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Donkin on Work - Management Theory

February 2007 – Hidden gems of work place wisdom

I like old management books, partly because, in spite of their age, the best of them still make a lot of sense.

Among the better known titles on my shelves, such as Peter Drucker’s Concept of the Corporation and The Practice of Management, I have other favourites such as Roethlisberger and Dickinson’s Management and the Worker, a detailed account of the Hawthorne experiments at Western Electric in Chicago during the 1920s.

The problem with the latter book and others like it, instructive as they are, is that they do not make for great airport reading. You need to dig deep to get the best out of them.

Then last week the postman delivered a very short book that looked new yet old at the same time. The Unwritten Laws of Business, by W J King and James G Skakoon* is exactly that, an old book, updated and republished with a cleverly designed dust jacket in the style of a threadbare well-thumbed book.

There is a story behind the book. It originated as The Unwritten laws of Engineering, published in 1944 by the American Society of Mechanical Engineers. The book inspired a more recent pamphlet that drew plaudits from contemporary business leaders such as Jack Welch and Warren Buffet.

Now it has been revised and republished in something closer to the original, what the publisher, Profile Books, describes as “a collection of clear, jargon-free principles that have stood the test of time.”

The publisher calls it a “hidden gem” and I wouldn’t argue with that. In fact it’s less of a management book and more of a treatise on workplace behaviour at all levels.

Look at this piece of advice, on the first page, that should be read by all new trainees: “However menial and trivial your early assignments may appear, give them your best efforts.

“Many young businesspeople feel that minor chores are beneath their dignity and unworthy of their college training. They expect to prove their true worth in some major, vital enterprise. Actually the spirit and effectiveness with which you tackle your first humble tasks will very likely be carefully watched and may affect your entire career.”

Speaking to managers and recruiters on a regular basis I know this is a perpetual grouse about graduate recruits. What held true in 1944 still holds true today.

Some of the advice is such plain common sense it seems patently obvious, and yet it is still worth repeating: “When sent out on a business trip of any kind, prepare for it, execute the business to completion and follow up after your return,” says the book. Under this heading is another succinct note: “If you can’t be on time, be early.”

Instead of allowing enough time, too many people try to cram in one more phone call before heading out for an appointment. Indeed, in London people have become so forgiving of lateness that some believe it is acceptable. It is not. The way to make your appointments is to build in time. You soon learn this lesson when you work for yourself.

Some of the sections on management seem a little bit arcane but only because they use words like “supervisor” and “subordinate” instead of the more neutral “colleague” preferred in many workplaces today. But this more traditional language reflects an authentic boss-worker relationship that is only camouflaged in the modern workplace idiom.

“Do not overlook the steadfast truth that your direct supervisor is your boss,” says the book. As it points out, “this sounds simple enough, but some people never get it.” In short, ignoring, going around or going over the head of your immediate boss is a bad idea. It was then; it is now.

Some parts of the book remind me of those old post war home-keeping books reminding housewives to have their slippers ready for their man when he gets home from a tiring day at the office. “Whatever your supervisor wants done takes top priority,” it says, adding: “Whenever you are asked by your manager to do something, you are expected to do exactly that.” If you substitute the words, “supervisor” and “manager” for “husband” you will get my drift.

The difference here is that while relationships between the sexes have changed, the underlying expectations of those in management have not. The book is not suggesting that orders are obeyed without question but it is saying that it is important to thrash out the designs and intentions behind a task before deciding half-way through that it is not worth doing. If that happens, it says, then it is important to go back and talk it over again rather than change course or drop the job altogether.

The main point, particularly with a complex task, is to keep managers informed of proposed changes. But such considerations must work both ways. How many managers change their minds about something without discussing their thinking with their teams? “You owe it to your staff to keep them properly informed,” says the book.

One of the best sections is that devoted to management/employee relations. “The most serious responsibility of managers, it says, is to review the performance of their subordinates,” This is not about end of term reports or appraisals, but about continual conversations and feedback that is accurate, not simply back-patting. People need to know about their failings as much as their successes.

Too often these days, team leaders, particularly if they maintain a functional responsibility, have too much on their own plate to worry about the work of others in their team. But they must do so, either that or hand over the baton to someone who will. Any employee who is struggling should be given the help and encouragement to improve. A “sink or swim” policy is no way to run a workplace.

Another great piece of advice reflecting mature management is this one: “Do not hang on to employees too selfishly when they are offered a better opportunity elsewhere.” No-one wants to lose a great employee but talented people should never be held back. The answer is to train good replacements. No-one, not at any level, should be considered or consider themselves irreplaceable.

Other tips should be second nature to good managers but their lessons are often forgotten. “Show an interest in what your staff is doing,” it says, and never criticise employees in front of others, particularly if it’s a manager in front of their team.

A section on personal appearance seems dated in some ways, yet surely it still matters. Dress appropriately for the occasion, says the book and, when in doubt, it is prudent to slightly overdress. No-one is going to mark you down for wearing a tie. “Others can’t help but notice poor upkeep, even if you don’t,” it notes.

What the book doesn’t say, however, and every recruiter should know this, is that it is important to see through appearance. Those who think that good work is all about looking the part will not sustain the bluff forever. But if you know you can do a job, you owe it to yourself to dress for success.

The fashionable disregard for status and experience within modern de-layered, empowered and collegiate-style working relationships, have disguised the fundamental transactional understandings of employment. Every workplace is underpinned by unwritten laws. This book provides a gentle nudge in the ribs, lest we forget.

*The Unwritten Laws of Business, by W J King and James G Skakoon, is to be published in April by Profile Books, price £9.99.

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