- The Washington Times - Friday, May 15, 2009




By Alan M. Webber

Harper Business, $24.99, 288 pages

Reviewed by James Srodes

The last thing one needs to read in these fraught economic times is yet another pompous, didactic set of rules for success in business penned by some self-promoting charlatan. Fortunately, this funny, insightful and, yes, useful book is something quite different.

For one thing, the author has little need to promote his reputation. Alan M. Webber was a co-founder of the cutting-edge business magazine Fast Company and a former editorial director of the Harvard Business Review, so his creds are pretty well-established. He also is a very funny writer, whose career as a business journalist has left him with a trove of firsthand encounters with a Who’s Who of global government leaders, business executives and creative thinkers. One suspects Mr. Webber would be a good dinner companion.

However, what’s useful about Mr. Webber’s list of rules is that the rules are not intended to be swallowed whole by anyone else. Instead, he recommends readers use his insights to stimulate their own thinking and to create their own set of rules for a world that is changing right beneath our feet.

“Globalization, technology, and the knowledge economy have propelled countries, industries, companies, and individual careers into new and uncharted territory. Unprecedented and destabilizing economic, political and social events are unfolding. Massive financial shifts have undermined the leading economies of the world. Old, prestigious companies with long, storied heritages have disappeared overnight. Entire industries have awakened to discover that they need to adapt, transform, or become extinct. It’s no exaggeration to say that leading thinkers around the world are seriously discussing new forms and new rules for the future of capitalism,” Mr. Webber explains.

“At the same time, because economic creation always accompanies economic destruction, a new generation of entrepreneurs is seizing the moment. As giant companies appeal to Washington, D.C., for financial aid, brand-new start-ups suddenly emerge to capture the public’s imagination and the market’s wallet. … It’s time to rewrite the rules.”

Mr. Webber’s rules are the distillation of 20 years of insights systematically recorded on 3-by-5-inch index cards as he traveled among the world’s creative intellectuals. After explaining how he came by each of the 52 insights, he asks, “So What?” to help the reader find something in his own life that is applicable.

One of my favorite rules is “Ask the Last Question First.” In other words, what’s the point of this exercise that is contemplated? As he reasons, ” … if you avoid having to confront why you’re doing something, you won’t know the right way to do it or even whether you should do it in the first place.”

Perhaps the most important rule for these perilous times is, “Learn to take No as a question.” As he says, “The correct response to a no is ‘thank you.’ ” He adds, “Take notes. If the person telling you no offers an explanation, listen carefully, listen respectfully, listen to everything he or she says - without agreeing or arguing. … You may have come for money, but these words can be precious gold. You’re getting something rare: honest feedback.”

Here are just a few of the others that caught my eye:

“Don’t implement solutions. Prevent problems.”

“Nothing happens until money changes hands.”

“The difference between a crisis and an opportunity is when you learn about it.”

“Knowing it ain’t the same as doing it.”

“Keep two lists: What gets you up in the morning? What keeps you up at night?”

“All money is not created equal.”

” ‘Serious fun’ isn’t an oxymoron: It’s how you win.”

“Don’t confuse credentials with talent.”

“On the way up, pay attention to your strengths; they’ll be your weaknesses on the way down.”

“Take your work seriously. Yourself, not so much.”

It is clear that Mr. Webber has taken that last rule to heart. “Rules of Thumb” is a fun read and all the more valuable for it.

James Srodes is a veteran Washington financial journalist and author.

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