One of the most helpful business books I’ve ever read (Throwing the Elephant: Zen and the Art of Managing Up) was written by a columnist for Esquire (Stanley Bing, who has since left that magazine to write for Fortune). So when I heard that another Esquire columnist (Ross McCammon) had written a business book, I was eager to give it a read.
McCammon’s book, Works Well With Others, published last fall, has a lot in common with Bing’s Throwing the Elephant. But while Bing focused mainly on ways to deal with and manage your boss, McCammon’s book is concerned with navigating the mysterious world of work, its odd rituals and customs.
And there’s a lot to navigate. Maybe that’s why Works Well With Others‘ subtitle — An Outsider’s Guide to Shaking Hands, Shutting Up, Handling Jerks, and Other Crucial Skills in Business That No One Ever Teaches You — is so dang long. But that subtitle does the job of conveying the gist of the book’s subject matter. Works Well With Others is a kind of manual for anyone wanting to do well at work and succeed in working with everyone from the boss’s boss to the custodians and clerks.
In a mere couple of hundred pages (which glide by effortlessly because the chapters are short), McCammon guides us about the customs of business, the business of customers, workplace fashion do’s and don’ts, and diverse rituals surrounding food, drink, meetings and greetings. He covers just about everything imaginable that you might need to know to succeed in the world of work, such as:
- Handling a job interview (jobs aren’t to be “gotten”; they’re to be “matched to”)
- Writing email (“easy with the CC,” and maybe pick up the phone once in awhile)
- Giving a toast (never script it)
- Screwing up (you should screw up sooner rather than later)
- Giving a speech or pitching an idea (everybody but the jerks in the room wants you to succeed)
- Entering a room (maintain eye contact)
- Shaking hands (never shake hands in the rest room)
McCammon doles out his advice in a breezy, humorous style that you’d expect from someone who writes for Esquire. His tone is familiar, like that of a veteran but non-jaundiced confidant showing newbies the ropes of the office environment. Yes, much of it is tongue-in-cheek. And yes, much of it is drawn from McCammon’s own experience working in the publishing industry in the heart of Manhattan, which has little relevance to some of us. If only there were a few examples that would pertain directly to higher education. (For example, in the chapter on talking to important people, he goes on about chatting with supermodels and Rihanna. But few of us will ever have that opportunity. How about guiding us on how to talk to a trustee or curator over dinner, or how to pitch an idea to the harried, overbooked college president, or how to chat with overly self-important professors about their research?)
But that’s a minor nit. The lessons gleaned from McCammon’s tale of chatting with Rihanna apply just as well to lesser big wigs. At the core of Works Well With Others is a combination of humility and candor that I find refreshing. From the get-go, McCammon acknowledges the fact that we all fear failure and feel unqualified for whatever line of work we’re in. Like us, he deals with the insecurity and moments of panic that can suddenly paralyze us or make us feel like we’re just one big screw-up away from unemployment. “Hugely important rule: Everyone is weird and nervous … Especially the people who don’t seem weird or nervous.”
McCammon’s own story — editor for Southwest Airlines’ Spirit magazine gets called by Conde Nast and invited to New York for a job interview in the big leagues — attests to the luck and good fortune than can fall our way if we put in the work. But even with good fortune, the weirdness and nervousness continue.
In summary, Works Well With Others is a book that I wish had existed 20 or 25 years ago, when I was still trying to figure out the rules of the game called workplace dynamics. If you’re still trying to figure out those rules, I recommend you read this.
Even if you’ve been at the game for a while and think you know the score, it wouldn’t hurt to read Works Well With Others.
Because if McCammon is correct, you probably don’t know the score at all.