The Unwritten Rules of Management

Unwritten RulesYou can’t polish a sneaker

I was 30 mins into an incredibly boring presentation when that phrase caught my attention. It’s catchy, I thought, but what the heck does it mean?

A little Internet sleuthing unearthed that the line is from the Unwritten Rules of Management, by William Swanson, former Chairman and CEO of Raytheon. Apparently, when Swanson was growing up, he and his friends tried to polish their old sneakers to make them look new but, no matter how hard they tried, they couldn’t disguise the wear and tear. Translated into business speak: don’t waste effort putting the finishing touches on something that has little substance to begin with.

It’s good advice from a book that contains lots of other useful aphorisms including:

  • Beg for the bad news
  • Don’t be known as a good starter but a poor finisher
  • If you are not criticized, you may not be doing much
  • Treat the name of your company as if it were your own
  • It is easier to get into something than it is to get out of it

In 2005 when these 32 principles first came to light, they were so compelling they were called the CEO’s Secret Handbook. Unfortunately, it was later discovered that many of these were already included in the 1944 book, The Unwritten Laws of Engineering by W. J. King.

Despite the controversy, there’s plenty of useful advice. Some of my favorites include:

  1. Look for what is missing. Many know how to improve what’s there, but few can see what isn’t there.
  2. Practice shows that those who speak the most knowingly and confidently often end up with the assignment to get the job done.
  3. You remember 1/3 of what you read, 1/2 of what people tell you, but 100% of what you feel.
  4. Work for a boss to whom you can tell it like it is. Remember that you can’t pick your relatives, but you can pick your boss.
  5. However menial and trivial your early assignments may appear, give them your best efforts.

If there’s one single piece of advice worth following, it’s this one:

A person who is nice to you but rude to the waiter is not a nice person

It’s the most accurate test I know of to determine whether you should hire someone. And a great way to follow the no-asshole rule.

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4 Responses to The Unwritten Rules of Management

  1. Sven August 31, 2014 at 3:26 pm #

    I especially like this One: If you are not criticized, you may not be doing much

  2. Ryan September 2, 2014 at 6:51 am #

    I’ll vote for “it’s easier to get into something than it is to get out of it”. So true. Oh, and be nice to the waiter regardless of what the food tastes like…I am confident the waiter didn’t make it 🙂

  3. Allen September 2, 2014 at 2:24 pm #

    “Don’t be known as a good starter but a poor finisher.” Something hammered into my brain throughout sports growing up that still resonates today in the business world. Thanks for the post!

  4. Gaurav Jaiswal June 13, 2019 at 6:50 am #

    As one of my boss told me a couple of yrs ago – If nobody is complaining about you, the. You are likely not doing your job properly

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