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A home for the Conscious Business community in the UK


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Business for personal growth?

I said in my last post that business was a powerful means to develop and grow people. I have been mulling this a lot lately, and have been wondering what it would mean if that was the entire purpose of business?

I can certainly see my own experience in that way. Working in business has brought me more challenges than pretty much anything else in my life. Firstly, the challenge of making a living. Secondly, learning to interact with all sorts of different types of people. Thirdly, doing all sorts of things I never would have imagined myself capable of.

Maybe that shows what a sheltered life I have led; but it truly has been challenging. Even balancing the demands of work with the rest of my life has stretched me physically, mentally and emotionally.

And yet at the same time it’s been a very safe place to learn. Scary at times, yes, but ultimately there has been little threat to life and limb.

Along the way I have also come to very much admire the people who run small and medium-sized businesses. It seems to me that they take more real risks than those in big business. In a well-salaried, very senior position in a large corporation, yes, you can learn a lot. And yes, you can lose your job. But you are unlikely to lose your house, or your personal reputation. You’re just too well cushioned by salary, savings and a network that protects its own.

Small business owners by contrast sometimes do lose everything, including their reputations with friends and family, and have to start again. There are few golden parachutes in the small business world.

But back to the purpose of business. I know what I am suggesting is not for everybody. Some people do simply want to make money out of business. Others want to do something really, really worthwhile. But for others, including myself, I think the goal is actually personal development and growth.

That may seem rather selfish. But I guess life ultimately belongs to each and every one of us. And we each have a choice to make, between what psychologists call hedonic and eudonic goals.

With the former we choose to make pleasure and joy our aim; and we avoid pain.

I understand the latter to be more about achieving a sense of fulfilment: a life well led, with real purpose and meaning, good relationships, good self-esteem and feelings of competence and self-control.

If this is your life goal, then why not make small business your training ground?

It will stretch you. You will need to learn new skills. You’ll need to become a specialist and a generalist – good enough at all things to be able to tell if you are wasting your own time and money.

You’ll need to be an expert in human relations. Money won’t always pave your way. So you’ll need to develop and rely on much more human strengths: passion, persistence, and the ability to persevere when others would give up.

You’ll need to learn new ways to lead – to help others discover their purpose and turn it into reality – often without recourse to coercive power.

And most of all it will force you to be really honest, to really be yourself; it’s hard to survive and thrive in small business if you adopt and hide behind a role. When things get tough you simply have to reveal yourself if you want to gain and build trust. Only honesty and trust will get you through the difficult times, and help you create something truly sustainable.

From this honesty and self-inspection you’ll also gain self-knowledge and self-esteem, and ultimately a sense of self-control and personal power.

Surely that’s worth shooting for?


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Why some people are more equal than others

I have recently been reading a great little book: The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett.

The title explains a lot of it. People living in more equal societies (they don’t say “equal”) do better on a number of important measures. And this is not just for poor people, which I guess is what a lot of us would imagine. It’s apparently true in general, including for the wealthier people amongst us.

We’re talking about rich countries here – ranging from the least equal: the US, the UK, Portugal and Singapore to the most equal, such as Japan, the Scandinavian countries, Belgium, Austria, Germany and so on.

The measures, and a big part of the book is the statistics and other evidence to support the case, include those on physical health, mental health, drug abuse, education, imprisonment, obesity, violence, teenage-births, and child well-being.

I guess these are all things, all of us, including the wealthy, would like to improve.

You can read more and join the campaign for change at the Equality Trust website. But something else that really interested was the link to climate change.

The authors suggest that in order to make climate change policies stick, it’s probably also essential that we increase levels of equality in our societies.

The logic of this is that inequality leads to envy and envy drives consumption. It’s a scary thought that even if heavier carbon taxes are introduced and we deploy ever more efficient energy technology, envy amongst individuals may still drive increasing consumption.

Keeping up with the Joneses could still make us go and buy that new car, or go for that ever flashier holiday, whatever the environmental cost.

But what could I do personally to help reduce inequality?

Well, one simple idea is to give your money away. Philosopher Peter Singer’s suggestion on a percentage that we all give away to the developing world seems very reasonable. It’s a sliding scale – the wealthier your are – the more you give.

This has a benefit to the developing world, and, if you are one of the wealthier ones in the country you live in, will also help to reduce the inequality gap.

And secondly, promoting employee ownership seems a very good idea. This clearly helps with inequality, reducing the differential between highly paid “top team” employees and those on the front-line. And in my view, will also help with company performance as more people take more responsibility for the results they generate.


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Getting better all the time

Someone asked me last week what good management is. We were talking about people management. And  the exact question was “how will we know when we are good managers?”.

Perhaps rather glibly I said that I thought that good was a label and it was perhaps better to consider ourselves all in the process of learning to be better managers. I said that in my opinion management was very hard, and that while it was possible to get better, it was unlikely that anyone would get truly “good” at it, given the uniqueness, and the unique difficulties, of individuals and of human kind in general.

Reflecting on the question again later, I came up with three simple ways that I think I would use to measure good people management, in the context of a sustainable business, that is, one that is trying to last.

The first is retaining our self-respect as managers. “Managing people”, in my view, is a label for a particular type of relationship between two or more people. Relationships can be very hard if boundaries are not clear. Sometimes managers can be bullied, or at the very least rattled, by the results of the emotional turbulence or needs that the other person in the relationship has.

This is not good, for the manager, for the business, or for the person being “managed”. If the relationship becomes badly skewed, probably all parties will lose out.

Secondly, helping the business achieve its goals. I always try to remember that a business is not a therapy room. It may seem naive but, for me, a business is simply a group of people who have thrown their lot in together to achieve a common set of goals. Finding a compromise between using the business to help an individual to develop and grow personally, while focussing also on the good of the greater number seems to me to be essential. If sometimes the individual’s needs have to be sacrificed for the greater good, well, for me, that’s the right way to go.

Thirdly, retaining our imagination. Or at least enough imagination to believe that there is a better way, and that we just have to find it.

For me, a huge part of people management is about helping individuals in the company to learn, and to grow. Businesses are people. They are one and the same thing.

I love work and I love business. Mainly because it is grist to my personal development mill. It gives me something to work on, to worry over, to chew on. (I’d probably go quietly mad if left completely to my own devices.) And if I fail to truly engage with the relationships I have, perhaps by distancing myself emotionally from the people I work with, or by  falling back on management techniques I have used again and again, it’s just another way of quitting, of giving up on my own and the other person’s development (assuming they want it).

Having faith in people is essential to good management. Faith that working together we will find a way through. This is essential if we are to build businesses that are truly sustainable. For me, growing that faith, despite the inevitable setbacks and let downs that come from working with other people, is therefore perhaps the best success measure of all.