Category Archives for "Reviews"

Personal Branding

I’m not sure I know what to make of Personal Branding.  We’re all familiar with branded products and retailers.  If we think about it, we can see their point.  A familiar brand is trusted, memorable.  You pay your money and know almost exactly what you’ll get in return.

But personal branding?  I am not a product or a business of any description.  Why should I be branded and what does it mean?

I’ve based the following thoughts on a new book, “Branded You: How to Stand Out in Business and Achieve Greater Profitability and Success” by Adele McLay.  (The book will be published soon, follow the link and scroll down to register your interest.)  The book brings together all the ideas you need to build your personal brand.  It is really helpful to find them all in one place.  It is an easy read and short enough to return to for deeper reflection, as you work through each part.

I’ve had the following thoughts in response to the book.

Outer Branding

Don’t make the mistake of thinking outer branding is somehow superficial.  If your branding is superficial, then you haven’t done the work.  Integrity is a core principle here.  There needs to be coherence between you and what you sell.

Your story, your appearance, your public persona are all elements of your personal brand. These need to be consistent with each other and coherent with your offer and your market.

The challenge is to make the right choices.  If you help people overcome their problems through outdoor activities, do you approach your market dressed for outdoor activities or in regulation business clothes?

There is no correct answer because the question is a challenge.  Your brand is to accept neither option but to seek something that works for you.  Find a creative solution to build your brand.

Your Brand as a Mask

Stylised drawing of comic and tragic masks from Greek Theatre

The masks in ancient Greek theatre communicated the character through sound (Latin: per sonar) Clker-Free-Vector-Images / Pixabay

The paradox is the outer brand is a mask.  But the mask you wear is you!  It may be a heightened version of you but it must be genuine.  The Latin word persona goes back to Greek and Roman theatre and refers to the masks Classical actors used to wear.

Their masks concealed the actor’s identity and amplified their voice.  The paradox is the character depicted through the mask was always more real than the actor behind the mask.  The personal brand similarly amplifies the person behind the mask but with coherence between the brand and the actor.

 

Inner Branding

You can see there is an inner discipline to personal branding.  You need to work on congruence between how you present yourself and what you promote.

This always feels awkward to me.  I am naturally disposed to being a grumpy old man.  When I was a teenager, someone referred to my husky exterior.  So, I’ve been a grumpy old man for many years.  I am sceptical that I can present myself as relentlessly positive.

On the other hand I know I can be engaging.  I can inspire people through spoken words. I speak with humour, energy and passion.  And I love doing it!  Is this really me?  I surprise myself sometimes.

My problem is I naturally present myself in grumpy mode and can in the twinkling of an eye transform myself into my other persona.  I couldn’t be energetic and engaging if it were not for my grumpy demeanour.

My problem is bringing the two together, so my brand has coherence.  And the truth is, this is something everyone in business struggles with.  Your natural and public dispositions need not be at odds and your brand is how you find a creative solution to presenting both.

McLay’s book describes the necessary practical approaches to working on your brand in both its outer and inner aspects.  If you work through her 7-step programme, you will build a personal brand and hopefully a successful business as a result.

Outward Branding

Here is something I don’t think McLay or other writers are aware of.  How does your brand reach outwards?  This is not about how you appear to the world but the impact your personal brand has on the world.

We are not isolated individuals.  We are all part of various communities and our brand is a measure of our influence in those communities.  To some degree, my brand represents all the communities to which I belong, not just my business.

I live in a part of Sheffield that has had a poor reputation in the city for many decades.  If people know I come from Pitsmoor, this could devalue my personal brand.  But I want to advocate Pitsmoor as a positive place.  I need to find creative ways to do that.  It is perhaps not an easy call but it is something all businesses should consider.

Roots and Branches

If you have a global market, the street in which you park your business may not seem that important.  You probably chose it for all sorts of reasons, not least costs.  If you’re selling to someone even a few streets away, your place may seem irrelevant.

But we devalue our neighbourhoods as we leave them for town or shopping centres.  Maybe businesses need to advocate their place, grow the roots that support their many branches?

When we do this, we support other businesses and grow the communities we need to support enterprise in general.

Again this type of personal branding requires time to develop ideas and grow solutions.  It’s not about ramming the delights of Pitsmoor down the throats of my customers; it is being rooted in a place and committed to it.  Open to ways to build sustainable community there.

Have you encountered examples of outer, inner and outward personal branding?

Investment: an Ethical Revolution?

Cartoon woman with smiling angel and devil on her shoulders.

Perhaps this image is too polarised – Rich Dad, Poor Dad is more nuanced. OpenClipart-Vectors / Pixabay

You can read Kiyosaki’s “Rich Dad, Poor Dad” as a morality tale.  Remember the cartoon angel and devil sat on the hero’s shoulders?  Poor Dad works hard for money and spends it all on things like mortgages and food.  Rich Dad invests and builds income sources to fund his lifestyle and his family’s.  So, what are the ethics of investment?

We’re left in no doubt which is on the side of the angels and yet, the author repeatedly alludes to his Poor Dad and how his moral approach to money was important too.  I part company with Kiyosaki to the extent he implies the wealthy are somehow superior to the rest of us.

Revolting Against the System

I suspect many people contemplate revolting against the system that expects us to work from 9-5 most days of our lives.  If not, we can languish on the dole, excoriated for being welfare scroungers.

There is a degree of common ground between right and left, where right means support for those who build their own sources of income.  The right in UK politics looks after the interests of  investors; the left cares for those in employment.

Many people on the left make a similar break from the system.  I did way back in the early eighties, when I left research science and took up community development.  Whilst I was in employment for most of my working life, I believed I’d made a radical break with the system.

There’s more than one path

Many people break away from the road they start out on and find their own path.  Others don’t and perhaps suffer for it as they find life is not rewarding, even though they put everything into their chosen career.

But others find great satisfaction in their careers.  They may be artists or creatives, scientists, carers of various types, even teachers!  Many remain in the system, as I did but that does not mean their choice was futile.

I can see why Kiyosaki’s approach is attractive.  It combines learning to play an exciting game and the security at the end of it.  His approach is actually based on his privileged education, with his Rich Dad.  That gave him an advantage and has led him through many cherished experiences.

But this does not make him better than all the others who have found ways to accommodate with the system, some more successful than others.  What inadvertently undermines his argument is his relationship with Donald Trump.  Trump is an unfortunate standard-bearer for the right.  He comes over as a blustering toddler with an overweening sense of entitlement.  His contempt for anyone he disapproves of, such as women, is well-known and he makes no secret of it during his current political campaign.

Should Investors be Taxed?

The right do not like being taxed because they have worked hard for their money and don’t see why they should pay it to governments who do not spend it as wisely as they would.

Even the Conservative Prime Minister in the UK, in her speech to the Tory Conference this week, was highly sceptical of their arguments against taxes.  She pointed out taxes pay for the infrastructure everyone uses to support their businesses and investments.  Someone who makes a lot of money does so through investments many people have made before them.

OK it may be clever and brave to spot a potential bargain, eg a house that might sell for below its real value.  It may be a risk to buy it outright (not always how they do it), put in tenants and wait for the price to go up.

Is the Prime Minister Right?

Let’s say you buy a house for £10K and its price goes up to £100K.  It may have been under-priced when you bought it and it may be overpriced now but you’ve made £90K.

I don’t have much of a problem with this but I do believe the transaction should be taxed.  The house didn’t pop up out of nowhere.  Someone built it, perhaps several decades ago; there would be nothing to invest in without their work.  It will be on a road and receive the usual services.  The fact is this sort of investment exists because of  the work of hosts of other people, perhaps over decades.

The investor speculates on its value.  I don’t object to them doing this but I do not agree their profit is solely the result of their enterprise.  Of course, it is impossible to estimate the contributions made by others that enable someone to make a large profit.  But the state is entitled to tax such transactions.

A Game of Cat and Mouse

I can see it is something of a game of cat and mouse.  There are many ways to protect funds from  tax authorities, by reinvesting them in various ways.  If we plan to maintain the freedoms we all take advantage of as we choose our life paths, we do to some degree need to compromise.

However, the world I want to see is one where entrepreneurs see their role as primarily their contribution to building their local economies.  Stable businesses, supported by investment may be ideally how we can build sustainable communities.

If an entrepreneur cannot point to how the world benefits from their success, perhaps there is something wrong?  Paying taxes is only one way they can do this but why not expect investors to contribute to the general good?  Remember many others make their contribution from within the system. For one reason or another they do not build up personal assets but that is no reason to treat them with contempt for not being clever enough.

It is worth reading Kiyosaki’s book because it will transform the way you hear news bulletins.  This sense of entitlement pervades modern politics and it helps to understand what politicians actually mean.  We need desperately a left or Green take on investment.  I’m sure some have tried.

Let me know what you think.

Wealth and Riches? What’s the Difference?

Last Friday, I explored the implications of Pareto for the local economy.  This principle suggests inequalities between neighbourhoods are inevitable.  What are the implications for a thriving marketplace in every neighbourhood?  In this post, I want to question this from a different angle by exploring differences between wealth and riches.

To do this I shall review the book “Rich Dad Poor Dad: What the rich teach their kids about money – that the poor and middle class do not!” by Robert T Kiyosaki.  This week I shall explore some positive insights from the book.  Next week I’ll explain where I disagree with it.

The author tells the story of what he learned about wealth from his own father and the father of a friend. The story is well-told and I have found since reading it, I hear what the wealthy say in a different way.  This worldview is new to me although not entirely unfamiliar.

Here are two important insights from the book; I encourage you to read it because there are many more.

The Importance of Learning

One welcome and not unfamiliar insight is learning is important.  The author suggests working to learn is far more important than working to earn.  The wealthy understand learning about how the world actually operates is important.  The more they know, the more likely they are to recognise financial opportunities when they encounter them.  And of course they know what to do to invest in them.

This immediately resonates with the observation marketing is essentially educational.  Most business people seek investment in their businesses, most often through their customers.  This may be particularly true for B2B customers, although I can think of non-business transactions that are also investments.

The point is most of us do not learn how money works at school or in our families.  Even accountants don’t understand it the same way as the wealthy do.  Once you understand the strategies wealthy people use, you can hear them talking about them in radio and TV interviews.

They see themselves as free spirits who do not subscribe to the rules the poor and middle classes follow.  There is a lot in this and I can empathise because I made a similar decision to abandon the rat race 30 years ago when I left my work as a research scientist for community development.

The problem for people who make similar decisions to mine is we do not usually buy into building our wealth.  Most are altruistic and then find later they have to abandon community development and opt back into the mainstream to fund their family.

There is a good deal of common ground between the radicals who opt for alternative employment and the wealthy who opt to build financial independence.  I’ll highlight where we part company in my next post.

Wealth or Riches?

We all know stories of people who win the lottery and in a few years have nothing left.  They were rich but not wealthy.  The wealthy person may not have a lot of money in their current account but can pay their bills.  The rich pay their bills but every time they do so, make themselves poorer.

Of course, the wealthy do this by building their investment portfolio.  They understand and trade in things like shares, real estate or intellectual property.  The wealthy spend time building and maintaining that portfolio.  They may not have a lot of ready cash but once their income from investments pays their bills, they are financially independent and therefore wealthy.

This is an important insight because it gives the lie to those who promise massive riches through some marketing scheme.  It is not the volume of income you receive from work so much as what you do with it.  The people who make large sums of money from their business may be rich but are they wealthy?  What would happen if their business failed?

But note it also means wise investment of funds means you actually don’t need to turn over vast sums of money.

This is what I meant last week when I suggested perhaps we’re asking the wrong question when we discuss inequality between neighbourhoods.  Of course some neighbourhoods will do very well and others less well.  But investment in our neighbourhoods is also important.

Wealth in the Local Economy

But how do we build investments for our neighbourhoods?  Do we rely on wealthy people to increase their own wealth and use it to invest locally?  Or do we create organisations that build assets, they can invest in their neighbourhood?

The last was the original purpose of development trusts, now often called social enterprises.  Their problem is they are not usually run by entrepreneurs and so fall back on what they know, namely dependence on grants.  When they own assets, it is usually a building in which they’re based.  Usually that building is a liability.

This suggests business people are crucial to local regeneration.  It is a pity they have been and continue to be marginalised.  Next time I’ll explain why I think that is, when I look at where I part company from Kiyosaki.

So, this is my question: is it possible to build an asset base in support of our neighbourhoods and the local economy?  If so, how?

The Power of Fascination

Everyone in business wants to draw their market’s attention and hold it.  For the small business person, stories are a powerful way of doing this.  They’re not the only way but perhaps the most accessible approach to promoting a distinctive offer.  But perhaps stories are not enough.  To draw attention is a start but you want to hold attention and turn it into action.  This is the power of fascination.

There are some ethical considerations here.  The world of marketing is full of attempts to manipulate markets.  The goal is sales and where sales are the sole aim, manipulation appears to be the only option.  This may seem to be a harmless irritant but actually a powerful story can become dangerous.  History is full of brilliant rhetoricians who became tyrants.

However, sales are a small part of marketing.  It is legitimate to have a good product or service, find your market and draw their attention to it.  We’ve all experienced the pushy salesperson who we have repeatedly to tell “No”.  Good marketing should avoid that by making a genuine offer that will really help  with some problem the prospect cannot solve on their own.

With a complex offer you need to draw and hold your prospect’s attention .  This allows for a conversation that will sometimes lead to a sale.  I have recently found public speaking can be a powerful way of doing this.  I’ll report back on how I followed up on this experience and the results at a later date but I’m hoping to build some good working relationships from this experience.  My aim is to have the marketing conversations and arrive at a decision to work together or else a positive “No”.

Fascination

Anyway, my aim today is to focus on fascination by reviewing a book by Sally Hogshead, “Fascinate: How to Make Your Brand Impossible to Resist“.  This is a revised edition of a book that has been around for a few years.  The revision is significant and took about 3 years.

The book is a good read and the real power in the writing comes from the way it deploys stories, dozens and dozens of them!  These stories alone are worth the price of the book.  They are not just entertaining but show many tactics businesses use to place their offers in the minds of the public.

As a result this is a book that will repay re-reading a few times to not only understand Hogshead’s principles of fascination but also to get a feel for how they might work for your business or cause.

Seven Advantages

Hogshead suggests there are seven advantages available to businesses.  These are strategies you can use to market your offers.  Some are approaches that immediately capture your market’s attention.  You can be innovative or passionate about your offer.  Here you, as it were, make a lot of noise and make sure everyone hears about you and your offer.

Alternatively, you may be more interested in a quiet, apparently unassuming approach.  You may have an old trusted brand or believe attention to detail.  Most people seeking insurance are not really that interested in razzmatazz – they want to trust you or believe you will exercise due diligence.

And quiet brands can be alluring; a little mystery can actually draw in customers who like that sort of thing.  Mystery can add prestige to a product or service.

You will note some things work better for established businesses, such as trust or prestige, while others might work better for new businesses.

Seven Tactics

The power of this approach lies in the ways you can combine the seven advantages.  So, if you are innovative you might use tactics inspired by trust to show how your innovations do not mean you will be here today and gone tomorrow.

Now, if you have seven advantages and they can each be combined with tactics inspired by the other six, you have 42 different approaches to branding your business.  This may be good news if you are looking for an approach that’s right for you, the chances are you might find one.  However, they can be somewhat daunting.

I recommend this book because it opens up a distinctive dimension to marketing, written by someone with significant experience in brand promotion.  However, it will leave you wondering where to go from here.  There is a supporting website and the option, I suppose, of contacting the author.  For my part I plan to read it again and work out how to digest it and apply it in my business.

What are the positive reasons for using fascination in marketing?  How can fascination help business owners enjoy their marketing?

Building Social Business

Muhammad Yunus is best known as founder of the Grameen Bank.  In his book “Building Social Business: The New Kind of Capitalism that Serves Humanity’s Most Pressing Needs”, Yunus introduces a new idea, the social business.

What is a social business?  The idea is a business as close as possible to conventional business, with one exception.  Investors can draw from the business only the amount of money they first invested in it.  So, if you invest £1000, you can draw only £1000 from the business.

The idea is social business challenges business owners’ motivation.  They are seeking not personal enrichment but effective ways of supporting the poor.  Yunus argues most social enterprises allow personal profit from investment.  Where profits are possible, owners may have conflicting aims.

Yunus first published this book in 2010 and it would be interesting to find out how the idea developed over the last five or so years.  The book has a rather distant tone and it took me a while to feel the enthusiasm but it does seem to be effective.  Yunus genuinely believes this approach could abolish world poverty in a few decades.  Whilst I’m somewhat sceptical, I can see social business is likely to make a big difference.

Two aspects of social business interest me:

Capitalism Misrepresents Human Nature

Yunus writes in his introduction on page xv:

The biggest flaw in our existing theory of capitalism lies in its misrepresentation of human nature.  In the present interpretation of capitalism, human beings engaged in business are portrayed as one-dimensional beings whose only mission is to maximise profit.  Humans supposedly pursue this economic goal in a single-minded fashion.

Both right and left hold this belief.  The left believes the priority is to oppose capitalism.  Sometimes they give little consideration to the size or local nature of business.  Others distinguish between local businesses and corporations who extract finance from local economies.  I suppose that is where I stand.

Politicians on the right, take profit maximisation as self-evident, a good thing and worth supporting in legislation.  Economists developed this one-dimensional model and they never intended it to be anything else.  Their assumption simplifies reality to enable modelling of the way the economy works.  The results of using this assumption to model the economy may be more or less accurate but it will always be approximate because human beings do not behave as this model predicts.

Corporations Invest in Social Business

Yunus provides several examples of corporations investing time and money in social businesses, where they expect to see social change and not to make a profit from their investment.  Yunus anticipates a parallel economy where social businesses grow the portion belonging to the poor and conventional businesses grow the portion belonging to the rich.

Whilst I welcome the very wealthy business people prepared to invest in social businesses, I don’t think Yunus appreciates fully the consequences of growing their portion.

Problems start where personal wealth outstrips business owners’ ability to spend their wealth.  This effectively removes wealth from local economies and concentrates it in financial markets.  The problem is in inequality, as the gap between rich and poor widens, the gap itself is the problem.

Social business may make the poor richer and to some degree close the gap but it does not tackle the systemic problem of inequality.  Immense wealth increases power and the temptation is always to use power to personal advantage.  When corporations take on government contracts, they usually lack transparency and become unavailable to democratic influence.

Whilst social business appears to be an effective way to tackle poverty, it cannot possibly address world poverty as a whole whilst corporations run things outside of democratic control.

Starting Locally

Yunus describes several social business projects and the inspiring thing about them is his approach to development.  Having a good idea is one thing, working out how to market it is another.  For example, arsenic poisons a lot of water in Bangladesh.  The effects are cumulative and take several decades to show up.

One village piloted a social business providing clean water.  The results were disappointing.  First, people were unused to paying for water, even though they set the price within range of the poorest families.  Also, the most vulnerable are women and children.  The men usually eat out and buy far more expensive bottled water and so do not need the clean water.  This alongside perceiving arsenic poisoning as a long-term problem, made take-up disappointing.

This shows the power of Yunus’ approach.  By starting in a single village he was able to find out the barriers to marketing the water.  The next step is to find ways around the barriers.  How do you market clean water under these circumstances?  Depending on the product, this period of testing can result in changes to the product, its packaging (especially size), its cost and maybe its mode of delivery.

Packaging for Different Markets

Sometimes different communities need the same product in different packages.  Urban and rural communities, for example.  The aim of piloting is to enable the offer of the same product in other communities with its marketing approach integral to the product.

This is an important insight.  Many good products fail because they are not marketed properly and usually the reason for this is the market is not understood.  No-one is going to argue that cheap clean water is a bad idea.  How do you sell it to a poor community and generate sufficient income to cover costs and expand the business?

This is a question any business has to answer. Yunus argues social businesses enable solutions to be entertained that benefit the poor because the pressure to enrich shareholders is absent.  The aim is to provide clean water to the poor and not generate profit for the rich.

Conclusion

Social businesses are a powerful tool and could be adapted for use in the West.  They encourage business people to invest in effective approaches to tackling poverty and many of them are willing to do so. I doubt they are likely to be effective on their own in tackling poverty because they do not address inequality.

I suspect Yunus is trying to present a model to corporations that enables them to make an effective contribution to tackling poverty.  To that extent what he says constrains him.  The effects of inequality on local economies and democracy are such that I doubt social business alone can have much impact.  As part of a wider democratic social movement they could be very effective indeed.

What do you think?  Do social businesses have a place in local economies in the UK?  Have you examples of experiments with social businesses anywhere in the world?

The Art and Science of Selling

Older readers will remember the adverts that began with a doorbell: “Ding Dong” and will immediately respond: “Avon calling”.  The point of the advert was to soften up the viewers for the “Avon Lady”, when she called.  How many have even noticed that practitioners of the art and science of selling on the doorstep have disappeared?  Very few people these days sell from door to door.

It seems doorstep selling began with the Fuller Brush Company in the United States.  They were the origin of the term “foot-in-the-door”.  Many companies, including Avon Cosmetics, copied the Fuller Brush Company and it seems a good salesperson was often a welcome visitor, building long-term relationships with their customers.  However, the current image is of the brash salesperson who will not take no for an answer.  Where have they gone?

It seems it’s the Internet what’s done for them!  Whether this is a blessing or a curse probably depends on whether you believe Internet sales are better or worse than doorstep sales!

Daniel Pink in his book “To Sell is Human: The Surprising Truth About Persuading Convincing and Influencing Others” (subtitle from 2014 edition) charts the decline of doorstep selling and the surprising rise of selling in general.  His point is not that Internet sales have usurped the place of doorstep sales but that we are all salespeople now.  Or most of us!

His argument is other changes apart from the rise of the Internet mean we are all practitioners of the art and science of selling now.  He highlights three trends that have led to this change.  The archetypal doorstep salesperson has given way to the professional who incorporates selling into their daily work and perhaps is not aware they are doing so.  I suppose it depends on how you think about your work.  I’ll mention his three main trends here and comment on how they relate to the local economy.

Entrepreneurs

Every local business is dependent on selling its product service or cause.  This is most obvious with retailers perhaps but there are plenty of self-employed freelancers who must learn how to sell.

The self-employed, who abandon employment to sell their skills and knowledge, are sometimes called the precariat.  Many are not very good at sales and barely cover their costs.  Many are not successful and either change their practice until they find something that works or go under.

The problem for many entrepreneurs is believing what they offer has real social value.  It is hard to sell something you don’t believe in.  Their failure to believe in their own offer does not necessarily correlate with what they offer.  For every brash salesperson selling something over-hyped there is the too timid entrepreneur who never quite convinces about something that is really rather good!

Successful businesses usually find a business community who offer support and bolster confidence to sell.  Whilst some businesses could benefit from a healthy dose of brashness, perhaps it is quiet confidence in a good product or service that ultimately wins out.  And perhaps many businesses would benefit from other businesses singing their praises!

Selling in the Community

Community and voluntary organisations are often in a similar place to local businesses.  They may be selling a cause and so they are not necessarily seeking finance but they are still engaged in sales.  Perhaps the main difference between these organisations and local businesses is that usually, they are not dependent on the success of their enterprise.  People promoting a local cause will often do so in their spare time, whilst remaining in employment.

Leaving aside possible clashes with their employers over the cause they promote, the primary difference may be lack of experience.  Many will think of their selling as promoting a cause or campaigning and do not associate it with the marketing local businesses do.

Nevertheless, there is a lot of common ground and perhaps mutual recognition and sympathy would lead to more collaboration.  Businesses may be able to help organisations with marketing, whilst some community organisations may have valuable local knowledge.

Elastic Businesses

Entrepreneurs can find they are marketing alongside representatives from more established businesses.  These are not from the sales department because many larger businesses have done away with their sales departments, flattened hierarchies and declared that everyone is responsible for sales.  Many workers find their role stretches to cover far more than they would in the past and everyone has some role in promoting their company.

Selling through your role in your business is increasingly your responsibility.  If in promoting your role, you bring more customers to the business it is all to the good.

Many workers are waking up to the fact that they belong to a community.  It may be local, perhaps a city or region or it may be online.  They are part of a community, customers and collaborators who may bring customers to the company.  The challenge is to navigate the sea of people who seem to be creative on a shoestring.  Building relationships with entrepreneurs, third sector and in business, can bring greater benefits to larger companies.

Education and Medicine

Pink’s point here is that not all selling involves money.  The aim is to persuade others to take a course of action for their own benefit.  So, a teacher needs to sell learning to their pupils or students.  A doctor needs to persuade patients to change their diet to help them return to health.

By extension just about any activity needs a sales approach.  Community and voluntary organisations often find they are marketing a cause.   They may want donations or time or members or signatures or letters to MPs.  How do they move people to support their cause?

Sample Cases

After he makes the case that selling is a natural part of being human, Pink goes on to show how it can be done.  This is the best part of the book, as Pink describes the characteristics of a good salesperson and suggests practical exercises to improve their approach to sales.

Sample Cases follow each chapter, practical things anyone can take up and use.  So, this is essentially a practical book packed with simple tools anyone can use.  I suspect it is something I shall return to many times.

If you are active in local marketing you will find this book a useful practical guide to the art of selling.

Are you comfortable with being a salesperson?  If you are in any business or profession, you are almost certainly expected to sell things.  How do you go about it?

Theonomics

Over the last couple of Fridays I have reviewed “Theonomics: Reconnecting Economics with Virtue and Integrity”, edited by Andrew Lightbown and Peter Sills.

Two weeks ago, I questioned a phrase quoted from Pope Leo that calls the nature of common ownership into question.  Last week, I looked in-depth at the contribution St Benedict offers to our understanding of community.

This is not an easy book to review. The problem is not so much particular chapters, some are interesting and challenging but the idea there is such a thing as theonomics.

Christians and Usury

Some time during the late middle ages, the Christian faith abandoned its condemnation of usury.  Presumably this was around the time capitalism became the dominant economic model.  I suspect from this point the Christian faith could no longer lay claim to a distinctive position on the economy.

Islam still maintains the ban on usury. It has developed approaches to funding businesses and financial institutions that do not involve charging interest.

At the time Christianity abandoned usury, early capitalism offered a radical departure. It promised to enrich all by allowing ordinary people to become wealthy and not concentrate wealth in the hands of the aristocracy.  Despite the religious divisions of the time (several centuries!), the churches completely adopted capitalism. Only a few sects distance themselves from the economy, eg the Amish.

It is hard to adopt a radical stance to the economy, when you have a stake in an inherently unfair system.  This is not in any way to devalue the ideas in the book but it is to question the value of labelling it as theonomics.  Most of the values in the book can be found elsewhere.

Virtue

Perhaps one of the most searching ideas in the book is that of Virtue.  The book contrasts virtue with values.  Everyone in business is aware of values.  They are self-selected values and standards that we claim shape our work.  They can be chosen as self-serving attributes for a business or organisation.  So, you may genuinely believe in your commitment to honesty in your dealings but in practice are you?

Virtue is an external quality we are born with and it enables us to live a virtuous life.

“Virtue is the agent of inner change and growth, and the pursuit of virtue gives us a moral strength to live by higher qualities and standards than those that simply serve our self-interest.” (Page 70)

The idea of virtue relates to Benedict’s teaching in a monastic context. The point of the monastic community is to develop people not so much for their skills as their character.  The point is of course bad faith governs economics today.

Capitalism in Good Faith

Does this mean capitalism is always bad faith economics?  It depends on which alternatives you count as capitalism.  Mostly alternatives to mainstream capitalism are reforms of capitalism, not really alternatives to it.  Capitalism in good faith is possible although an economic system governed by good faith would be nothing like the system we have now or indeed many of the so-called alternatives we have seen.

Whilst welcome, the book’s insights raise the question whether most churches have surrendered virtue to the prevailing economic system.  When the banks are able to survive the 2008 financial crisis at the expense of just about everyone, when financial decisions made every day take wealth out of the economy, concentrating it in the hands of barely 1% of the world’s population and at the same time banks will not make loans to poor people on the specious grounds that they are unable to repay them; whither virtue, character or integrity?

You don’t need to be a Christian to see there is something seriously wrong in a society that allows this to happen.  Some of the most effective approaches to tackling poverty through alternative financial systems have in fact originated in Islam and I shall return to this in a few weeks time.

Christians can and do make a positive contribution to the economy, challenging its excesses and devising alternative economic systems.  But it’s a long time since it was possible to claim a single view from the Christian faith.

Still this book is a significant attempt to find some common ground and if it fails to convince, I would not want stop the search.  You never know what might be uncovered in the next book!

Do you believe faith contributes significantly to economic debate?  What roles do people of faith have in economic systems?

St Benedict in the Marketplace

About ten years ago, BBC2 broadcasted a short series called the ‘The Monastery’.  Six men lived in a monastery for a month, adopting the same discipline as the monks.  The monastery was Worth Abbey and the Abbot Father Christopher Jamieson (I believe he still is).  The programmes had quite an impact at the time and Jamieson said many business people contacted him seeking spiritual guidance.  Not all of them were Christians and many had not previously heard of St Benedict, who first wrote the rule that governs Worth Abbey many centuries ago.

There have been other similar programmes since and Jamieson published a book, Finding Sanctuary.  It had a secular imprint because Jamieson wrote it for everyone, not just believers.  It sold out during the first week of publication.  I think that was in 2006, the edition available from Amazon is dated 2008.  (I’ve pasted in a link to the book, in case you’re interested but I am not reviewing the book in this post.)

I am returning to Theonomics, the book I started to review last Friday, when I commented on one short passage from the book.  Today, I shall review one chapter from the book and next week finish by reviewing the whole book.

Chapter 3 on page 37 is “A Framework for Flourishing” by Alan Hargrave.  This chapter is about the Rule of St Benedict and its relevance to business.

Think about religious communities as models of ideal communities.  They are not ideal communities, far from it but places where their members make a conscious effort to live in community.  Benedictine communities follow a rule developed by St Benedict where the community members make three vows.  These vows are not poverty chastity and obedience but obedience stability and transformation (Conversatio Morum).

Here is my take on these three vows; we can all consider them when building local marketplaces.

Obedience

Obedience is not what you might think.  The Latin root of the word means to listen.  The obedient person pays attention and acts accordingly or appropriately.  So, the opposite of obedience is not disobedience but absurdity, acting without reason.

There are those who cannot read the signs of the times and so act inappropriately, not even in their own long-term interests.  Climate change deniers spring to mind.  It seems no evidence will convince them.

I recently wrote a post about Prayer in the Marketplace, wherein I suggested prayer is paying attention.  Obedience is not doing what you’re told but paying attention and acting appropriately.

Stability

It’s where your feet are.  That is the important thing to remember.  This vow is about choosing a neighbourhood and commiting to it.  Your chosen neighbourhood is not better than anywhere else because all places are worth  commitment from those who live there.

Our neighbourhoods are desperate for people who commit to them on the behalf of others, who seek sustainable approaches to the issues of their chosen places.  Community depends upon incarnation, the real presence of those who live there.

Transformation

Scholars tell us Conversatio Morum is difficult to translate.  A close literal meaning is conversion of life but as such it implies an individualistic focus on self-improvement.

Perhaps it is better thought of as a commitment to conversion of life in general, for everyone.  The important thing is an opportunity for everyone to meet their potential;  removal of constraints on human development, such as poverty.

The Radical Agora, marketplaces at the heart of revitalised neighbourhoods, places where community happens, is one way of visualising how conversion of neighbourhood life might look.

The point is the Radical Agora cannot happen if this vision of transformation is all we have.  We need obedience and stability too.

Do you think Benedict speaks to our communities today?  If you have a view, please share it in the comments.

What is Common Ownership?

My grandparents’ generation understood common ownership.  Even in the early 2000s, they would proudly quote their membership number when you mentioned the co-op.

It is only in relatively recent times that membership of the co-op has come to mean very little.  In days when every supermarket has a loyalty card, the co-op divi makes little difference and can be worse as in recent years there’s been no dividend.

At one time the divi made a real difference to the household budget.  And shopping at the co-op guaranteed low prices and good quality.  All of these were benefits of common ownership.

Theonomics

The reason I’m raising this issue is the book I shall review over the next few Fridays.  “Theonomics: Reconnecting Economics with Virtue and Integrity”, edited by Andrew Lightbown and Peter Sills contains essays about economics by Christian practitioners.  The papers vary in quality but it is a helpful snapshot of the thinking going on in the churches.

I’ll take a look at the more inspirational papers next time but this time, I want to respond to this passage from Peter Sills’ paper “A Christian Framework for Economics”.  He quotes Pope Leo’s concerns for poverty in the capitalist system and then we find this passage:

“Pope Leo’s social concern is an expression of the divine concern for the poor rather than a political manifesto, and he was equally critical of socialism, particularly its advocacy of common ownership which he saw as destroying the natural right of property.”  (Page 22) (Rerum Novarum, Leo’s encyclical,  published in 1891.)

I’m not particularly concerned about defending socialism, a somewhat varied collection of beliefs.  To praise or condemn socialism, it is usually helpful to explain which particular version of socialism you are praising or condemning.

Neither do I praise or condemn the “natural right of property”.  People do own property and I’m not aware of any political system that does not endorse a right to private ownership of property unless it uses totalitarian methods to enforce some alternative.

State Ownership

Pope Leo was writing long before the Soviet Union and so it is difficult to know exactly what he meant.  In the twentieth century we saw several experiments forcing populations to give up private property in favour of “common ownership”.  But what we saw was not common ownership but state ownership.

I am in favour of state ownership where it is appropriate.  The state must own the NHS, for example,  to deliver free health services to the population.  Paying for the NHS through taxation is the best method we have been able to find.  It is hard to imagine any advantages to moving the NHS into common ownership.

Common Ownership and Private Enterprise

The point is different activities need to be supported appropriately.  Common ownership is not the same as state ownership.  Common ownership is where customers or workers own an enterprise.  So, for example, John Lewis’ workers own the company.  Those workers also own their own property.  When they receive a dividend from the business it is theirs to spend as they wish.  Whilst I’m sure this approach is consistent with some versions of socialism, it does not follow that all those employed by John Lewis are socialists!

Common ownership is an approach to economics embedded in a system where everyone owns private property.  In a system that optimised common ownership (this would mean common ownership of most established businesses) there would still be some state ownership, eg the NHS, and there would still be private ownership.

Every household would own property, some financed through common ownership.  But more important there would still be private businesses.  And the place where they would be found is locally!  Small businesses, privately owned are an efficient way of testing new ideas.  There is work and expense in  setting up common ownership and for a lot of new businesses, it is more economically efficient to test a new business at its owners’ risk.

The time to decide to create a co-operative or social enterprise, or use any other beneficial business model, is once you have a business.  These days successful businesses are usually incorporated.  It would be good to see more proven businesses exploring alternative pathways with elements of common ownership.

The Common Good?

Pope Leo went on to say:

“develop the idea of the ‘common good’ as a positive duty ‘to make sure that the laws and institutions, the general character and administration of the commonwealth shall be such as to produce of themselves public well-being and private prosperity.”  (page 22)

Sills goes on to show how the Catholic Church developed these ideas during the twentieth century.  My question for Pope Leo is: how does he intend to deliver on his light-weight concept of the common good without common ownership?

Common ownership is the road less travelled.  It is rarely advocated by politicians or theologians even though it offers “public well-being and private prosperity”.

Fundamentalist Economics

Is it true scientists and engineers are more prone to being recruited as jihadis?  Paul Vallely in his Guardian article, Are scientists easy prey for jihadism? suggests maybe it is.  This is not an easy question to answer but perhaps we see  fundamentalist economics at play here!

Engineers solve convergent problems.  These can be highly complex but if you crunch the numbers, the likelihood is they will converge on one or a few answers.  Furthermore, once you get it right, others can reproduce your answers and there may be consensus about the correct answer.

This approach contrasts with divergent problems where more information leads to increasing numbers of answers.  There is no right answer and so everyone has to choose the answers they want to run with.  This means answers are contested and any consensus will be provisional.  The arts and humanities generate divergent problems.

Vallely’s article suggests someone has studied mainly convergent problems might seek convergent answers in all disciplines.  This leads to a fundamentalist mindset, where there is one answer and everyone who disagrees is being deliberately obtuse.

I have two problems with this view:

Are Scientists and Engineers really More Prone to Fundamentalism?

Vallely suggests this problem may originate in universities in the Middle East.  This could be so.  However, if the problem is with convergent problem solving, then any student in engineering or science disciplines would be vulnerable.

First, whilst I appreciate scientific disciplines may be taught in such a way that only convergent problems count, it simply is not true that all scientific problems are convergent.  Indeed physicists sometimes adopt a mystical worldview as they probe the mysteries of relativity and quantum mechanics.

I can appreciate some people who work in IT might see all problems as convergent.  Certainly many people treat website design as if it is!  A moment’s reflection would show website design is far more a human than a technical challenge.  They are communication tools and so good design addresses the infinite range of human perceptions.

Surely, the problem is the other way round?  Many religious people do not understand science.  The fundamentalist mindset is attracted to a worldview where both science and religion produce single correct answers.

Take a look at this passage from Vallely’s paper:

What Rose has done is to highlight three specific traits that characterise the “engineering mindset”: first, it asks “why argue when there is one best solution?”; second, it asserts “if only people were rational, remedies would be simple”; and third, it appeals to those with an underlying craving for a lost order, which lies at the heart of both salafi and jihadi ideology.

These are traits of fundamentalist thinking.  Vallely is right when he says it depends on how scientific subjects are taught.  Correlation does not necessarily imply causation.  Fundamentalists attracted to engineering are just as likely as engineers becoming fundamentalists.

Here’s a cartoon about Religion, Science and the Fundamentalist Mindset.

It is an Economic Problem

So, what explains this correlation (if it exists)?  I think the clue is right at the end of Vallely’s article:

But they will need something that cannot come from western cultural experts. What the report omits to point out is that students will require input from others within their faith – to open up to them the richness of the Islamic traditions that constituted the religion before the arrival of oil-rich salafi fundamentalism.

The key word is “oil-rich”.  Fundamentalism is divisive because it promotes superiority for those who are right and  traditionally wealth is the primary indicator of who is right.

Neo-liberal economic systems treat economics as a science.  When I was at university in the 1970s, economics was a part of the social sciences and as a real scientist, I looked down on social sciences as a subject that had pretensions to scientific rigour.

Certainly, some social scientists envy science’s clarity.  But economics is a divergent system.  Whilst it is possible to play the system if you have enough wealth or power, it still depends on multiple human interactions.

The wealthy use the power of wealth to control others.  Fundamentalism is one way of doing this.  Islamic State (you know who I mean) opposes the West, not because they are different but because they are similar.  The neo-liberal state is a direct competitor to their power base.

Most of us don’t have a stake in this rivalry.  Refugees and those killed as a result of terrorist attacks in the West are victims of a proxy war between two competing ideologies.  The wealthy have a lot to defend and can afford the weapons.

We’re often told IS is not Medieval because they use the Internet and modern warfare but the rich and powerful have always been with us.  They’ve always dealt in certainties because it allows them to divide the world into good and evil.

Vallely is right about the richness of Islamic traditions.  The best in all the religious traditions favours supporting ordinary people who simply want to make a living in the world.

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