English Gardens

A philosophical approach to management

"We view ourselves as English gardeners, greatly enjoying our roles as weeders, fence menders, and wardens against external threat."

Original post: https://chenmark.com/weekly-thoughts/english-gardens/

In our day-to-day life of small business acquisitions and operations, we spend little time thinking about national politics. However, since we studied political science in university, we are always intrigued to watch election cycles play out. Not because we have a dog in the fight, but because elections are an opportunity to see the theories we studied in school displayed on a public stage. For us, it’s a reminder that ideas – and the philosophies underpinning those ideas – matter.

On that topic, we enjoy Jonah Goldberg’s use of gardening techniques as a metaphor for the role of the state. From his 2018 book, Suicide of the West: How the Rebirth of Tribalism, Populism, Nationalism, and Identity Politics is Destroying American Democracy:

“One of my favorite illustrations of how this is as much a cultural disagreement as a philosophical one can be found in the differences between French and English gardens. For instance, the French gardens at Versailles, with their ornate, geometric, nature-defying designs, illustrate how the gardener imposes his vision on nature. Nature is brought to heel by reason. The classic English garden, on the other hand, was intended to let nature take its course, to let each bush, tree, and vegetable achieve its own ideal nature. The role of the English gardener was to protect his garden by weeding it, maintaining fences, and being ever watchful for predators and poachers.”

Clearly, many have (and continue to) debate what governance approach is best: a Versailles ornamental or a rambling English country garden. Probably the only thing we can agree on is that they are different.

The philosophical gardening-as-metaphor-for-governance debate extends beyond politics and is quite applicable to the ongoing discussion of centralization vs. decentralization in a holding company structure (albeit with much smaller consequences than national policy!). When we started Chenmark, we knew we wanted to build a diversified team of small businesses. At the time, our vision was blurry and it was unclear exactly what “HQ” should actually do. At first, we evaluated ways to create “efficiencies” through consolidating technology services, credit cards, marketing, vendor consolidation, insurance, recruiting, equipment financing, etc. Through trial and error, we have found that some of these efforts add value to our companies. Unfortunately, in many other situations, our efforts failed miserably and we retreated with egg on our face.

On balance, we now lean strongly towards decentralization. The notion that each of our companies could survive just fine without any support from Chenmark appeals to us. We also know that the talented leaders of our companies want to self-actualize without interference from HQ. So, for the moment at least, we eschew the notion of the highly standardized, maintained French garden and view ourselves as English gardeners, greatly enjoying our roles as weeders, fence menders, and wardens against external threats.

Have a great week,

Your Chenmark Team

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