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
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
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
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,
this book at amazon