What’s Your Favorite ‘Golden Rule’?

By Brian O’Connell October 12, 2021
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What’s Your Favorite ‘Golden Rule’?

​Many company leaders say they instill their own "golden rules" at work and strive to make those rules stick. They're gratified when they see their employees follow those rules in the workplace—often when wise guidance is most needed.

Here are some of their stories.

"Who's got the monkey?" Rick Eberly, CEO of Chembio Diagnostics Inc., headquartered in Hauppauge, N.Y., says his favorite golden rule is about accountability.

"My favorite golden rule for … management comes from the best-read Harvard Business Review article, first printed in 1974, called 'Who's Got the Monkey?' " Eberly said. "In fact, it is one of two of HBR's top reprints ever."

Eberly worked for the CEO of a public company in the health care market for over 20 years, and the CEO drilled the "monkey" concept into his managers.

"The bottom line is, don't bring your problems to your boss with no proposed solutions or, in essence, [don't put] the monkey on your boss's back," he explained. "This leads to successful delegation, transparency and accountability throughout an organization."

Once leaders understand that they are accountable for solving problems and improving the operation, it cascades throughout the organization. "That leads to quicker solutions being executed across areas in the business," Eberly said.

There's no traffic jam on the extra mile. The best golden rules are applied consistently, said Charles J. Read, president and CEO at Custom Payroll Associates Inc. in Lewisville, Texas.

"The rule should be followed almost every time," he said. "There can be rare exceptions."

That goes for Read's favorite golden rule: There is no traffic jam on the extra mile.

"Many companies and company [managers] won't go further than the required minimum," he said. "In business, always go further in taking care of people, clients or employees. [That] means bending over backward to help make our clients' lives as easy as possible. We're always trying to find better and simpler ways to prevent and solve problems and to make the routine even simpler." 

All tasks are our tasks. To Phillip Lew, CEO of C9 Staff, a remote staffing solutions company based in Seattle, a golden rule is any belief or practice that gets the job done according to standards and as quickly as possible. Additionally, it must bolster a positive working atmosphere.

Lew's favorite rule: "All tasks are our tasks."

"It's a golden rule I want company managers to prioritize," Lew said. "Instead of saying, 'Here's a task. You have until the end of the week to complete it,' a good manager should say, 'Here's a task. Study it. Before the day ends, I want you to get back to me and tell me how I can help you complete this task by the end of the week.'

"This way, the chance of getting the task done to standards is greater [and you avoid the risk of] having to redo the entire thing if it's done incorrectly," he said.

Act on suggestions from your team. Stephen Roe, founder and head of digital strategy at Mexico-based Grow Atom, an SEO agency that counts Salesforce and AT&T as its clients, defines a golden rule as one that involves everyone at a company.

His preferred golden rule: Act on suggestions from your team.

"It sounds obvious, but far too many managers ignore suggestions from employees or put off acting on them," he said.

One example of acting on suggestions from his team happened when Roe saw that client content was missing required data. "After sending content projects back to the writer, our team assistant suggested adding a checklist to our project management tool to prevent slip-ups. We implemented it within 24 hours and haven't had a piece [of content] with missing data since."

According to Roe, the best part of acting on team suggestions is that the team will want to offer more suggestions. "Our processes have improved in large part because everyone is looking for ways to improve—and [aren't] afraid to bring them up."

Focus on value, not activity. A golden rule is a guiding principle that is established at the top of the organization (ideally at the board or CEO level). "It should be simple to understand, easy to communicate and lived throughout the whole organization, top to bottom," said Martin G. Moore, co-founder of Boston-based Your CEO Mentor and host of the No Bullsh!t podcast for business leaders.

Moore said his top-line golden rule—focus on value—fits that definition.

"So much of what we dedicate resources to in a company generates little value; it's really just activity for its own sake," he said. "Value comes from many different sources, and understanding how value can be created—whether it's financial results, risk reduction, safety improvement, customer satisfaction—is the first step."

Once the greatest value has been identified, the single focus should be to apply every resource available to pull the biggest value levers.

"To do this, marginal activities have to be stopped, which is probably the hardest thing any leader can try to do," he said. "After all, activity gets a life of its own, people become emotionally attached to it, and it's hard to even see it, let alone weed it out."

One opportunity to stop marginal activities is during the annual planning cycle. "Learning to say no to the things that can't clearly be traced to a value outcome is difficult, but it has to be done," he said. "Resources can only be allocated to initiatives with a clear value outcome, which has tangible benefits and can be verified."

Brian O'Connell is a freelance writer based in Bucks County, Pa. A former Wall Street trader, he is the author of CNBC Creating Wealth (John Wiley & Sons, 2001) and The Career Survival Guide (McGraw-Hill, 2004).

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