The Economist recently wrote a lengthy article that explores the question of what makes a good economist? Although focused on economists, the themes explored in the article can be extended to a broader context, which is what I want to do. The two broad themes that I want to extend on is what makes a good professional (this blog) and what type of education best facilitates this (another blog).
What makes a good professional?
In looking at this question the article quotes John Maynard Keynes
He must be mathematician, historian, statesman, philosopher—in some degree. He must understand symbols and speak in words. He must contemplate the particular in terms of the general, and touch abstract and concrete in the same flight of thought…No part of man’s nature or his institutions must lie entirely outside his regard. He must be purposeful and disinterested in a simultaneous mood; as aloof and incorruptible as an artist, yet sometimes as near the earth as a politician. John Maynard Keynes (1924)
My interpretation of this is that a good economist needs to be able to understand the world around them, place it in the context of the past as well as the present, then, be able to provide evidence to support their thinking and finally, communicate simply and effectively. He was talking about more than reciting what one textbook says is best, to consider a number of frameworks and apply these objectively to real world situations.
It is important to remember here that Keynes was the father of modern macroeconomics and this likely influenced his thinking. As the name implies, macroeconomics is concerned with big picture thinking and society as a whole. It is no surprise then that Keynes wants economists who are somewhat bland sounding. Not that he liked boring people, I dunno maybe he did, but more to the point is that he wanted economists who could separate their own agenda from the public’s.
How does this apply to the rest of us and our jobs? The long and short of it is, I believe, that any job where one decision can affect a large share of the public it is important to think along similar lines to a good economist. In other words there is a need, a responsibility, to deeply relate to the public if what you do can affect a great number of them.
Our corporate leaders are often accused of making decisions from their ivory tower and being out of touch with society, while in contrast we feel more personally connected to those that we deal with at an individual level – for example nurses, teachers or your local barista. However, the line between those that ‘don’t get it’ and those that ‘do’ is blurred when we look at corporations. This is because they have staff working both intimately with the public and at arms length.
Take for example a bank. The teller may interact with you as an individual or your personal banker. Elsewhere in the organisation someone is making decisions that affect a large proportion of the public such as the number of ATMs, the design of their website, the interest rate on mortgages, who to lend to, who to invest in and when to call in a loan.
In such organisations this blurring makes it difficult to say who should act like Keynes’ good economist. However, in some ways it may not matter if you believe corporate culture is heavily influenced by those at the top and you expect corporate leaders to be able to relate to the public interest. As Keynes imagined they should see and relate to the world as a whole and be able to communicate as such, not just be technically adept. In my own words they are thinkers, feelers, and listeners on all matters relating to a company – their supply chain, their governance, their environmental footprint, not just their profit.