The Unwritten Laws of Business | Discover the hidden principles of great entrepreneurship

The Unwritten Laws of Business - W.J. King - James G. Skakoon

Summary of “The Unwritten Laws of Business”: To succeed in your career, you must understand and apply many unwritten rules with respect to the work, the chain of command, colleagues, project management, the organizational structure, what managers expect from their subordinates, character, personality, and personal development; sometimes these laws seem obvious but even so, those presented in this book are regularly forgotten.

By W.J. King, with revisions and additions by James G. Skakoon, 100 pages, published in 1944 (first edition under the name The Unwritten Laws of Engineering), and in 2001 (first edition for The Unwritten Laws of Business), 2007, 2008 (additional editions) and finally in 2012 (current revised version).

Summary and Book Report of The Unwritten Laws of Business:

This little book (size-wise) is the epitome of a universal short and concise text that has outlasted generations and specializations. First published in 1944 under the name The Unwritten Laws of Engineering, was republished under the same title in 2001 after some touching up. Two more editions were published in 2007 and 2008. In 2012, an updated revision was made.

Its story becomes fascinating after that: William H. Swanson, CEO of the huge American defense corporation, Raytheon (73,000 employees) released a book in 2005 entitled Swanson’s Unwritten Rules of Management, which the New York Times showed to be a plagiarism of the 1944 classic. Before this revelation, the book was very successful, attracting positive reactions from leaders such as Warren Buffet (American billionaire, investor, and philanthropist), Jack Welch (former CEO of General Electric), and even Steve Jobs (American business magnate and inventor).

William Swanson acknowledged this and apologized. Suddenly, public attention was turned towards the original work, very intelligently renamed by its editor under its current title, which represents the universal appeal of its contents very well.

Even though it was conceived by an engineer for engineers, the 63 recommended rules go beyond this sector and apply to anyone who ends up working in a team, whether you are at the very bottom or the very top of the ladder. Some may seem obvious, but according to the author, they are all without exception often forgotten within organizations, from small businesses to multinational corporations.

Here are the 63 rules, summarized for the most post – I have not listed the pretty self-explanatory ones:

Chapter 1: Concerning Work

#1: However menial and trivial your first assignments may seem, give them your best effort.

Don’t think that minor tasks are beneath your dignity or your education. Of course, you want to prove how valuable you are on more important projects, but don’t forget that the devil is in the details, and if you do your job well the future will take care of itself.

#2: Demonstrate your ability to get things done.

Show that you have 1) initiative; 2) resources or ingenuity; and 3) persistence and tenacity. If you lack the third quality, your efficiency will be greatly reduced, even if you are brilliant.

#3: While you are working on a project, do not passively wait for anyone – suppliers, businesses, colleagues, supervisors – even if they directed their own delivery times; follow up and hold them relentlessly to their commitments.
Never believe it is enough to make a request or give an order. Define, follow up, motivate.
#4: Confirm your instructions and other people’s commitments in writing.

Just because someone has agreed – verbally – to do something doesn’t mean it will get done. The time spent to write down your instructions and the commitments of others is an excellent investment.

#5: When you go on a business trip, no matter what it is, prepare for it, conduct the business until is it completed, and come home as quickly as you can.

#6: Cultivate a “Let wait and see” attitude!

When someone comes to tell you about an obstacle in the way, say “let’s wait and see” and get up instead of remaining hunched in your chair speculating on causes and solutions hoping to fix things.

#7: Avoid giving the appearance of hesitating.

Don’t give the impression that what you said or think depends on the last person you spoke to. Don’t express an opinion unless you have reasonably studied the question.

#8: Don’t be shy – speak up – express yourself and promote your ideas.

Don’t think that your job is simply to do what you are told. Someone who is calm and timid and doesn’t say anything often passes for someone who has nothing to say.

#9: Force yourself to be clear and concise in your oral and written reports.

Absolutely avoid being one of those people who take half an hour to explain what could have taken one minute. Be short and to the point, be efficient. Others will ask your advice often and your influence will grow.

#10: Be extremely careful as to the accuracy of your statements.

Avoid guessing when you don’t know the answer to a direct question. People will stop trusting you. If you don’t know, say so, and also say “I will find out the answer.”

Chapter 2: Concerning your supervisor

#11: All managers need to know what is going on in their area.

This principle is elementary and fundamental. It is a cornerstone without which everything else crumbles.

#12: One of the first things you owe your supervisor is keeping them informed of significant developments.

Corollary rule to #11. Be aware, however, how much information to feed your supervisor. The more you know how to provide relevant information (the signal) rather than trivial details (the noise), the more you will be appreciated. But it is better to risk “don’t bother me with those petty details” than “Why didn’t you tell anyone about that?”

#13: Don’t neglect the fundamental fact that your supervisor is your boss.

Don’t forget this fundamental truth: you work for a company, a service, your team, your family, yourself, but don’t forget that essentially you work for your supervisor, the manager to whom you are directly accountable.

#14: Be as careful as you can in the selection of a supervisor.

For most junior staff, the influence of their colleagues and superiors is influential in forming your professional personality. As much as possible, choose a superior who can become an excellent mentor.

#15: Whatever your supervisor wants takes the highest priority.

When your supervisor asks you for something, never think you have something better to do. Operate under the rule that your boss has good reasons for wanting the work to be done.

#16: When your manager asks you to do something he expects you to do exactly that.

When your manager asks you to do something, you have two possible responses: 1) do exactly what he asked; 2) meet with him and talk about his request with him. It is unacceptable not to do it, or to do something else instead.

#17: Don’t be overly anxious about the idea of reporting or not sticking to your manager’s instructions.

This is the inverse of the topic covered in the two preceding rules: excessive deference or submissiveness is a definite turnoff. Often, a program or project is a suggestion rather than an order. Don’t hesitate to recommend ideas or modifications.

Chapter 3: Concerning colleagues and people on the outside

#18: Never invade the territory of any other service or department without consent from the person in charge.

Nobody really likes to see his territory violated, interference in general causes errors and confusion, and if you doing someone else’s work, you are probably neglecting your own. What’s more, nobody will thank you for doing someone else’s job at the expense of your own work.

#19: In every transaction be careful to include everyone who ought to be included.

Be careful not to hurt anyone by neglecting the interests of a department or an individual. Even if this doesn’t seem bad on the surface, it will almost certainly have a fairly serious effect on morale much of the time.

#20: Cultivate the habit of seeking opinions and advice from other people.

Especially at the start of your career, you can’t expect to know everything. So ask. In particular, if you are criticized for something, ask “What do you recommend? ” Your opponent will often have ideas on the subject.

#21: Promises, plans, and estimates are necessary and important tools in a well-organized company.

Many people do not realize this and try to avoid responsibility for their commitments. It is up to you to base your promises on a reasonably accurate estimate of the work that will be required of you, and the time needed for others involved to give you what you need.

#22: When you are not satisfied with the service of another department, make your complaints to the person directly responsible for the function involved.

Complaining to a supervisor about someone’s behavior creates a lot of resentment and should only be used as a last resort. Explain your expectations to the person directly concerned and give them a second chance.

#23: When dealing with clients and people outside the company, remember that you are representing your company, with the appearance of total responsibility and authority.

Even if you just got out of school a couple of months ago, most clients regard you as the representative of your company. Be careful with your commitments.

Chapter 4: Individual and Technical Behavior

#24: All managers must know what is going on in their area.

I repeat this rule to emphasize its importance and because it operates in both its meanings.

#25: Don’t try to do everything yourself.

This is one of the recommendations with which everyone agrees and yet is the most often missed. You must delegate responsibilities even if you could do everything by yourself.

#26: Do the most important things first.

In general, there is no time to do everything.  So, do the most important things first.

#27: Cultivate the habit of reducing complicated situations to their most basic components.

The ability to reduce situations that appear complicated, to their basics, their essential elements, is a form of wisdom which is not necessarily tied to experience. Make a habit of integrating, condensing, summarizing, and simplifying your facts rather than stretching, splitting, complicating, and disintegrating them.

#28: Don’t get excited in emergencies – keep your feet on the ground.

Most crises are not half as serious as they appear to be. Keep a cool head.

#29: Meetings should never be too long or too short.

Directing large meetings with large numbers of people requires a lot of skill. For the most part, small meetings (3 or 4 people) can generally take care of most of the problems on a project or program.

#30: Acquire the habit of making decisions quickly and accurately.

This is the most important unwritten law of business and the most difficult part of working as a manager. Make your decisions when you have a reasonable amount of information to make them, tell yourself you don’t have to be right all the time – a good manager only needs to be right 51% of the time, while a better margin will be even better for you – and realize that it is useless to try and make everyone happy.

#31: Don’t overlook good preparation before announcing a major decision or a policy change.

When time allows, it’s good practice and good politics to prepare the way for a major announcement.

Chapter 5: Managing Projects

#32: Learn project management techniques and skills, then apply them to the activities that you manage.

Learn the standard procedures for your company and current practices to manage your project.

#33: Plan your work well in advance of production to meet deadlines without being in a rush at the last minute.

#34: Beware of the attraction of “bells and whistles.”

Too much preoccupation regard to your own security can lead to great danger and insecurity.

#35: Don’t hesitate to “freeze” a project once it has been sufficiently developed.

Of course, it is not always easy to say at which point “sufficient” progress has been made, but in general, it is once the project has achieved the desired specifications and spent its budget. Don’t go after perfection.

#36: Continuously review your project to ensure that actual benefits are in line with cost dollars, time, and human resources.

#37: Make a point of asking for and sending periodic progress reports, as well as final reports as projects are completed

Quite simply your business is not totally organized until you put this practice in place. It is generally true that a project is never finished until it has been summarized, registered, and archived such that the information it contains can be easily found and used by interested parties.

Chapter 6: Organizational Structure

#38: Ensure that everyone has been assigned well-defined roles and responsibilities in the organization.

It is extremely depressing and inefficient if employees simply do not know what their work consists of and what their responsibilities are.

#39: Ensure that everyone has the necessary authority to do their job and accomplish their responsibilities.

Authority must be given along with responsibility. Ideally, one person should have complete authority and control over all the essential factors of their project – budget, expenses, and people. In practice, it is important to reduce their dependence on others to a minimum.

#40: Ensure that all activities and all individuals are supervised by someone knowledgeable in the subject involved.

Junior staff should ideally be supervised by veterans in the same discipline, if not they could put themselves, their department, their employers, and their supervisors in an embarrassing situation.

Chapter 7: What Managers Owe to Their Employees

#41: Never under-represent a subordinate’s performance during a performance appraisal.

The most important responsibility of a manager is to review the performance of their subordinates. It is the duty of the manager to make sure that appraisals are relevant and as fair as possible.

#42: Make it absolutely clear what is expected of employees

All too often managers avoid direct discussions and reference implicit instructions, general objectives, and company policies. Be clear and precise, give your subordinates clear objectives and tell them what you expect of them, then make sure they do it and help them.

#42: Promote the personal and professional interests of your employees at every opportunity.

This is not an obligation – it is the opportunity and the privilege of every manager.

#43: Do not selfishly hold on to your employees if they are offered a better opportunity elsewhere.

#44: Don’t short-circuit or go around your subordinates if you can avoid it.

It is natural for a manager, at times, to want to exercise his managerial authority directly to get things done quickly, without thinking about the person who the work has been assigned to. Of course, that’s your prerogative, but that can be very demoralizing for the person involved, so use it wisely.

#45: You owe it to your team to keep them properly informed.

It is not fair to ask someone to carry out their tasks if they are not properly informed.

#46: Don’t criticize a subordinate in front of others, particularly in front of their own subordinates.

This damages their standing and their morale at the same time.

#47: Take an interest in what your team has accomplished.

It is demoralizing for employees if their boss does not show any interest in their work.

#48: Never miss the chance to congratulate or reward a subordinate for a job well done.

Remember your job is not just to criticize people and intimidate them into getting the work done.

#49: Always take complete responsibility for your group and the individuals in it.

Never blame an employee in front of others for a problem he has caused. You are assumed to have complete control, you are the one that gets the credit for both the success and failure of your group.

#50: Do everything in your power to get your subordinates the salaries they deserve.

Indisputably, we work in large part because we are paid to do so. Pay attention to the fact that everyone is paid according to their skills and what they bring.

#51: Do everything in your power to protect the personal interests of your team and their families.

You don’t need to restrict your interest to your team within the confines of the internal boundaries of your business. Most people appreciate your sincere interest in their life outside work and their personal difficulties.

Chapter 8: Character and Personality Laws

#52: One of the most valuable characteristics is the ability to get along with different types of people.

This is an essential quality for the operation of any organization.

#53: Don’t be too nice.

But it’s a mistake, of course, to try and be on good terms with everyone. Someday, someone will take advantage of you and you won’t be able to prevent problems just by running away from them.

#54: Think of your personal integrity as your greatest asset.

In the long term, there is almost nothing more important to you than your own self-respect.

#55: Never underestimate the extent of your professional responsibility and personal commitment.

When you enter into the business world, you fully accept the responsibility to be a professional. Don’t hide behind your company or your department or your sponsor.

#56: Allow ethical behavior to govern your actions and those of your company.

Have the courage of your convictions, including the courage to do what you know to be right, ethically, and morally, without being paralyzed by excessive fear of possible criticism or the need to explain your actions.

Chapter 9: About Behavior in the Workplace

#57: Be conscious of the effect your appearance has on others, and at the same time, on yourself.

Your appearance probably has a greater influence than you think on the way others around you perceive you. Keep that in mind when you define and present your work image.

#58: Don’t use vulgar language in the workplace.

If you don’t use vulgar language you won’t offend anyone. Using it might offend some people. Just don’t use it.

#59: Take it upon yourself to learn what constitutes harassment and discrimination – racial, ethnic, sexual, religious – and don’t tolerate it of yourself, your colleagues, your subordinates, and your company.

There is simply no room in the workplace for harassment or discrimination of any kind. Pay attention to this matter.

#60: Be careful what you write and who will read it

Be careful about who will get their hands on copies of your letters, memos, and messages, and what their role is. To be perfectly sure you will do well to consider that all the documents you write will end up in everyone’s office and be there forever. Write them with that in mind.

#61: Be careful if you use your employer’s resources for personal reasons. That could be considered suspicious at best and outright theft at worst.

Most of us have used the office photocopier or borrowed a tool for our personal use, and we think that no one will mind it. However, when you use your company’s things you risk suspicion and much more.

Chapter 10: About Personal and Career Development

#62: Maintain your employability and that of your team

It’s extremely rare, especially these days, to spend your whole life in one company. It is therefore not reasonable to expect employees to become unemployable by other potential employers. Obsolescence is not a good thing for either employers or employees. Be an advocate and promoter of training throughout your life. It’s the best investment you can make for yourself and others.

#63: Analyze yourself and your team

Even if you are not a psychology student, it is enlightening to understand that people, including yourself, act as they do, not because that’s how they want to act, but because that’s how they are. Basically, people see and react to things in very different ways. The simple fact of acknowledging that people are remarkably different will help you accept different personalities as normal, rather than looking badly upon someone who does not see things the same way you do.

Book Critique of “The Unwritten Law of Business” :

The Unwritten Laws of Business is a concise collection of advice that touches numerous areas.

I greatly appreciated the universal appeal of the rules, even though it is clear they were created by engineers in large companies, they apply to everyone who finds themselves in a group with a project or tasks in common. In other words, their applicability is widespread.

From my eight years of experience managing my business and my involvement in those of my clients, I can tell you that most of the rules are right on, as much in their content as in the fact that they are frequently forgotten, to everyone’s detriment. It is quite simply a collection or a compilation of wisdom and good sense, alas, too often set aside, and the fruit of many years of observation and experience that comes through in every line.

The large number of rules, however, makes them difficult to apply, it seems to me, and a good number of them, unfortunately, fall into the bucket of in one ear and out the other, that affects all of us. I think that The Unwritten Laws of Business should be used as a collection of sayings and good practices to re-read from time to time to help keep our feet on the ground whenever we tend to get above ourselves, and if we make a note of several rules with each reading, they will enlighten us about specific problems that affect us.

So I recommend it. Like The Effective Executive, The Unwritten Laws of Business is pure common sense.

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