would drive immediate engagement and build long-term relationships, starting with New Yorkers.

    We developed a brand platform to serve a new, community-driven North Star and created product concepts to help activate the strategy.

    We consider ourselves lucky to have made it through when many others closed their doors or significantly downsized. And, while luck undoubtedly had something to do with it, we also credit these decisions—the right and the flawed ones—for teaching us what it means to act as a progress-guided consultancy.

    In the next section, we will look at how those decisions have helped us codify what it means to be a progress-guided consultancy. And later in this report, we will share a number of tools we’ve developed to help other consultancies adopt a progress-oriented mindset. It is our hope that these tools and this report will contribute to large-scale change for any consultancy that shares our vision for a more responsible future.

    But we walked away from that moment with more than a temporary reacquaintance with our humanity. We walked away with a validated sense of our mission, our value, and what we owe to our clients.

    05

    A Framework for Accountability

    How do we embody the five character traits that define a progress-guided consultancy?

    We asked ourselves:
    • Is the nature of our products and services in alignment with our values and beliefs?
    • Do we actively track progress metrics across the entire business?
    • Do we use the influence of our clients for the better?
    • Do we consider the harm potential in all of our project briefs?
    • Do we contribute to our community in a meaningful way?
    • Do we constantly iterate on our approaches and processes?
    • Do we provide opportunities for substantive employee growth?
    • Do we have equitable representation?

    The decisions we made during the darkest days of 2020 are now helping us forge the vision of the company we hope to become. By reflecting on those decisions and the lessons we learned from enacting them, we have come up with five character traits that we believe are essential to being a progress-guided consultancy. These traits are the guidelines against which we will measure our performance, and—we believe—should be standard for consultancies working with corporations on their social and environmental impact efforts.

    It is worth noting that we have chosen character traits rather than specific principles or values to guide us in our journey. While there are many principles that we, as an organization, wholeheartedly subscribe to—gender and racial equality, economic justice, environmental sustainability—we find that translating principles into everyday practice can fluctuate greatly depending on who’s doing the translating. For example, well-intentioned people often disagree on what actions today will bring about racial justice tomorrow.

    However, by adhering to character traits rather than principles, we keep the focus on our actions and our intentions rather than projected outcomes. Character traits are inherently human and expressed through our choices, whereas principles—especially corporate principles—are associated with beliefs and too easily put aside in the name of expediency.

    In short, by adopting these character traits, we hope to keep our moral compass properly aligned ensuring that we will ultimately act in accordance with our collective principles.

    Five traits for progress-guided consultancies

    Just

    Adherence to a set of standards, applied equally throughout the organization, that guarantees equity, inclusion, and opportunity for all employees and stakeholders.

    Open

    A commitment to transparency, honest communication, and a work environment that is responsive to employee needs.

    Compassionate

    Radical consideration of all people, communities, and ecosystems impacted by the company’s operations.

    Discerning

    Thorough and formalized deliberation of every brief’s potential for societal harm or benefit, and alignment with company values.

    Consistent

    Systemized processes, workflows, and measurements around progress across all facets of the business.

    Today, we are actively working to embed these traits throughout our organization. Ultimately, we hope that they will guide and inform every decision we make. In this graph, we have drilled down on each trait, defining it, breaking it down by its various components, providing the proof points by which we can judge our adherence to them, and finally listing which tools can best help implement them.

    We have also developed a free, downloadable template of this framework and a workbook that others can use to begin instilling these traits in their own organization.

    06

    So What? Putting Our Progress Metrics in Context

    Where are we succeeding, and where are we falling short?

    Having identified the five character traits that make a consultancy progress-oriented, we set about evaluating our own performance relative to each of those traits. The following graphic contains self-reflections from our CEO, Alain Sylvain. Below those evaluations, we have incorporated the results of a company-wide staff survey and feedback from our clients.

    Evaluating Sylvain Against the Five Traits

    Just

    Adherence to a set of standards, applied equally throughout the organization, that guarantees equity, inclusion, and opportunity for all employees and stakeholders.

    Our evaluation

    We are highly diverse, respectful, and equitable and have resisted hierarchy except where needed for employee growth.

    Though clients and staff praised our diversity and commitment to equity, one client said we needed to work harder to consistently integrate global perspectives.

    Open

    A commitment to transparency, honest communication, and a work environment that is responsive to employee needs.

    Our evaluation

    SYLVAIN is an open, radically transparent, and flexible environment that values the honest exchange of ideas with staff, clients, and partners.

    Clients appreciate our flexible and inquisitive approach to the work, though some team members noted that the pace or volume of work was sometimes in conflict with our principles.

    Compassionate

    Radical consideration of all people, communities, and ecosystems impacted by the company’s operations.

    Our evaluation

    We adequately donate, volunteer, and care for our staff. But we struggle to take care of freelancers and sometimes value clever solutions over virtuous ones.

    Employees believe that SYLVAIN’s compassion is authentic, though some say it lacks focus or clear definition.

    Discerning

    Thorough and formalized deliberation of every brief’s potential for societal harm or benefit, and alignment with company values.

    Our evaluation

    We have integrity at our core and rarely consider finances first, but we have no systems in place to evaluate briefs or clients for harm potential.

    Some clients and team members expressed their desire to see a faster, more focused process for evaluating briefs, but none doubted the integrity of our intentions.

    Consistent

    Systemized processes, workflows, and measurements around progress across all facets of the business.

    Our evaluation

    We embody our values instinctively but have not operationalized them or reconfigured the business to enforce them in a systematic way.

    Clients and employees agree that SYLVAIN’s values are a matter of instinct and could be more effective if they were more consistently integrated into the company’s processes.

    Only when we are this, can we do this.

    07

    Adopting the Accountability Framework

    Does your organization embody the five character traits? Some questions to consider.

    Ultimately, we believe that it is by holding ourselves—both SYLVAIN specifically and the consulting industry more widely—accountable to these five character traits that we can effectively steer the corporate sector toward meaningful progress.

    The five traits in action

    Just

    Adherence to a set of standards, applied equally throughout the organization, that guarantees equity, inclusion, and opportunity for all employees and stakeholders.

    Only when consultancies are JUST can we credibly compel companies to rewire their systems to institute social equity. The vast majority of companies are content with checking the box on D&I metrics, when they—and we—should be reconstituting incentives and structures to be wholly aligned with an equitable agenda.

    For brands, questions to consider

    If you’re an existing or prospective client reading this, Hello! We thank you for taking the time to read this report, and invite you to honestly ponder: What discrepancies exist between your official DEI stats and your day-to-day culture? Consider how these inconsistencies may impact your present performance and future relevance.

    Open

    A commitment to transparency, honest communication, and a work environment that is responsive to employee needs.

    Only when consultancies are OPEN can we effectively compel companies to embrace transparency as a tool rather than a threat. Secrecy in the name of competitiveness (often enabled by us consultancies) plagues too many from identifying and embracing the right progress-led initiatives, from product innovation to cross-sector partnerships.

    For brands, questions to consider

    Here’s another provocation for you. What aspects of your operations would you feel uncomfortable sharing with your customers and critics? Consider creating a public-facing action plan for fixing the issues as a way to hold yourself accountable.

    Compassionate

    Radical consideration of all people, communities, and ecosystems impacted by the company’s operations.

    Only when consultancies are COMPASSIONATE can we effectively compel companies to diversify priority measures of success. Without assigning financial value to select ESG metrics, companies will continue to prioritize shareholder value without regard for the social and environmental consequences.

    For brands, questions to consider

    Picture a board of directors made up of your most loyal customers, your most fervent civil society critics, and entry-to-mid-level employees. What single KPI would each demand you prioritize alongside profit? What organizational changes would you make to ensure strong performance on these new metrics?

    Discerning

    Thorough and formalized deliberation of every brief’s potential for societal harm or benefit, and alignment with company values.

    Only when consultancies are DISCERNING can we effectively compel companies to scrupulously introduce products and messages to the world. While consumption remains the vehicle for corporate operation, companies must use their products and services to pave the way for a utilitarian—and moderated—approach to selling products and services.

    For brands, questions to consider

    Consider the seemingly improbable task of building your company through 2030, assuming that traditional growth—acquiring new customers and selling more products—was not an option. How would you develop your brand? What would you invest in? What new products would you launch? Which would you take off the shelves?

    Consistent

    Systemized processes, workflows, and measurements around progress across all facets of the business.

    Only when consultancies are CONSISTENT can we effectively compel companies to design exclusively for collective needs. If we have any shot at addressing the effects of climate change, all corporate entities will need to drastically transform their business models, from seeking to stoke personal desires to trying to solve our collective problems.

    For brands, questions to consider

    Send out a company-wide questionnaire asking all employees to share what they consider to be the biggest, hairiest, most worrisome global issue related to your industry. How might you alter your business model to focus on solving the most widely cited issue? What would be your “save the world” strategy?

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    Progress Gaps: A Grading System for 2022 and Beyond

    Coming up with standards is the easy part. How will we hold ourselves accountable?

    Since our founding in 2010, SYLVAIN has strived to become the best global citizen we can be. As we enter 2022, we are energized to continue that push with a renewed sense of purpose and the roadmap we have laid out here. While brands and other organizations have ESG and other established guidelines to hold themselves accountable, no such framework currently exists for consultancies. We hope that what we have proposed here can be a first step in correcting that imbalance.

    For SYLVAIN, our next step is living up to the standards we have proposed. As such, in 2022, we pledge to use the accountability framework to measure our impact and performance across every aspect of our business.

    See how we plan to do this

    What Are Progress Gaps?

    We feel it’s important to establish a system that creates both rewards for current progress (where we’re doing well) and momentum for future progress (where we need to do better). Therefore, we’re introducing a concept we call Progress Gaps. For us, identifying these gaps is the core benefit of the framework.

    Our grading system:
    • Establish and measure proof points for every Character Trait component. Identify Progress Gaps across all components. (For example, where are we falling short on proof points? Where are we lacking a system to showcase proof points at all?)
    • For each Progress Gap, set a target and related action plan with key proof points for measurement.
    • Address progress in the next report.
    Other questions to consider before our next report:
    • Have new targets emerged over the course of the year?
    • Do current targets require a longer-term investment than we initially thought?
    • Have we failed to meet targets? If so, what have we done right, and how are we pushing to do better?

    Our grading system, like this report, is designed to acknowledge our successes as much as our failures; like most organizations with high ideals, our story is a complex mixture of both. That’s why this report is titled A Developing Story. But we would not have undertaken this project if we didn’t believe progress was attainable. By the time of our next report, we hope that our faith will be validated.

    As Albert Einstein once said, “Failure is success in progress.” At SYLVAIN, we expect to have many failures on our path to success. Still, we trust that with a little luck, perseverance, and self-reflection, the net result will be progress.

    09

    Accountability Workbook

    So what’s next? Download the Accountability Workbook below. We hope this inspires your organization to craft a bespoke approach to operating as progress-guided—and to hold yourself accountable to it.

    The completed framework can serve as a measurement tool to be used by consultancies to report on (internally or externally) year-on-year.

    We welcome your feedback. Please share your thoughts, concerns, and criticisms with us here.

    More as our story develops…