Speaking Franklin

We're not saying grab your kite and run out into a storm, but if you're cooking up entrepreneurial spirit, Ben's is the recipe to follow.
Magazine Contributor
11 min read

This story appears in the May 2000 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

Before he became a patriot and founding father, Benjamin Franklin was a manager. This information may surprise those who have come to associate the bespectacled statesman solely with the patriots who founded the United States of America. But Franklin is, without a doubt, one of the great figures in American history. He is also one of the great figures in American business history.

The United States closed the 20th century with the most vibrant economy on the planet. According to some, the roots of America's current business success lie in the principles embodied more than 200 years ago in the life of Franklin, the founding father of American business. His life exemplifies the innovation, technology and ingenuity that have propelled the American economy to unprecedented heights in recent years. What follows is an examination of one of his rules of management, an ideal for lifelong learning that is as pertinent to entrepreneurs today as it was in the 18th century.

"From a Child I was fond of Reading, and all the little Money that came into my Hands was ever laid out in Books. Pleas'd with the Pilgrim's Progress, my first Collection was of John Bunyan's Works, in separate little Volumes. I afterwards sold them to enable me to buy R. Burton's Historical Collections; they were small Chapmen's Books and cheap, 40 or 50 in all. My Father's little Library consisted chiefly of books in polemic Divinity, most of which I read, and have since often regretted, that at a time when I had such a Thirst for Knowledge, more proper Books had not fallen in my Way, since it was now resolv'd I should not be a Clergyman. Plutarch's Lives there was, in which I read abundantly, and I still think that time spent to great Advantage. There was also a Book of Defoe's, called an Essay on Projects, and another of Dr. Mather's, call'd Essays to do Good which perhaps gave me a Turn of Thinking that had an Influence on some of the principal future Events of my Life." -Benjamin Franklin

Blaine McCormick is a professor of management at Baylor University. He is currently writing a book about Thomas Edison for Entrepreneur Press, available at local and online bookstores and at Entrepreneur.com in 2001. You can contact him at Baylor University at (254) 710-2261 or at Blaine_McCormick@baylor.edu

The Key To Self-Education

Each semester I share with my students the simple but depressing message that much of their skill base will be obsolete by the time they graduate from college. Much of the content in traditional college business textbooks is at best one to two years behind market knowledge. How, then, can students close the gap between old knowledge and current knowledge? Here's the good news: I tell them that if we've done our job right as professors, then most of the self-education skills necessary to close the knowledge gap have already been instilled in them. Overcoming obsolescence is simply a matter of developing active learning habits in your professional life. This leads us to one of Franklin's managerial principles: All education is self-education.

Many influential business managers are avid readers, a surprisingly common characteristic among such Digital Age luminaries as Ted Turner and Bill Gates. Even in our "paperless society," which boasts such varied educational media as video-based learning, experience-based learning and Web-based learning, Gates still carves out two weeks every year for a private reading retreat in which he spends his days reading all the books he has set aside in the past year. In addition to this routine, Gates has acknowledged in interviews that he still tries to read books and magazines for an hour or so each day whenever possible.

Profiles of Genius (Prometheus Books) by Gene N. Landrum features 13 business leaders who have made their mark since 1950 in America and abroad. Signs of self-education appear in almost all cases. Only six finished college, and some never even finished high school. Almost all 13 business leaders profiled by Landrum exhibited an intense love of reading and reliance on reading as a self-education tool.

Benjamin Franklin's own success is attributed in part to his habit of reading, even though by today's standards, he may not have read many books. However, he began reading very early in his life, and his childhood home seemed to be an environment that encouraged reading and information-gathering.

Learning From Games

In addition to reading, Franklin seemed to benefit a great deal from playing board games that encouraged the development of strategic thinking. Late in his life he wrote a reflection, The Morals of Chess, on the lessons he learned from playing chess. In that brief essay, Franklin describes life as a sort of chess game in which rational thinking and experience pay big dividends. He discusses three lessons he had learned from playing chess and applies them to daily life and business activity.

His first lesson is foresight. That is, you are more likely to succeed in life and in business if you take time to consider both your own future activities as well as the future activities of your competitors. Even if your foresight is inaccurate, those who attempt it are more likely to survive and succeed than those who don't. A second lesson is that of caution. Both in chess and in life there are moves you make that you can't go back on. A little caution might save you from a lot of regret when choosing business partners, suppliers or workers. He called the final lesson circumspection. Circumspection simply means that you should consider the big picture before you make your move. Franklin suggests that it pays to look beyond your own narrow interests and consider other variables, like your competitor's interests or how the legal environment might influence your activities.

A Club For Mutual Improvement

Another important self-education tactic used by Franklin was a circle of friends called the Junto. Formal, structured gatherings of like- and unlike-minded individuals can make for some of the best self-education experiences you'll ever have. Note that it's a formal and structured gathering. Franklin and his friends didn't just gather over coffee and doughnuts on Friday mornings and hope that something interesting would happen. Rather, like much of Franklin's life, he had a specific plan for the self-education activity known as the Junto. Here's a closer look at the elements that contributed to the success of the group:

Designated meeting time. Franklin and his friends cleared their calendars each Friday evening for the meeting of the Junto. The group showed a remarkable amount of longevity and met continually from its inception in the fall of 1727 until 1757-a total of 30 years! It's a testament to Franklin's commitment to self-education that the Junto lasted as long as it did.

Carefully selected membership. The Junto was a secret and exclusive club. It was formed to provide a forum for poor, young, enterprising businessmen excluded from the more established and expensive merchants' club. The size of the Junto was limited to 12 members and remained so for three decades, despite the temptation to increase the group as its influence grew.

Clear purpose and structure formeetings. The Junto met for one purpose: the mutual improvement of the members. These members were expected to take turns preparing essays on points of morals, politics, philosophy and subjects of their own interest. The essays were read aloud in the meeting, and the ensuing debate was presided over by an appointed president.

Opportunity to express opinions. The Junto existed to provide its members a place to air their opinions and get feedback on them. Each member in his turn was responsible for developing a position paper (an essay promoting or opposing an issue in a particular field). Prior to the meeting the essays would be shared, and when the Junto convened, the other members would critique the author's opinion without trying to start a dispute. Further, extreme statements of agreement or disagreement were banned and fined. The result was a place where friends could gather and sharpen their views on important matters in a nonthreatening and highly educational environment.

Clear rules and penalties. Franklin was also wise enough to outline a few rules and penalties to govern the behavior of members. As a general rule, conversation in the Junto was to be undertaken with a " . . . sincere spirit of inquiry after truth." Although the autobiography never gives a definitive account of the other rules governing the Junto, it appears that penalties existed for tardiness, absenteeism, being too contradictory, being too agreeable and being unprepared. Not surprisingly, all penalties were monetary fines.

The Modern-Day Junto

The general principles governing Franklin's Junto can easily be applied to the modern business context. Just because something involves a group doesn't mean that it's not self-education. The key to self-education is personal initiative rather than doing it "all by myself." Franklin believed that if you learned only from yourself, you had a fool for a teacher. He believed that a good social network was essential to self-education.

To make Junto work for you, set up your own club with fellow managers or business owners. Follow Franklin's rules outlined above, commit to a formal structure and make sure you focus on mutual self-improvement rather than collusive self-enrichment.

The Self-Educating Company

Every business must do two basic things to ensure survival. First, all workers in a business must act in a coordinated fashion. That is, everybody must move in the same general direction for a business to compete effectively. Second, businesses must adapt to changing environments to survive, and adaptation comes only through the actions of people. These may be relatively obvious maxims, but the failure to implement them has brought down many businesses.

Here's an example of how self-education can coordinate the activities of a company and get workers moving in the same general direction: The CEO of People Express Airlines, Don Burr, wanted to create an organizational culture in which workers could easily understand and communicate to others. Simply put, he wanted to create a self-educating business. To do so, he threw out the rule books and boiled down company policy to six basic precepts: service, commitment to the growth and development of our people; to be the best provider of air transportation; to provide the highest quality of leadership; to serve as a role model for others; simplicity; and maximization of profits.

Burr then incorporated these six guiding precepts into a one-page document called "Leadership is Everything." Anybody wanting to make a culturally correct decision at People Express had only to recall these six guidelines and the information on the single-page policy manual-a very simple thing to do-and then apply them to the situation at hand. Burr's genius in this undertaking was not to avoid rules altogether, but to create a system of broad, easily remembered guidelines that every employee could recall and pass on to others.

Perhaps the above examples will prompt you to think seriously about self-education. As the rate of change in society continues to advance and information technology continues to improve, knowledge and skills will be obsolete more and more quickly. Without a plan for self-education, you'll be forced to rely on the generosity of others to keep up. Franklin knew that this was folly. As a result, he left a useful self-education example that all can imitate.

Daily Affirmations

Simple ways to improve your business with self-learning

Admit that your skills and knowledge are becoming obsolete.

Develop a daily habit of reading. Start with something in which you are most interested. Try to move beyond news magazines and sports pages and into richer sources.

Instead of spending the evening watching television alone, consider playing a game or two with your children or friends. Try to choose games in which success depends upon strategic thinking rather than blind luck.

Develop your own discussion group (or, as Ben Franklin calls it, your own Junto) at work. For members, choose people within your own business.

Remove information barriers in your firm, and start a flood of information aimed toward your workers. Closed-book management is less and less successful.

Increase your training budgets and require all workers to seek 40 hours of training per year. Let them choose their own program of education. Don't turn down any reasonable request.

If something is particularly important at your firm, make the message so simple that it can quickly and easily be taught to all newcomers.

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