Breaking business rules

KICK IT OFF: Be strategic about picking the right moment to break a corporate rule.


    Apr 29, 2014

    Breaking business rules

    LUNCHING with the CEO of a world-famous organisation recently, I was surprised at her nervousness about breaking a rule we both agreed was pointless and wrong.

    It was a rule, not a law. If found out, she might be reprimanded but she would not suffer any penalty of significance - unless, that is, her superiors took a more legalistic view than was reasonable.

    Why did she have this timorous approach?

    Background of strict obedience - a very Asian characteristic for many - and a desire to please by subservience seemed to be the main drivers.

    Ultimate success, changing the culture, venturing forth into the unknown were all, she said, too risky and counter-culture.

    This was odd because in her personal life she had shown amazing courage and perseverance, once in the face of overwhelming odds.

    Involved in athletics, at which she was brilliant from an early age, she had had a fall on badly maintained parallel bars.

    Her injuries were serious. Good doctors and strict discipline helped her recover her health and strength. Then she took up competitive athletics again. You have to be brave or mad to do that. She is not mad.

    Resisting breaking a corporate rule was strange because she was aware that she needed to do so to establish her corporate authority more firmly.

    Finally, she decided to break the rule. She was transparent about it and did not hide the fact that she had done so. Her career is not only intact, but she is also slated for a big promotion in the next few months.

    How do you decide when and when not to break the rules? Is there a "rule" we can apply?

    By definition, the answer is "no". To make up our minds about rule-breaking, we need the following ingredients:


    It is always easy to ignore the facts if there is a rule covering a certain situation. Rules reduce thinking.

    While building a business, I had the usual rules about cars managers could get as a company perk (still taxable, so not all that much of a perk). A middle manager who was starting a business for us needed to visit SME CEOs as part of his initial sales approach. His car entitlement was not impressive.

    SME CEOs (his clients) used to have their offices overlooking their carpark. They paid attention to the visitor based on the status of his car. Silly and not much done today.

    It was obvious that I had to break the car rule and give this man a car above what his position entitled him to, even at the risk of disturbing company harmony - which it did a little. But sales were more important than colleagues' feelings.


    Consider the possible consequences of breaking the rule or not breaking it.

    People who fret about procedure seldom think through the consequences of the possible actions they can take. When they do, they realise that the risks they are taking are very small in relation to the likely benefits for the business.


    Surprises are what bosses hate - even pleasant ones.

    There isn't always time to get people used to an idea but when there is, use it.

    I wanted to build a winery for a strictly teetotal company. Their teetotal attitude was historic, not religious. Giving them hints about the chances to visit the place, the beauty of the countryside and the tremendous business opportunity didn't make them change their minds - it made them think again, thus allowing me to put forward a sound business case which changed their minds.


    Strategic thinking is in short supply all round. When planning to break a rule, it needs to be top of mind.

    There are times when bosses are amenable to suggestions, times when they are not. If there are problems on the horizon, make sure you either beat them to it or defer until they have passed. Don't get your 5-iron out just as the thunder starts.

    If there is a rule about breaking rules, it is that you think through the benefits and risks and make a judgment. It always comes back to thinking.

    The writer is the chairman, CEO & Founder Mentor of Terrific Mentors International (, a group of skilled mentors with significant management experience who share a passion for reviving balance sheets by restoring human spirits.