We should teach the principles of commerce to young kids

One of the greatest brakes on people’s success is their lack of social capital. I have seen this in action at the university where I teach. The students who come in knowing how to start businesses, seek internships and network have a huge advantage over those who haven’t been given those skills or exposed to those ideas earlier.

It’s a question of familiarity. Even if the university were to start teaching students about entrepreneurship and financial management, it is too late for most. By university, those young people are way ahead, who were, as children consistently exposed to those foundational principles of business and money as part of the fascinating puzzles of everyday life. For the students who have know them since childhood, those principles will have critically shaped and coloured the way they view the world. Rather than seeing commerce as forbidding, they see it as an opportunity.

We live in a commercial world. The market and business make most of the things that we do, the services we use and the jobs we get happen in Canada. Whether it is directly, through commerce, or indirectly through the tax revenues generated through commerce.

To understand commerce and business and entrepreneurship at an early age allows kids to have a critical look at the business and services they encounter at an early age. When they go to a restaurant, rather than just buying a sandwich, sitting down an eating it, they could look at the product, the location, the furnishings in the store, the quality of the materials and the service and start deducing what the restaurant’s business model might be.

This is an entirely different way of viewing the world. All of a sudden, even the mundane experience of buying a hot dog from a street stand becomes a puzzle: is this a good location? How many hotdogs does this stand move? How could performance be improved?

I was extremely fortunate to have been born into a family where business, entrepreneurship and finances were discussed openly and cheerfully, even if the news was sometimes bad. We discussed how to turn a chance to spend money at a store into a way that one could make money, if one could buy the product more cheaply elsewhere and resell it for a profit. We talked about how restaurant eating was vastly more expensive and often lower quality than a much cheaper home-cooked meal.

Not only is this knowledge practical, it turns what would otherwise seem like a world of closed doors into a world of challenges, puzzles and opportunities.

The problem is that many families do not have the knowledge and experience of business, entrepreneurship and finance to pass on to their kids. If we really want to make a serious dent in Canada’s alleged productivity gap, I think the real answer is simple: make commercial awareness a part of the curriculum from junior kindergarten until the end of university. This should not replace reading the classics, learning mathematics and music, or science or practicing drama and public speaking. Rather, business should be a literacy taught alongside these other literacies. Even if they chose not to become business people, they will understand the workings of the world in which they live and work.

In our capitalist society, teaching little kids about business, entrepreneurship and financial literacy is the greatest and most empowering gift of social capital we could give to the next generation, bar none.


Breaking out of the internet echo chamber

We live in a culture that favours the similar. As the internet permeates all the corners of the many rooms of the palaces of our lives, a perverse thing appears to be happening: our worlds are becoming smaller and more homogenous. Facebook sends catered advertising and posts to our feeds, reinforcing what we already like. We post discussions on social media and use them to triage our friends: people who present us with uncomfortable opinions are quickly defriended, as we shake our heads and wonder what we were ever thinking when we connected with that person.

In short, the internet is turning our online communications into an echo chamber, where the views that we understand and are comfortable with morally, ideologically, culturally and socially. The odd thing is that we can be cultural tourists on the net, visiting sites that express alternative views and reading or viewing content that challenges us. However, the culture of surveillance that has been revealed through Snowden’s communications and others, have made us doubt even this anonymous grazing: Are am I being watched as I read the alternative press? Who watched me watch a radical documentary on YouTube?

All of this is very unfortunate. The initial promise of the internet was that it would open the world to us. However, we are letting social pressure and the threat of being outed as not quite fitting into “our profile” or “character” to drive our behaviours. In the past, we struggled to be free thinkers because that was the highest status behaviour in a robustly individualistic West: we didn’t talk politics, religion or sexuality because those things were personal. Now, we have shifted from a culture of individualism-within-community to a culture of identity and belonging. The problem with identity is that it means you are always defining yourself against a stereotypical ideal, not by your wits, reason and personal ingenuity.

We are so far along this path of “belonging to an identity” that we find it strange when someone doesn’t fit any particular identity or choses not to. It feels heretical to hear a person say that they don’t define themselves according to the stereotypes that we are used to.

I think the challenge that this poses to us is simple: put ideology and identity behind us to return to a culture of reason and self-examination. Reason doesn’t preclude belonging to a religion, cultural group, gender or political party. Rather, reason forces us to justify our choices for belonging to these groups or supporting them – rather than blindly identifying with and swearing allegiance to them.

Life is concrete – it made up of the daily decisions we make: Will I be kind to each person I meet today? Will I be helpful to others and unselfish with my time? Will I empathize and attempt to help others grow so that we might both grow together? Will I analyze each appeal for my allegiance individually to see if I really buy the premise?

The internet has, sadly, turned into an echo chamber that reflects our expressed ideas back to us and then bombards us with reinforcement of them through catered advertising and a personalized feed.

Try breaking out of the echo chamber by applying reason to each of your digital choices. You may just find it liberating.

Charles Eames, “good design”, and communications strategy

I have been paying a lot of attention to the work of Ray and Charles Eames, the famous designers who built so many beautiful pieces of furniture, accessories and toys, mostly for Herman Miller. They had a remarkable career of innovation, designing such classics as the Eames Lounge Chair and Ottoman, the Hang-it-All, the Eames Chair, etc. Not only that, they designed extraordinary toys such as the House of Cards. “Take your pleasure seriously,” said Charles Eames.

Eames also had a healthy attitude toward design. He told the chairman of Herman Miller, Hugh Dupree, talking about “good design”. Charles Eames said, “Don’t give us that good design crap. You never hear us talk about that. The real questions are: Does it solve a problem? Is it serviceable? How it is going to look in ten years?” Here is a snippet of video related to this:

He makes an excellent point here that is relevant to communications management. As communications managers, we talk a lot about good strategy and design, but the problem is that those terms, while they are well defined in terms of management theory by people like Peter Drucker and Roger Martin, are pre-conceptual in communications management. 

What do I mean?

It’s simple, really – to be able to say that something is good, it means that you are judging it against a model or against a set of well-defined parameters. Eames rejects the idea of a holistic “good” evaluation of design, preferring to ask pragmatic questions about specific qualities of the design. He says this because his target audience is people… the range of interpretations of good design in the subjective realms of the minds of his audience is as varied as there are members of the audience, for sac person’s mind is the product of their individual genetics and personal experiences. So rather than aim at “good design”, he aims to solve specific problems for people, create a serviceable product that will stand the test of time. Very human solutions.

Communications managers face the same challenges that Eames faces when designing furniture or works of art for the home and office: we are dealing with the fundamentally subjective perceptions of a massively varied set of publics, regardless of what client we represent or which organization we communicate for. Thus, strategy for communicators must incorporate design, for design makes ideas, things, living spaces and communities pleasing to people, but I suggest that when we design a communications strategy we ask ourselves the same three questions:

  • Are we solving a well-defined problem in a measurable way (qualitative or quantitative)?
  • Will people find our communications serviceable (useful, enriching, engaging, pleasing, convincing, etc.)?
  • Will our strategy help to build the brand in a way that will still resonate in the future (is the strategy sustainable or cumulative, rather than contextually-limited fix)?

Managing your manager

I have been reading Drucker quite a bit as part of a research project the last few days. In Managing Oneself [pdf]I found the following gem:

“Bosses are neither a title on the organization chart nor a “function.” They are individuals and are entitled to do their work in the way they do it best. It is incumbent on the people who work with them to observe them, to find out how they work, and to adapt themselves to what makes their bosses most effective. This, in fact, is the secret of “managing” the boss.”

There is a lot of truth in this quote. It is easy to cop out and say that it is impossible to work for or with a new boss. For example, if you previous boss was very polite and constructive in their comments to you and your new boss is more abrupt, it is easy to simply write the person off as demeaning or aggressive. This may not be so – it may simply  be that the new boss is more direct and aggressive, which could actually have significant benefits, if you take the time to discover them and think about them. The same advice goes for troubling colleagues – everyone has a something to add to the conversation, a talent, a skill, a unique point-of-view.

Through your career, particularly as a PR or communications manager, you will have to deal with a great diversity of people. Get used to probing them to understand what the key to making them more effective is. That way you will be a net contributor and not perceived as a bad fit with the new team.

Please Note: This assumes that the new manager or the troubling colleagues are dealing with you in goodwill and in good faith. You have to ascertain whether this is the case as early on as possible. If they are operating in bad faith or lack goodwill, then you are playing in a whole new ballgame – it might be time to put your head down and stay out of the way, or to start looking for a new position in a more positive environment.

Drucker’s “Managing Oneself” applied to communications management

I was recently perusing the archives of the Harvard Business Review and came across a classic piece by management theorists Peter Drucker, On Managing Oneself [pdf].

Even though it was written in 1999, before the social media and mobility revolution took off,  this chapter from his prescient book, Management Challenges for the 21st Century, seems more relevant than ever.

His main point is that to build a life of excellence at work and at home, you should ask yourself these questions:

  • What are my strengths?
  • How do I work?
  • Where do I belong?
  • What can I contribute?

The answers to these questions are neither simple nor intuitive for many. We are trained, especially as communications managers, to think in terms of our job description and our role as implementers.

Here are my interpretations of how Drucker’s questions could be applied to communications management:

  • Strengths. We define our strengths in terms of how we match the job we are supposed to do, rather than for our profound understanding of the organization’s story and how that story is related to brand, relationships, reputation and trust.
  • Work. We define our productivity in terms of how good we are at the tactical implementation of someone else’s ideas. Communications managers are often the only people in an organization who have a true “whole organization” perspective on how a management decision will resonate, internally to the organization and externally in the public. Think of BP, where legal was consulted instead of communications – it took over 60 days for BP to communicate with the public and that communication, delivered in the form of full-page ads in major newspapers, was written in legalese.
  • Belonging. We accept the idea that we belong in a service role, implementing and publicizing ideas we had no part in developing – ideas that were developed by the senior executive team. Communications managers, having the “whole organization” perspective, should be providing counsel on the strategic management decisions being made – simple errors that can have negative impact on trust can thus be averted. Think of the guest workers decision at Royal Bank in 2013.
  • Contributions. We judge our contributions in terms of efficacy instead of strategy. When communications managers set up metrics programs, it is important to remember that you should be measuring “measurable strategic objectives” and not “tactical outputs”. Metrics do tell the story of your work to colleagues and managers, but only if they are well-chosen. Many of the old metrics used by communications managers are oriented towards output, which is only a measure of tactical efficacy (eg. number of press releases, tweets, newspaper mentions, etc.), not strategic thinking.


Time is a Luxury

When we are children, we think that time stands still. As adults, we think it races. What does this mean about how we should organize our lives… should we live for the present or for the future?

Children anticipate the passage of time, looking forward to the end of the day, the end of the week, the next birthday. They play games and sports to while away the time, engaging in idle conversation and waiting for the next life milestone, which seems to come so slowly! I remember the salad days of childhood, when I would go for long walks with my father, walks which seemed to last forever – we’d talk about everything under the sun, jumping from topic to topic as we identified trees, grasses and animal tracks. I realize now how much I loved those hikes – more importantly, I realize now why I loved them.

I love them because the were each full of promise and freedom. I didn’t feel the constraint of time or obligation holding me back, worrying me. All I felt were sunlit paths that meandered through the woods in the Hockley Valley, King Township or Parry Sound. I didn’t worry about the future, I looked forward to it. Now, I realize what I regret about those walks… I now regret the fact that sometimes I was hurried, that I wanted time to go more quickly, that I thought that somehow the present was inferior to a more glorious future. Would that those fleeting moments of impatience were never part of my experience.

Now, as I enter my 40s, I realize how precious every day is. How I should be trying to savour each positive moment and not live in anticipation of a distant future. It’s true that it’s important to plan, but I have learned that once you put the plans in place and structure what you need to in your life, you should put the plan down and pay attention to the present that surrounds you. Otherwise, you will live in the dreamworld of a future that will never come!

So, my advice to you: be strategic, know your limits, plan and then relax and enjoy the journey, day by day, conversation by conversation, friendship by friendship.

Why religion is practical

We make a lot out of the spiritual and moral sides of religion, but rarely do we discuss the practical value it adds to our lives. I thought I would spend a few moments discussing what Catholicism, my religion, brings to my everyday life.

Closer family ties. I was born into a blended Catholic-Orthdox family. As such, I enjoyed two Christmases, two New Years and all of the lovely Orthodox holidays such as Name Days and Family Slavas. They were a chance to get to really build relationships with my extended family – that’s one of the reasons that I am so close to my cousins. We share those happy evenings of wonderful food, foot hockey in the basement and building forts out of chairs and pillows while our parents drank Turkish coffee and talked about politics and business. They were salad days whose memory lives on the strong bonds and common outlook that I feel with my cousins and uncles.

Personal calm and healthy perspective. The religion I practice everyday is Roman Catholicism. It brings me many things related to physical and mental health, peace and serenity. I pray everyday – that doesn’t mean mindlessly running through memorized verses. Not at all. Rather, it means taking a moment to talk to God and the Saints. I think while I pray, reflecting on my impact on the lives of others, how I can be a better, more productive, more helpful person.

Stable community. Another benefit of religion is community and companionship. I find much solace in the fact that I can go to my church, St. Ann’s in Ancaster on Sundays, at least, and see familiar faces, hear the news from people’s families and spend a moment in idle conversation with a visiting priest. It’s a lovely way to experience a stable and supportive community outside of work.

Physical health and detox. The final practical benefit, fasting, I would like to highlight is directly related to physical health. I fast during Advent, the period leading up to Christmas; and during Lent, the period leading up to Easter. Fasting helps me lose weight, detoxify my body and reset my metabolism. Depriving myself of addictive sweets, meat, caffeine and alcohol is a reminder that I should not live a life of excess. It also makes me savour those tasty things in small quantities when I can eat and drink them again.

So there you have it. A few practical reasons to practice a religion.