33 Unwritten Rules of Management

by Ian McKenzie on March 5, 2013

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These rules are credited to Bill Swanson. In a news story several years ago, it was revealed not all the rules are original. Whatever the source, they are useful aphorisms for life management.

The handbook has become an underground hit among senior executives and management thinkers. The Unwritten Rules of Management is part Ben Franklin and part Yogi Berra, with a dash of Confucius thrown in. Jack Welch says there’s something about both the man and his management style that makes the handbook a worthwhile read for any CEO. “It’s a neat little manual, and each of these rules makes sense,” Welch says. “It covers almost everything, and I like Swanson’s feet-on-the-ground approach.”

Here are the rules, written, but without any explanation. Make of them what you will.

  1. Learn to say, “I don’t know.” If used when appropriate, it will be often.
  2. It is easier to get into something than it is to get out of it.
  3. If you are not criticized, you may not be doing much.
  4. Look for what is missing. Many know how to improve what’s there, but few can see what isn’t there.
  5. Viewgraph rule: When something appears on a viewgraph (an overhead transparency), assume the world knows about it, and deal with it accordingly.
  6. Work for a boss with whom you are comfortable telling it like it is. Remember that you can’t pick your relatives, but you can pick your boss.
  7. Constantly review developments to make sure that the actual benefits are what they are supposed to be. Avoid Newton’s Law.
  8. However menial and trivial your early assignments may appear, give them your best efforts.
  9. Persistence or tenacity is the disposition to persevere in spite of difficulties, discouragement, or indifference. Don’t be known as a good starter but a poor finisher.
  10. In completing a project, don’t wait for others; go after them, and make sure it gets done.
  11. Confirm your instructions and the commitments of others in writing. Don’t assume it will get done!
  12. Don’t be timid; speak up. Express yourself, and promote your ideas.
  13. Practice shows that those who speak the most knowingly and confidently often end up with the assignment to get it done.
  14. Strive for brevity and clarity in oral and written reports.
  15. Be extremely careful of the accuracy of your statements.
  16. Don’t overlook the fact that you are working for a boss.
    • Keep him or her informed. Avoid surprises!
    • Whatever the boss wants takes top priority.
  17. Promises, schedules, and estimates are important instruments in a well-ordered business.
    • You must make promises. Don’t lean on the often-used phrase, “I can’t estimate it because it depends upon many uncertain factors.”
  18. Never direct a complaint to the top. A serious offense is to “cc” a person’s boss.
  19. When dealing with outsiders, remember that you represent the company. Be careful of your commitments.
  20. Cultivate the habit of “boiling matters down” to the simplest terms. An elevator speech is the best way.
  21. Don’t get excited in engineering emergencies. Keep your feet on the ground.
  22. Cultivate the habit of making quick, clean-cut decisions.
  23. When making decisions, the pros are much easier to deal with than the cons. Your boss wants to see the cons also.
  24. Don’t ever lose your sense of humor.
  25. Have fun at what you do. It will reflect in your work. No one likes a grump except another grump.
  26. Treat the name of you company as if it were your own.
  27. Beg for the bad news.
  28. You remember 1/3 of what you read, 1/2 of what people tell you, but 100% of what you feel.
  29. You can’t polish a sneaker.
  30. When facing issues or problems that are becoming drawn-out, “short them to the ground.”
  31. When faced with decisions, try to look at them as if you were one level up in the organization. Your perspective will change quickly.
  32. A person who is nice to you but rude to the waiter, or to others, is not a nice person. (This rule never fails).
  33. Never be afraid to try something new. Remember, an amateur built an ark that survived a flood while a large group of professionals built the Titanic.
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