Today, I spoke with Alan Webber, who is the co-founder of Fast Company Magazine and the author of Rules of Thumb. In this interview, Alan tells us what inspired him to start Fast Company and write his new book, how he sees the media landscape changing, how to succeed in a time of economic struggles and much more.
What inspired you to start Fast Company Magazine and to write your new book?
In 1989 I was managing editor of the Harvard Business Review when the Japan Society of New York awarded me a fellowship that enabled me to go to Japan for 3 months. It was at the height of the Japanese expansion; in the United States the great worry was that Japan was going to surpass America economically. Ezra Vogel had written a best-seller, “Japan As #1.” And with the permission of HBS, I found myself in Japan with a license to interview the next generation of leaders in business, government, journalism, the bureaucracy–you name it! The timing was perfect; I got to see the future as it emerged from companies, laboratories, and offices.
I saw four transforming trends:
- Technology: the future was going to personal, portable, and digital;.
- Globalization: the future was going to be global, with borders and boundaries between nations, markets, industries, companies all disappearing or becoming less important.
- Generational: a new generation was coming into power in business and government, a generation less concerned about putting food on the table and more determined to make a difference in the world.
- Gender: the dominance of the white male business and political culture was about to give way to a world where women were much more important, more powerful, and more present in key positions of power.
When I got back to HBR after my 3 months in Japan, I tried to introduce these themes into HBR, but it really wasn’t the right vehicle for talking about change. In 1993 I left HBR and with my business and editorial partner, Bill Taylor, set out to create a magazine that could embody these themes, both editorially and graphically. That became Fast Company. The book also grew out of a story. A little over a year ago, I was invited to give a speech on leadership and change to the CEO and top executives of a large American company.
At the end of my talk, the CEO asked his executive team a question: “Given what Mr. Webber has just told us about change and leadership, who in America would you say has moral authority today?” In other words, who in America really stood for values and principles worthy of respect? There was a long silence. For 5 minutes, the room was dead silent. No one could think of a name. You could see them searching their mental rolodexes: business leader–nope; religious leader–no; political leader–not even close.
When I got home, I came to the conclusion that we were experiencing more change than ever, and needed guidance more than ever–and had fewer sources of guidance than ever. My conclusion was, we were going to have to write our own rules, be our own best teachers and learners, and create our own moral authorities from each other. Rules of Thumb is my best effort to stimulate that conversation and invite friends, readers, and leaders into the act of becoming our own moral authority figures.
Which rule of thumb is your favorite and why?
That’s like asking a parent which one of his kids is his favorite! I love them all, for different reasons. But there’s a reason I ended the book with:
- Rule #52: Stay alert! There are teachers everywhere.
I think we’ll all be more alive, more aware, better listeners, better leaders if we take the position of life-time learners. That means treating every encounter, every conversation, every situation as a chance to listen in to what’s being said. The more we pay attention, the more we learn; the more we learn, the more we have to contribute. It’s a virtuous circle, which is what we need to get through this time of turbulence and unpredictable change, and come out smarter than we went in.
In a time of economic struggle, how can people thrive and survive, without losing everything they’ve already worked hard for?
Well, I don’t think anyone can guarantee that any of us won’t lose what we worked hard to create or earn; those kinds of guarantees never existed and don’t exist now. I think the best way for all of us to deal with this period of great uncertainty is to focus on what really matters. Several of my Rules of Thumb are designed to help people do that.
- Rule #23: Keep two lists. What gets you up in the morning? What keeps you up at night? In other words, pay attention to what excites you the most about your work and life, and pay equal attention to what you feel passionate about changing in the world around you.
- Rule #3: Ask the last question first. The last question is, what’s the point of the exercise? Why do you do what you do? What’s your definition of victory?
- Rule #4: Don’t implement solutions. Prevent problems. The point here is, the least expensive, most effective way to get results is to prevent a problem from happening, rather than waiting and then having to clean it up. In some way, this current economic mess is an invitation for all of us to think freshly about how we want to work and live, how we want to do business and pursue our own path.
Rules of Thumb is a reminder, in some cases, of things we all know but may have forgotten. It’s a set of core principles that can guide leaders, entrepreneurs, kids just starting in business, or old-timers trying to make sense out of so much change.
You have a lot of experience in the media world. How do you see media changing and what do you believe can save the print publication industry?
I love media, first of all. I am not only an alum of the world of newspapers and magazines, I’m also a huge consumer of print, TV, radio, the Web. I’m an information junkie, and proud of it. That said, as a junkie, I know a couple of things. First, news and information are a commodity. If you’re in the information business, you don’t have a distinctive product or service; you’re just another source of information.
To the extent that print publications have gotten used to being information providers, they are an endangered species on several counts: their business model is broken, their audience is leaving them, the don’t have a distinctive position or offering, and they are out of synch with the times. That’s a lot of problems to overcome simultaneously.
So rather than focusing on the noun “print”, let’s focus on the verbs that consumers want. We want to read great stories. We want entertaining story-telling. We want stories that help us make sense out of a confusing world. We want stories that help us connect with other people, that show us what it means to be a community. We want stories that unveil the very best and the very worst in the human experience. We want stories that help us make up our own minds about what we think, what we choose, how we should vote, how we should act. These verbs are verbs that we’ve wanted as humans for a long, long time. Think about Homer–and I don’t mean Simpson! So while the noun “print” may not work as it has in the past, the verbs that we associate with story-telling, with journalism at its best, those verbs will always be with us.
How have you built your personal brand over your career and what are your top three lessons learned?
- Rule #51: Take your work seriously. Yourself, not so much.
- Rule #43: Don’t confuse credentials with talent.
- Rule #47: Everyone is at the center of their map of the world. The world is a fascinating place, and only becoming more so. Go out and meet as many amazing people as you can in your life, and learn from all of them. It may not make for a “career” or even a “brand”–but it’ll make for one wonderful life!
Alan Webber is an award-winning, nationally-recognized editor, author, and columnist. He is the author of Rules of Thumb: 52 Truths for Winning at Business Without Losing Your Self. In 1995, he launched Fast Company Magazine, a fresh, dynamic entry in the business magazine category. Headquartered in Boston, MA, the magazine became the fastest growing, most successful business magazine in history. Fast Company won 2 national magazine awards—one for general excellence, one for design—and Webber was named Adweek’s Editor of the Year in 1999, along with co-founding editor William Taylor. In 2000 Fast Company magazine was sold to Gruner + Jahr for the second largest amount of any magazine in U.S. history. Last year Webber stepped down from his full-time editorial responsibilities, but has retained his title and contributing role as founding editor. Prior to founding Fast Company, Webber was for 5 years the managing editor and editorial director of the Harvard Business Review.