Stay open to new opportunities; It can lead to your success and happiness! — Beth Kuhel
I recently interviewed Bo Burlingham, the affable Editor-At-Large for Inc. magazine about his career path. Bo surprised me by saying he actually had no career plan and his ascent to his current position was more or less “an accident.” After hearing his story, I realized there was a lot to be learned from Bo’s experience and from what he did in not sticking to any kind of rigid career plan. In fact, it was the surprising and unplanned events, Bo’s openness to changing his path, and the interesting people he met along the way that shaped who he is today and makes Bo’s journey interesting and worth examining.
Can you describe what you were like in college? What inspired you to pursue a career path as a magazine writer?
During Bo’s college years, he said he was a “rabble-rouser.” Although his father was a writer for Fortune magazine, Bo never envisioned becoming a journalist nor did he aspire to a career in the publishing business. In fact he said that he was never particularly interested in that path. Bo confessed that he loved the research and “agonized over the writing.”
After college (in the early 70’s) Bo wrote for several “alternative” newspapers in Boston (The Phoenix, Boston After Dark, and The Real Paper) because they paid more than the other offers he received including one at a Ping-Pong paddle manufacturer. He later became managing editor of Ramparts, a radical magazine based in Berkeley, California. That work, along with two book contracts, allowed him to pay his bills for the next 10 years. Bo told me that Joe Klein, Sid Blumenthal, Paul Solman, and Janet Maslin were all young writers at the time who also wrote for alternative newspapers in Boston and went on to have distinguished careers in journalism. They now write for Time magazine, The Washington Post, The News Hour on PBS, and The New York Times. Bo said he’d learned to write through the work he did for those publications: “Cranking out an article every week” sharpened his writing skills.
How did you make the switch from a writer for a left-wing newspaper to a writer for a business publication?
In 1981, Bo received a call from a recruiter to write for Fidelity Investments. His initial response was to turn the offer down. Having absolutely no background in business or finance, he thought he didn’t have the knowledge needed to write for a financial organization. How could he if he didn’t know the difference between a balance sheet and income statement or between a stock and a bond? The recruiter assured Bo that Fidelity was looking for a general magazine writer not a businessperson and that the company could train him to understand the business concepts.
Married with two children and in need of a full-time job, Bo decided to accept the job offer at Fidelity Investments. It was a big change from his work at alternative weeklies and Ramparts. Considering he had no business background, his decision to write for a financial services company was a risk that took him out of his comfort zone. He couldn’t know for sure if he would fit in Fidelity’s culture or if he’d like the work he’d be called upon to do there.
Bo told me that in hindsight accepting the job to write for Fidelity ended up being one of the best career moves of his life. He acquired new knowledge of the business world that led to a better job (a year later) as a writer for Inc. Magazine. Bo said that the 1980’s was the most exciting time to join this kind of magazine. The entrepreneurial economy was being born, and Inc. was virtually alone in covering it.
How were you able to adjust to this new job at Inc.? Did you ever feel you had to relinquish your liberal values by switching gears?
Bo said that as soon as he arrived at Inc. he knew that he had made the right decision: The people Inc. wrote about were visionaries and dreamers, and he realized that “the media caricatures of people in business were wrong.” Every day brought exciting new experiences. Bo enjoyed meeting the founders of burgeoning businesses and learning about what made these entrepreneurs tick. Over the years he met and interviewed some of the world’s most interesting, influential and well-known entrepreneurs including Steve Jobs from Apple, Ben Cohen from Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, Tom Monaghan from Domino’s Pizza, Gary Hirshberg of Stonyfield Farm, Ari Weinzweig and Paul Saginaw of Zingerman’s Deli, Norm Brodsky of CitiStorage, Anita Roddick of The Body Shop, Jack Stack of SRC Holdings, and many others.
Bo said he became good friends with Norm Brodsky, with whom he wrote The Knack, and Jack Stack, with whom he wrote The Great Game of Business. These business owners were all doing great things for their employees, customers, suppliers and communities. They inspired him to learn more about how some businesses are able to become super successful while also improving the world. Bo emphasized that most of the businesses he writes about share a vision of doing good in the world and want to use their businesses as vehicles for doing it.
What motivates you to write?
Bo said that his curiosity drives him to learn about how businesses work and how business can become a tool for making the world a better place. He has been impressed by the good works that these businesses do for all their stakeholders. In his writing for Inc., he often spotlights business practices that he admires and believes are the reason that some companies consistently do better than others.
My interview with Bo was not what I thought it would be. I expected him to be a conservative (I noted from his LinkedIn profile that he graduated from Princeton). But after speaking with him I realized the truth in the expression…”don’t judge a book by its cover:” Bo is liberal-minded and extremely laid back. He’s unusual in that he didn’t stick to a rigid plan of any kind. At the same time, he never abandoned his personal desire to use his writing to have a positive impact in the world. His willingness to accept a less glamorous job where he could expand his knowledge of business created an opening to a better position where he could research topics that inspired him.
Had Bo not opened himself to accepting the job at Fidelity, though at first glance it appeared to be a position outside of his interests and expertise, he would most likely not have been able to land his next job at Inc. He stretched himself just enough to go outside of his comfort zone to acquire a new skill (some understanding of business), which led to bigger and better things for his career.
Bo Burlingham’s inspiring book, Small Giants, as well as the organization he co-founded, the Small Giants Community, and his continued writing for Inc., allowed him to become self actualized. He found a way to channel his interest in making the world a better place by writing about and promoting companies whose vision is to improve the world. In this way Bo’s accidental career path became an ideal path.
His work at Inc. and the people he met challenged his preconceived notions of business and business owners. Bo saw that so many of them were doing great things for humanity with their businesses. He acquired a new appreciation for business and an admiration for the people who were running these businesses. As a result, Bo’s new perspective enables him to love his work of researching and writing about topics that inspire business owners to emulate businesses that have chosen to be great rather than big.
From speaking with Bo, I can see that he’s found his passion and it didn’t come from a carefully fashioned career plan; it followed his combining a practical choice and having an openness to try something new! The lesson we learn from Bo is profound: Don’t become so stuck on your preconceived notions of what you’re looking for that you miss out on a potentially better opportunity when it comes your way. Be willing to challenge yourself and your beliefs. Continue to stretch yourself; learn and develop new skills that are useful in today’s challenging economy. In this way you can avail yourself to having an “accidental career path” which can become an ideal path to your dream job! As Bo Burlingham so eloquently said (borrowing an idea that Jim Collins developed in Good to Great),
Do what you’re passionate about, what you can be best in the world at and what you can make money doing. If you can find the intersection of these three, you are very lucky!
I highly recommend reading Bo’s book. Small Giants can be purchased here.
“With new management books arriving by the boatload. Bo Burlingham has somehow managed the near impossible–he’s given us a true original. Moreover, in the process he may have ‘discovered’ the most interesting and underreported corner of the U.S. economy. In short, Small Giants is a Large masterpiece. Bo’s reporting is stupendous, and his writing and storytelling skills make the book equal parts fun and profound.”–Tom Peters (author of In Search of Excellence)