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Alan Webber's Rules of Thumb [Be Inkandescent Magazine, December 2011]

By Hope Katz Gibbs
Be Inkandescent Magazine

While Alan Webber’s name may not be familiar to you, odds are good that you have read the publication he founded in November 1995 with Bill Taylor — Fast Company magazine.

Both men were former Harvard Business Review editors, and their new publication was founded on a single premise: A global revolution was changing business, and business was changing the world. “Discarding the old rules of business, Fast Company set out to chronicle how changing companies create and compete, to highlight new business practices, and to showcase the teams and individuals who are inventing the future and reinventing business,” Webber explains, sharing that they were both proud to have been named Adweek’s Editor of the Year in 1999.

Prior to his successful foray into publishing, Webber was a political speechwriter focusing on innovative policy initiatives. Today, he continues exploring reinvention, and considers himself a “global detective“—one who travels the world speaking at innovation and foresight conferences and investigating how things work. To that end, in 2009 he published a bestselling business book, Rules of Thumb: 52 Truths for Winning at Business Without Losing Your Self.

We caught up with Webber after a whirlwind couple of months. He spent September in Wales, where he participated in the Do Lectures series. Throughout October, he traveled through Nepal. And in November, he headed for Vienna to moderate Muhammad Yunus’ Global Social Business Summit 2011.

Impressive work. But then, we expect nothing less of the man, whose official bio reads: “According to those who know him best, Alan M. Webber is witty and wise [on Mondays and Wednesdays], thoughtful and provocative [on Tuesdays and Thursdays], and irreverent and creative [on Fridays and Saturdays]. On Sundays he rests.”

Following is our Q&A with Webber.

Be Inkandescent: You and Bill Taylor were both at Harvard Business Review, when you came up with the idea to create Fast Company. Tell us about what inspired you, what the process of starting the magazine was like, and now—decades later—what you think of the baby you gave birth to?

Alan Webber: Looking back, I think we had a lot of sources of inspiration. We both were huge magazine fans, and I think we both had always had a great (if unspoken) desire to start a magazine. For me, one of the big inspirations was a fellowship I got from the Japan Society of New York to spend three months in Japan at the end of the 1980s—back when Japan was thriving, and the U.S. was fretting over national economic competitiveness. Harvard gave me a sabbatical, and off I went to Japan to interview “the next generation of Japanese leaders” in business, government, and the bureaucracy—across the board.

It was a huge opportunity to see the future as it was emerging. When I got back from that trip, I had four themes that I was sure were going to change the way we all worked, and the way business was done:

• A generational shift, as Baby Boomers replaced the World War II generation, and brought different values and sensibilities to the workplace;
• The rise of globalization, erasing geographic (and other) boundaries from the way companies operated;
• The rise of diversity, replacing the old notion that leaders had to be white men with particular pedigrees in order to make it to the top; and
• The emergence of digital technology, creating a world where everything would be portable, personal, and digital.

Of course, having that kind of epiphany didn’t immediately turn into a magazine. It took Bill’s relentless focus on implementation and a lot of work to develop a business plan that would turn our ideas into the kind of architecture that every great magazine needs. Then we had to find a group of backers who were willing to give us a first round of investment so we could put out a “beta” issue; and after that, we made a deal with Mort Zuckerman and Fred Drasner, who owned U.S. News & World Report, and The Daily News.

It was easily the hardest thing I’ve ever done, and the most rewarding. Magazine-ing is a real team sport, and we built a championship team, made up of young, smart, energetic, fun people who wanted to create a new kind of business magazine.

Be Inkandescent: Some of the previous thought leaders that we have profiled, including Dan Pink and Barry Lynn, also spent time in a Japan Society fellowship program. They also told us that this experience changed their personal and professional lives. What was it about Japan that intrigued you most?

Alan Webber: I fell in love with the aesthetics of Japan, the care with which the Japanese do everything, the exquisite art of presentation that goes into Japanese culture and business. And I met some amazing people and made some wonderful, lifelong friends on that trip, including Dan and Barry. That fellowship, and the sabbatical that Harvard gave me, were amazing gifts that have made a huge difference in my life.

Be Inkandescent: Share with us some of the details of your years as a speechwriter for former Secretary of Transportation Neil Goldschmidt. What inspired you to get into the speechwriting business, and what is your fondest memory from those days?

Alan Webber: Starting in 5th grade I entered a public-speaking contest that my school held every year. You had to pick something to memorize, and then deliver it in front of the school. I fell in love with the spoken word, with the idea that speeches could not only convey ideas, but also genuinely move people’s emotions. When I went to work for Neil, when he was a City Commissioner in Oregon (1971–1973), and later as Mayor of Portland (1973–1979), and it felt completely natural that I would write speeches for him. That continued when he became Secretary of Transportation under Jimmy Carter in 1979. In this role, I even got to make suggestions for the State of the Union address, and write a talk for one of the president’s advisors to give in Detroit.

Back in those days, we didn’t have computers, so speeches had to be typed out on IBM Selectric typewriters, equipped with a special type ball that put everything in uppercase letters, which made it easier to read. One year, as the mayor was giving his “state of the city” address, I was back at the office making last-minute changes to his speech, and then someone would run the new pages over to him at the lunch venue where he was talking. That was “just in time” speechwriting!

Then there was the time when Neil was Secretary of Transportation and officials at the White House asked him to nominate Jimmy Carter for re-election at the Democratic Convention in New York. That was when Ted Kennedy was challenging Carter for the nomination.

I got to write Neil’s speech—very exciting, right? A speech at a political convention on national TV! Except the Kennedy delegates went down in front of the podium as soon as Neil got up to give his speech and started chanting, “Time’s up!” And all of the TV networks cut away from Neil to talk with their pundits. So nobody heard or saw the speech. Win some, lose some.

Be Inkandescent: In addition to Rules of Thumb, you have written “Going Global,” which looks at the techniques and tactics needed to succeed in the global economy; and “Changing Alliances,” which reports on a Harvard Business School study of competitiveness in the U.S. auto industry. How has your experience as an author differed from your work as a magazine editor?

Alan Webber: In some ways, it’s easier to be a magazine editor than an author. As an editor, your job is to be the reader’s best friend. You want to make every article you work on as clear, concise, engaging, and compelling as possible.

At Fast Company, we always believed that any article could be cut by 50 percent and it wouldn’t hurt the article—in fact, it might help it! And as an editor, it’s usually easy to ask the right questions that can help the article become clearer, crisper, more focused: What are you really trying to say here? What’s the point of this piece? Where’s your logic flow? Where’s the argument for what you’re presenting? Editors get to give their authors tough love.

But when you’re the author, well, the whole game changes. You get to have your own voice, present your own thinking, give your own point of view—and that’s fun and rewarding. But all of a sudden, all that stuff about cutting the piece by 50 percent changes—hey, those are good words! I wrote them! All that stuff about asking hard questions? It’s hard to ask yourself hard questions! It’s hard to have much objectivity about your own writing. But what writing and editing have in common is that the real work of writing is re-writing. So if you’ve spent a lot of time as an editor, it will make you a better writer, and a better author.

Don’t stop now! Click here to read more of our interview with Alan Webber.

What are your Rules of Thumb? We asked our columnists, clients, and the leaders we have interviewed in the magazine for their advice. Click here to view our Rules of Thumb. Then send us an email with your Rule.


More Be Inkandescent Magazine Articles

"I get by with a little help from my friends," says Hope, who gives special thanks to:

• MICHAEL GIBBS, website illustration and design: www.michaelgibbs.com
• MAX KUKOY, website development: www.maxwebworks.com
• STEVE BARRETT, portrait of Hope on Bio page: www.stevebarrettphotography.com

Contact HOPE KATZ GIBBS by phone [703-346-6975] or email.