William C. Taylor: An interview by Bob Morris
Bill Taylor is a writer, a speaker, and entrepreneur who has shaped the global conversation about the best ways to compete, innovate, and succeed. As a cofounder and founding editor of Fast Company, he launched a magazine that won countless awards, and earned a passionate following among executives and entrepreneurs around the world. Taylor wrote a regular business column for The New York Times as well as a monthly column for London’s Guardian newspaper. He now writes a popular management blog for Harvard Business Review. His previous book, Mavericks at Work: Why the Most Original Minds in Business Win, was a New York Times and Wall Street Journal bestseller, and was named a “Business Book of the Year” by The Economist and Financial Times. His new book, Practically Radical: Not-So-Crazy Ways to Transform Your Company, Shake Up Your Company, and Challenge Yourself, was published on January 4, 2011 by William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. A graduate of Princeton University and the MIT Sloan School of Management, Taylor lives in Wellesley, Massachusetts with his wife and two daughters.
Morris: Before discussing any of your specific books, a few general questions. First, when and why did you decide to commit yourself to a career in business journalism?
Taylor: I’ve never thought of myself as a “journalist” per se. I am someone who loves the power of new ideas, loves to find people and organizations who are having an impact on the world around them, loves to bring those ideas to life by telling the stories of these innovators in ways that other people find inspiring and instructive. Short answer: I think I am in the “thought leadership” business rather than the “journalism” business.
Morris: Please explain the founding of Fast Company. What was its original mission? To what extent (if any) has that mission since changed?
Taylor: My cofounder Alan Webber and I were at the Harvard Business Review when we had the idea to start Fast Company. We didn’t have a plan for a “business” as much as we had a set of ideas about the future of work, leadership, and progress—ideas about which we were passionate and that we wanted to share with others.
I’ve always thought of Fast Company as a magazine about ambition and success–in the best sense of both those words. Not money and power, but meaning and impact. Fast Company is a magazine for leaders at every level and in any field who want to think big about their work–the kind of organization they want to build, the kind of impact they want to have, the kinds of products and services they want to launch. It’s also a magazine for people who are extremely competitive, but who don’t use money as the only measure of whether they win or lose. They worry more about the contribution they make, the legacy they leave, the impact they have.
Way back at the outset of the magazine, we convened a small gathering of Fast Company allies called the “Fast Pack.” Harriet Rubin, who was the founder of Doubleday Currency, the game-changing book imprint, said something that has stuck with me: “Freedom is a bigger game than power. Power is about what you can control. Freedom is about what you can unleash.” Fast Company has been and will always be a magazine for leaders who worry more about what they can unleash rather than what they can control.
Morris: As I survey the current state of the magazine world, I am reminded of the first line in Charles Dickens’ novel, A Tale of Two Cities: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” Do you agree?
Taylor: With respect to the magazine world, I’d say it’s much more the worst of times than the best of times. The business model for print magazines really is broken. Fast Company continues to do great relative to the competition. In fact, we just learned that our 2010 increase in ad pages (26.5 percent) was greater than any other business magazine in the country. So that’s great!
But we started Fast Company 15 years ago, and it’s hard to capture just how different the economic environment is today. Costs are going up so fast—paper, postage, all that boring stuff that adds real dollars—and the advertising environment is just so tough on the print side.
Readers still love it—we literally have more subscribers than at any time in our history, and the energy on the Web is amazing. But magazines are no different from any other business. The “mainstream” part of the business is getting tougher much more quickly than the “up-and-coming” part of the business is getting easier.
Morris: I have read several dozen of your articles for various publications. You discuss perspectives on subjects that most other journalists either neglect or ignore. For example, you seem to be intrigued by counterintuitive thinking, presumably because you are a counterintuitive thinker. Is that a fair assessment?
Taylor: I love people and organizations that win big because they think different. That’s what gets me pumped up, that’s what gets my creative and competitive juices flowing. There’s just something exhilarating about getting to know a company that’s rewriting the rules of competition in its industry, a public official who has reimagined how to deliver a product or service to his or her constituents, a change agent inside a big organization that is trying to transform how that organization works.
That sense of not just out-hustling the competition but out-thinking the competition—that’s the fuel behind Fast Company, Mavericks at Work, and now Practically Radical. The settings and mood of the times for each of these projects may be different, but the spirit is the same.
Morris: Most change initiatives either fail or fall far short of original expectations. Why?
Taylor: As the cofounder of Fast Company, I’ve always been struck by the slow-going rate of change inside most organizations. In the earliest days of the magazine, after we had a business plan but before we published the premiere issue, we convened a conference around the theme, “How Do You Overthrow a Successful Company?” It wasn’t a gathering of hotshots eager to take on the corporate establishment. It was a gathering of big-picture thinkers and change agents from illustrious big companies who sensed that there were massive shifts on the horizon, but that there wasn’t a commitment among their colleagues to reckon with what was coming.
It was a great conversation, ahead of its time in many ways (this was 1995), and the outlook was grim. Roger Martin, now dean of the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto, warned that “the role of big companies is to turn great people into mediocre organizations.” Mort Meyerson, the much-admired CEO and philanthropist, then at the helm of Perot Systems, compared leading an organization in fast-changing times to “floating in lava in a wooden boat.” His plea to the group: “We need a new model to reach the future.”
What a difference 15 years don’t make. Are those misgivings any less relevant today than they were back then—or the prospects for genuine transformation any less bleak? This is the hardest work there is.
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