The Unwritten Rules Of Business

This post first appeared on January 14, 2015 at Forbes.

One of my favorite writers, Rick Reilly, penned a great column in 1995 entitled, Unwritten Rules. The piece laid out many of the great “known” rules of sports — things that athletes know to be true, but which cannot be found in any rulebook.

I realized recently that there are also “unwritten rules” for business. Those who manage these rules well can be substantively more effective in their interactions with others, and can often achieve their goals by using common sense in appropriate situations.

With a hat tip to Reilly, I present the Unwritten Rules of Business:

1. Sending prep materials before a meeting: Sending out slides or an agenda before a big meeting (e.g. a Board meeting, a monthly team meeting, etc.) requires that they be sent out prior to 5 PM the day before the meeting. In fact, sending them at 11 PM the night before the meeting is the same thing as not sending them at all. Actually, it is worse than not sending anything out. It is simply CYA and comes across as such.

2. Requesting a meeting with at least a week’s notice: If you are seeking a meeting with someone else, sending a note that says, “Hi, I’m arriving in town tonight — can we get together for an hour in the next two days as this is the only window I will be in your city?” is not enough time for the receiving party to consider the invitation. You might be surprised, but the receiving party might already have meetings scheduled for the next couple of days.

3. Know the answers in a board meeting: As the CEO you should never ask a question out loud in a board meeting to which you don’t already know the answer. Ever.

4. Sending meeting invites: If you set up a meeting with someone and take on the responsibility of sending a meeting invite, you should send it with a subject line that makes sense to both parties. For example, if you and I agree to a business call and you send me a meeting invite, examples of inappropriate titles for the meeting would include, “Call with Rob” (means nothing to me when I see it on my calendar) or “Catch up” (means nothing to either of us). “Call with Rob/’Yourname’ re: business idea” is an ideal title.

5. Corollary — Updating meeting invites: If you own the meeting invite on other people’s calendars and the meeting changes the time or date, it is your responsibility to send an update within a few hours of the meeting being changed. Waiting several days to do so and therefore making everyone else’s calendars incorrect can only cause problems for others.

6. Manage financial forecasts: All business forecasts are wrong — usually to the downside. People experienced in business expect it. However, you never want to miss a forecast by a substantive amount immediately after closing a round of funding — this puts trust at risk amongst all parties. And while missed forecasts can be managed, lost trust can be fatal.

7. Be transparent with your edits: If you are trading versions of a document (e.g. a contract), send back both a clean version and a red-line from the last version after you make changes. Do not send only a clean version and require the receiving party to figure out what you changed.

8. Manage documents so your readers do not have to: Name documents logically and use version control if you are iterating so that the receiving party knows with what version of the document they are working.

9. Be nice to administrative assistants and office managers: Most assistants are doing their best to help you while at the same time balancing their responsibilities to those people whom they support. Treat them well — even if your position is higher than theirs on the org chart, being polite is the right thing to do.

10. Manage time in meetings: If you are leading a meeting, start the session by asking when everyone’s “hard stop” is so that you can be sure to manage time effectively. Don’t assume that you can take more time than scheduled and that everyone will have the ability to stay.

11. Don’t ask for advice if you are not open to taking it: Many people schedule meetings with the premise that they are looking for advice, but actually they are only looking to validate their current assumptions. If you do not really want to hear what others have to say, do not ask. When you repeatedly ignore others after asking their counsel it will only annoy them and frustrate you.

12. Ask before adding someone to your mailing list: Just because you met someone once does not mean they want to be on your email list for marketing or business updates. However, if you choose to send an email anyway, be responsible enough to offer an “easy unsubscribe” with one click at the bottom of your note.

13. If you asked for an introduction, act on it: If you asked a friend to introduce you to someone else, and the introduction gets made, be sure you follow up within one day of the introduction being made. Waiting days or weeks, or ignoring the introduction altogether, makes both you and your friend look bad.

14. Texting business contacts: Unless someone is a close personal friend, do not assume that your phone number is in someone else’s contact list when texting. Identify yourself with your first and last name when sending a business text.

15. Always send a thank you note: If someone took a meeting at your request, follow up with a thank you note. Your parents taught you to say your “pleases” and “thank yous” — they were right.

And some hat tips to others:

16. There’s a right way to cancel a meeting: It happens; despite the best of intentions, schedules fluctuate. Mark Suster said it best — there is a right way to cancel a meeting.

17. Double opt-in intro: Fred Wilson appears to have said it first, but Anand Sanwal did a great job recently, too — always ask permission of both sides before making an introduction.

This is just a short list of things that came to mind — any others that you would add?