The Global Detective

Rule number 1: When the going gets tough, the tough relax.

Rule number 18: Knowing it ain’t the same as doing it.

Rule number 38: If you want to think big, start small.

Rule number 43: Don’t confuse credentials with talent.

Alan Webber, co-founder of Fast Company magazine, former editorial director or the Harvard Business Review and returning BIF storyteller brings 52 of these rules to life in his new book, Rules of Thumb: 52 Truths for Winning at Business Without Losing Yourself.

And while it may be hard to avoid coming off as just another series of banal platitudes, Webber has deftly crafted a handbook of great thinking merged with best practices to help people create a workable future in today’s troubled and changing environment.

Rules of Thumb is Webber’s answer to the questions, What are we going to learn from this economic meltdown and who will be our teachers? “Although we’ll certainly get through this current problem, will we arrive at the end having learned something that’s really worth learning?” he asks.

Webber says he personally confronted this challenge when he gave a speech on leadership to the CEO and top executives of a large company. At the end of his talk, the CEO asked his team a question: ‘Today, who in America has moral authority?’

“There was dead silence in the room,” Webber recalls. “Not one name emerged. Not one political leader, business leader, religious leader, or social leader.” Webber says he realized then that people desperately needed a new set of rules— “one that we write for ourselves and share with others”—to deal with the inflection point that’s facing the country.  

He began to read through his past speeches as well as articles he’d written and notes he’d taken from jobs and experiences that span a career of some 40 years. His own path took him from Portland, OR where he worked with the mayor to make the city America’s most livable, to Harvard Business Review, where he learned from legendary professor Theodore Levitt, to Fast Company magazine, which he launched with his friend (and BIF-5 cohost) Bill Taylor.  “At every step of the way there were lessons—truths, really—that spoke directly to the rules we need to embrace today,” he explains.

Some of Webber’s lessons date back to 1989 when he spent 3 months in Japan at the height of the Japanese bubble interviewing a wide-range of next-generation leaders and envisioning a future as it was emerging from companies, laboratories, and offices across the country. He returned to the U.S. with the perception that the world was profoundly changing and wrote about four transforming shifts that were about to shape the business landscape: technology, globalization, generational and gender. 

Twenty years later these trends have come back to tap us on the shoulder. “‘Hey look,’ they’re saying, “We’re back and this time around we’re bigger and more bad-ass than before,’” says Webber.

 “Two decades ago technology changed where information was and how quickly it got from point a to point b,” he explains. “Today it’s all about participation. Web 2.0 is creating three-dimensionality across boundaries. Who’s in charge? Companies are suddenly abandoning long-held beliefs and ways of acting and not everyone will make it.”

That’s where rule number 6 comes in – which Webber attributes to his time working with Levitt: If you want to see with fresh eyes, reframe the picture. “It’s a rule that applies to almost every troubled business and industry in America today: they simply don’t see accurately what business they’re in—they’re looking with old eyes at a dramatically different business landscape.”

Living in Santa Fe, NM Webber is “living the writer’s dream.” His biographical sketch on the Rules book jacket – which he wrote himself – includes the self-assigned title of “global detective.”

Ultimately, though, he’s a storyteller, traveling the world, intensely observing, listening and telling lovely stories.   “Ah, that’s rule number 16,” he responds. “Facts are facts but stories are how we learn.”

A friend of Webber’s recently explained current events this way: 'In 2010, if you're not confused, you're not paying attention.' “The only way I know to make sense out of all this meshugaas is to get together with smart people and learn from them,” Webber says. “And BIF is about as good as it gets when it comes to learning from smart people who can tell great stories. Confused? Come to BIF! You may still be confused, but you're guaranteed to learn a lot before you leave."

A number of years ago, as business began shifting to the attention economy, the credo was that the way to make money and create value was to get people to pay attention to you. “My attitude is that’s backwards,” says Webber. “The way you create value and make things happen is by paying attention to other people. That’s rule number 52 – Stay alert. There are teachers everywhere.”