CMO 2.0 Influencer Conversation With Alan Webber, Author and Co-founder of Fast Company

Written by on October 25, 2009 – 6:10 pm -

alawebbersmHaving been a customer of Fast Company since the first release and having been an early advertiser in the magazine, I truly enjoyed having my CMO 2.0 Influencer conversation with Alan Webber, the co-founder of Fast Company, and most recently the author of a great book called Rules of Thumb.

As usual, we started by having Alan give us some context about himself – incidentally, one of his rules of thumb (#32  – “content isn’t king, context is king”). I had forgotten what the first cover of the magazine said: work is personal, computing is social, knowledge is power, and break the rules. Talk about being ahead of your time – that was 1995! That was a true manifesto which led to Fast Company becoming one of the fastest growing publications and the second largest acquisition in U.S. magazine history.

Rules of thumb pulls together 52 core lessons that Alan learned during his 40 years of working in government, academia and publishing at the Harvard Business School, as an entrepreneur at Fast Company, and as a globetrotting, global “detective,” as he describes himself, trying to make sense out of all the changes that are currently going on in business, politics, and society all over the world.

Next we touched on Alan’s Rule #15 – “every start-up needs four things: Change, Connections, Conversation, and Community” – and how that happened at Fast Company. Fast Company, of course, was one of the first companies to successfully leverage communities as part of their business model. Readers of the magazine formed a real tribe – one that wanted to hang together in the context of ideas and conversations about the trajectory of change in business, work, competition, and in individual’s careers. The tribe, as you may recall, was called Company of Friends – and like most successful communities it became a true movement, one that the company would have been hard-pressed to close down.

Bouncing around a bit we next talked about rule #42 – the survival of the fittest is the business case for diversity. Not only did they have tremendous diversity within their employee base, with people coming from all over the world, with different backgrounds, different educations, race, color, etc. , they also had a lot of diversity among their readers. The diverse employee gene pool allowed them to be very innovative – for example making them one of the earliest magazines to turn their customers into co-marketers by giving away their web content for free with the first “send this page to a friend” feature.

Next we spoke about a number of rules related to talent and leadership, including Rule #19, “memo to leaders: focus on the signal-to-noise ratio,” or Rule # 21, great leaders answer Tom Peter’s great question: “How can I capture the World’s Imagination?”, or (maybe my favorite) Rule #26, “the soft stuff is the hard stuff.” Alan sees a shift from leaders who have all the answers to leaders who know the best questions to ask. He thinks that in the wake of this economic crisis, many of us feel like we’ve been let down by those leaders who were supposed to make sound business decisions. The problem is that they did not ask the right questions and in many cases did not ask any questions. Good leaders, he explained, are those people who start out thinking they are not necessarily in positions of authority to give everybody answers. They’re in a position of authority to ask really tough questions that make their organization think very hard about what they’re doing and why they’re doing it. Good leaders in this period of economic retrenchment should have a mix of intelligence and humility – they don’t need to be the smartest person in the room, but they do have to be the person who’s willing to ask the hardest questions and insist on really good answers. As a leader you need to have clarity about your purpose, honesty about your values, and focus about your metrics.

Next we talked about the importance of  knowledge flows and how you absolutely have to have trust within organizations for knowledge to flow. We also touched on talent being one of the key drivers in successful business and the irony associated with the fact that while most leaders will agree to that, they will also promote CFO’s before HR VP’s, and at the first signs of trouble ditch the talent in order to get their stock prices up.

Alan then spent a fair amount of time talking about a new movement he sees emerging, that of social entrepreneurship and social innovation – a topic he covers in his book as well. People are no longer waiting for governments to come up with solutions to small and big social problems – they are assembling the best of business practices with a strong social mission to tackle the problems as for-profit, non-profit, or hybrid organizations.  They are baby boomers as well as young people right out of college. He believes that social entrepreneurship, which is a true global phenomenon, is changing the world.

In a way, Rules of Thumb is very much a book on leadership. It tries to get people to be leaders on their own terms, and to mint a new group of people who don’t look to others to provide the rules.

Other things we talked about include:

  • The need to match left brain people with right brain people
  • How most successful magazines mobilized a community that didn’t know it was a community until the magazine came out and gave it the organizing principles so people knew they belonged to a community
  • How leadership is a test of character
  • How you need metrics to show people how they are doing but how you cannot have too many metrics

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Posted in CMO 2.0 Influencer Conversation | 14 Comments »
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