Rules of Thumb : 52 Truths for Winning at Business Without Losing Your Self

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  • Format: Hardcover
  • Copyright: 2009-01-01
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publications
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The cofounder of Fast Company provides 52 rules of thumb--one for each week of the year--to help leaders stay productive and inspired, even in the most turbulent times.


Rules of Thumb
52 Truths for Winning at Business Without Losing Your Self

Chapter One

Rule #1

When the going gets tough, the tough relax

The year was 1986. I was sitting at the end of a formal boardroom table in a private office in the German Bundestag in Bonn. I had on my best three-piece suit and a Brooks Brothers tie I'd bought for the occasion.

I was waiting to conduct an interview with former German chancellor Helmut Schmidt for the Harvard Business Review. I'd written my questions out in longhand on a yellow legal pad. My tape recorder was plugged in and strategically placed on the table near the chair where I assumed Chancellor Schmidt would sit. I'd calculated the angle of the recorder so I could make eye contact with Schmidt and check the machine. The last thing I needed was to sit through the interview only to discover afterward that the recorder had malfunctioned. I was jet-lagging like crazy, having flown from Boston to Bonn the night before. And I couldn't stop going over in my mind all the ways this interview could go wrong—and everything that was riding on it.

At that moment right before Helmut Schmidt walked into the room I realized I was going about this in a way that was guaranteed to blow it.

My approach was wrong.

My mind-set was wrong.

And if I didn't do something to change it in the next few seconds, I'd not only doom my project but also feel bad about it for the rest of my life.

The problem was how I'd gotten to that room in the first place.

A short time before this trip to Germany, the brilliant, curmudgeonly marketing guru Ted Levitt had taken over as faculty editor of the Harvard Business Review. I was working there as an associate editor, at the bottom of the pecking order. And I was bored out of my mind by the publication's stuffy complacency.

It turned out that Ted shared my evaluation of HBR. He characterized it as "the only magazine written by -people who can't write for -people who don't read." As soon as he took over as faculty editor, overseeing the staff of professionals, Ted set out to shake the place up. At the top of his to-do list was to hold an internal competition for a new managing editor, the title that went to the highest-ranking staff member. When Ted interviewed me about my intentions for the future, much to my own surprise the words that came out of my mouth were, "I either want to run this place or leave it."

To make my bid for the top job I'd proposed a series of interviews: "The Statesman as CEO." I would travel around the world and interview former heads of state to explore leadership—but of a country, not a company. I'd start with Helmut Schmidt, then interview Japan's Yasuhiro Nakasone, the United Kingdom's James Callaghan, and finally former U.S. presidents Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter.

There was a method to my madness. Years before, the German Marshall Fund had selected me for a fellowship, a three-month stint in Munich to study that city's urban plan. I figured that by working through the German Marshall Fund, I could line up an interview with Helmut Schmidt. Once I had one statesman committed I could use him as leverage with the others. Sure enough, when I called my contact at the German Marshall Fund, she told me that an interview would indeed be doable. But she also warned me that I might not enjoy the experience.

"He's not a very pleasant man," she advised me. "He's very hard to interview because he looks down on the -people asking the questions. And," she confided, "you know he takes snuff."

Nevertheless, she had me send a formal proposal on official HBR stationery that she could forward to the appropriate German authorities. After my request went through the proper channels my friend came back with a date, a time, and a place for my interview with the notoriously difficult, snuff-taking chancellor.

All that was going through my mind as I sat there staring at my tape recorder and my yellow lined legal tablet.

What would Ted Levitt think if I screwed up this interview?

What would happen to my chances for the top job at HBR?

More immediately, what would happen if Helmut Schmidt dismissed my questions as stupid?

What if the tape recorder malfunctioned?

I looked at it sitting there, waiting for the opportunity to betray me. I could feel the pressure rising in my chest.

That's when I took my pen out of my shirt pocket and carefully wrote new instructions to myself. I put them at the top of the yellow legal tablet above all my questions, where my eyes would come to rest before I started the interview and between every question: "Relax! Smile! This is a blessing, a treat, and an honor. It's not a punishment to be endured."

How many -people get to sit across from a world leader and ask him questions? How many -people get to see their proposal for a project—any project—approved, and then get to go do it?

What I needed to see was how fortunate I was to be there. To enjoy it. To relax and hope that Helmut Schmidt would enjoy it. To see it as it really was: an exceptional experience.

I had just written the instructions to myself at the top of the tablet when the door opened. Chancellor Schmidt walked in.

We shook hands. I introduced myself and briefly explained the project. I got ready to ask my first question. But first I smiled. He smiled back.

So What?

W. Edwards Deming is famous for his fourteen-point program that created the modern total quality movement. The one I always come back to is his eighth point: "Drive out fear, so that everyone may work effectively for the company."

What he didn't say is that the place to start is with you.

Anytime you approach a task with fear you are at least a double loser. First, you color the work with fear and increase the chances of failure. Confidence and composure trump fear every time. Second, you guarantee that you won't enjoy the experience. Whether you succeed or fail, wouldn't you like to remember the experience as one you enjoyed, not one you suffered through?

So when you feel that familiar unpleasant sensation rising up in your chest or settling into the pit of your stomach, remember Rule #1. Don't let fear undermine your chance to do that one thing you've wanted to do. Rule #1 touches every other rule. Take a second and smile. Enjoy the trip.

Rules of Thumb
52 Truths for Winning at Business Without Losing Your Self
. Copyright © by Alan Webber. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

Excerpted from Rules of Thumb: 52 Truths for Winning at Business Without Losing Your Self by Alan Webber
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