Fast Company's Alan Webber: Business Rules of Thumb

Last Updated Aug 17, 2009 9:36 AM EDT

All through his long and varied career as the founder of Fast Company, editorial director of the Harvard Business Review, and a political speechwriter, Alan Webber has been noting down business insights on index cards. Now he's taken this lifetime's worth of wisdom and converted it into his new book, Rules of Thumb: 52 Truths for Winning at Business Without Losing Your Self. Today he's been kind enough to share some of these nuggets of wisdom, as well as offering practical advice on how young people can best put them to use in their fledgling careers. With no further ado, I give you Alan:
Rules of Thumb came out of 3x5 index cards you carried around for years. How did you use these cards?
About 20 years ago, when I was an editor at the Harvard Business Review, I was introduced to Professor Ted Levitt, one of the most creative and dynamic teachers at the school. It was from Ted that I learned about a brilliant management tool, the humble 3x5 card. Ted carried a small stack of them around in his shirt pocket, and in the course of the work day whenever he heard an interesting idea -- whether at a meeting, on a phone call, or in something he himself said -- Ted would take out a 3x5 card, write the idea down, and tuck it away in a pocket. Then at the end of the day, he'd bring out all the note cards and sort them out into different categories, depending on how he intended to use the idea later. I started to follow Ted's example, and I've kept it up ever since.

Would you recommend young people carry some with them as well?
Well, these days they're more likely to carry around an iPhone or a Blackberry, but whether it's a card or a digital device, I would definitely recommend taking notes, and here's why: it makes you listen harder. It makes you pay attention to what other people are saying around you, focus on what you're reading, and value what you're experiencing. Young people in particular, can learn from all kinds of situations and all kinds of people.

In the introduction, you talk about the changes the business world has undergone in recent years. What rules would you suggest to young people to help keep their bearings?
Right now we are experiencing massive change, change that is so turbulent and unsettling that it challenges all of us at all ages to try to make sense of it. This kind of change is as hard on older (and presumably wiser) business leaders as it is on younger (and less experienced) business entrants. Remember, older folks carry a lot of baggage -- how things "used to be" or even "are supposed to be." But the disadvantage of younger people is simply that they haven't seen as much or experienced as much, so it's harder to make sense out of so much seemingly random information: the challenge is to separate the signal from the noise. To help with that, let me suggest a few rules of thumb.

First, I'd suggest my Rule #10: "A good question beats a good answer." You don't have to have all the answers. But you can make an enormously valuable contribution by asking good questions. When others are too proud or too stubborn to ask a question that needs to be raised, a young person can do it -- and in the process, open up new lines of thinking and new avenues of discussion that may, in fact, save the day. The annals of business are filled with stories of bad ideas that got launched simply because no one wanted to ask the uncomfortable questions. It's far better to ask the question than to clean up after the disaster.

Second, I'd suggest that all business people answer two questions, which I pose in Rule #23: "Keep two lists: What gets you up in the morning? What keeps you up at night?" This is simply a reminder to check in with yourself regularly. How are you feeling about your job? Why do you get up in the morning -- are you eager to make a contribution, or are you just going through the motions to get a paycheck? And at night, what keeps you up? Are there things that you'd love to tackle, projects or challenges that you care so deeply about that you think about them in bed so it's hard to go to sleep? How are you bringing those projects into your life? If you ask those two questions, you'll not only be able to handle change, you'll navigate your way to a life that makes sense and feels right for you.

Are there any rules that you think are fundamental ideas that can help people even if they're an intern or someone's second assistant?
The first rule I recommend for everyone is actually the one I placed first: Rule #1, which says, "When the going gets tough, the tough relax." This rule came from an experience of my own, when I was about to conduct the most important interview of my career, and I realized that I was about to ruin the experience -- and probably the interview -- because I was afraid of failing. I had allowed my fears to jeopardize what should have been a happy, exciting, and memorable experience. My takeaway was, the enemy we all need to conquer is fear. So I'd say that each and every one of us needs to go to work in the morning without bringing along our fears and anxieties -- they don't help, they only hurt.

The other rule I'd recommend for everyone is the one I close the book with, Rule #52, which says, "Stay alert! There are teachers everywhere." I've learned great rules from strangers sitting next to me on a short airplane ride -- they just happened to say exactly what I needed to hear to help me make sense out of a tough problem I was wrestling with. Actually, my favorite rule in the book is Rule #53: that's the rule I invite readers to create for themselves and send me at the Rules of Thumb web site, because I think the best, and most important rules are the ones you figure out for yourself.

What's one thing the low man on the office totem pole can do tomorrow at work to make their lives better or easier?
I think everyone who goes to work each day should have a few thoughts they turn over in their heads, regardless of their responsibilities, job title, rank, or status. First, ask yourself, "How can I add value?" Think of it this way: your job isn't your job description. Your job is to add value to the organization. You can do that lots of different ways: by asking good questions, by making small contributions, by being absolutely dependable, by being willing to do whatever it takes to help a customer get satisfaction. Every organization needs people who recognize that they're really there to add value. Do that every day, and you'll not only be appreciated by those you work for, you'll also discover the satisfaction that comes from making a real contribution.

Second, as soon as you've gotten your job, throw away your job description. You are not a box on an organization chart. You are not a set of limited tasks that you must live within. The correct response to any situation at work is, "What can I do to help?" not "Sorry, that's not in my job description." If you want to make yourself indispensable, treat your job description as a floor for what you do, not a ceiling.

And finally, I'd suggest you take to heart my Rule #39: "'Serious fun' isn't an oxymoron; it's how you win." Yes, work is serious, the stakes are high, the standards demanding, the customers exacting, the boss unyielding. But things that are serious can also be fun. They're fun when you bring an attitude of learning to work with you; they're fun when you find the satisfaction of keeping a playful spirit in the middle of a tough assignment. If you are both serious about what you do, and have fun in the way you do it, you'll find customers who appreciate you, bosses who respect you, and colleagues who enjoy you. You'll keep growing as a person and as a business person -- and if you ask me, that's a pretty good way to play the game.

(Image of a happy thumb by //amy//, CC 2.0)

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    Jessica lives in London where she works as a freelance writer with interests in green business and tech, management, and marketing.