Governor’s award speaker: Change needed, but difficult | nnbusinessview.com

Governor’s award speaker: Change needed, but difficult

John Seelmeyer

General Motors, which has been on the receiving end of sharp comments from Alan Webber for decades, invited the business journalist to its Detroit headquarters a few weeks ago.

Much to his surprise, Webber discovered that executives of the industrial behemoth actually have been able to move the company a few steps into an economy that’s driven by constant change.

Both the ability of GM to reinvent itself and the immense difficulties of bringing that change to reality fascinate Webber, who will be the keynote speaker at this week’s Governor’s Industry Appreciation Awards Dinner in Reno.

“You can give them points for re-imagining their business,” Webber said in an interview last week. “But it is incredibly hard for large companies to do deep change. It would be unfair to underestimate how hard it is.”

The changing world of work for individuals as well as companies of all sizes long has been the focus of Webber, the founding editor of Fast Times magazine.

With the financial backing of magazine magnate Mort Zuckerman, Webber and Bill Taylor launched Fast Times in 1995.

Webber had spent the previous five years as managing editor and editorial director of the Harvard Business Review, but he and Taylor were convinced that traditional business publications didn’t accurately reflect the lives of businesspeople in a rapidly changing environment.

“We came at it with the idea of writing about the world with a different set of lenses than the Wall Street Journal, Forbes, Fortune and Business Week had at that time,” Webber said. “Work is very personal.”

The formula was a hit, and Fast Company during the 1990s was the fastest-growing business magazine in history. In 2000, just before the dot.com bubble burst, Zuckerman sold the magazine to the German company Gruner + Jahr, for $350 million, the second largest amount in U.S. magazine history. (The story didn’t have a happy ending for Gruner + Jahr. Five years later, it sold Fast Company and two other business magazines for a mere $35 million to Joseph Mansueto, founder of the research firm Morningstar.)

Webber, unhappy with cost-cutting that Gruner + Jahr undertook during the recession earlier this decade, left Fast Company in 2003 and hasn’t looked back.

“Once you walk away from something, you’ve really got to walk away,” he said.

Nowadays, he spends his time as a regular columnist for USA Today and as an occasional writer for other publications such as The New York Times and the Washington Post.

And he’s on the road a couple of times a month as a speaker to business groups or a participant in conferences.

Among his messages: “I try to be relatively optimistic about the fact that people who are committed and smart can make a difference.”

But, he added, new times require a new type of business leadership. Webber pointed, as one example, to the dramatic differences between Jack Welch, the former chairman and chief executive officer of General Electric, and Jeffrey Immelt, his successor.

Welch was admired as a tough leader; Immelt, for his drive into the green economy.

Today’s leaders, Webber said, need to listen better to information from through the organization not just the information generated in the executive suite and develop skills to pick up early signals about the way the world is changing.

Those challenges are nothing new.

“We are just beginning to comprehend this new world even as we create it. This much we know: we live and work in a time of unparalleled opportunity and unprecedented uncertainty, ” Webber and Harris wrote in the inaugural issue of Fast Company a dozen years ago. “Smart people working in smart companies have the ability to create their own futures and also hold the responsibility for the consequences.”


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