Bill Taylor Goes beyond Fast Company
If you read or have read Fast Company, you may already be familiar with Bill Taylor. He’s one of the magazine’s co-founders; he’s also the author of a terrific new book called Simply Brilliant: How Great Organizations Do Ordinary Things in Extraordinary Ways. In it, Bill looks beyond the Silicon Valley–type leaders to explore how “normal” people in a range of fields can stand out and achieve on-the-job greatness.
This is a really rich conversation, and part of what I love about it is its emphasis not just on the strategy behind being extraordinary but also on the importance of humanity in leadership.
In this interview, we discuss:
- The surprising source of radical new ideas.
- How leadership and success have been redefined.
- Key attributes of successful modern-day leaders.
- The growing tension between capitalism and fair play.
- How humanity and humility factor into business and industry.
- Why “slow and steady” is still the best course of action.
- The connection between goals in the marketplace and behaviours in the workplace.
Or bookmark the podcast here to listen to later.
Michael: I’m not sure if you read Fast Company or you used to read Fast Company. I certainly remember when that magazine started coming out about 20 years ago and kind of the top of my head coming off because I had been lucky enough in my first job to get into a kind of cool, interesting, different company. They were an innovation company, and partly they were inspired by the fact of, “Look, whatever ‘work as normal’ should be, we should just do the opposite of that.” So that was a great first job to have, but it did feel a bit like we were a lonely light on a dark, dark night, and when Fast Company started showing up in my life, I was like, “Wow, there are companies all over the world, organizations who are trying to do things differently who are breaking the rules, who are disrupting things.”
And one of the founders of Fast Company is William C. Taylor, or Bill Taylor, and I am lucky enough to be talking to him in this conversation. He is the author of a great new book called Simply Brilliant: How Great Organizations Do Ordinary Things in Extraordinary Ways. And honestly, this is just a really terrific book. If you’re looking for inspiration about how your organization, be it big, be it small, whether you’re a senior leader, whether you’re running your own small team, whether you’re an independent contributor; if you’re thinking to yourself, “Well you know, we are a bit ordinary. We’re doing things in an ordinary way. We’re not really being the organization we could grow into. We’re not really doing great work.”
Well, then this might be an interview that’s powerful for you because part of what Bill Taylor is doing is saying, “Look, we all have heard the stories about Silicon Valley and Austin, Texas, and parts of New York where people are doing cool, different things, but what about the normal people? What about the people who are, you know, outside of those so-called kind of innovation hubs and doing things in a more ordinary way? Can they be different, too? Can they do extraordinary things as well?”
And part of what I love about this conversation is its emphasis not so much on the strategy behind this, but just on the importance of the humanity of how we show up as leaders and contributors. So, this is a really rich conversation. Bill is incredibly eloquent, and I really think you’re going to enjoy this, my interview with Bill Taylor, or co-founder of Fast Company and author of Simply Brilliant.
Alright, Bill, I’ve done the big intro, and I want to start off by asking you the question I try and start all my guests on the podcast here with, which is, okay, what are you taking a stand against? What are you no longer tolerating? What made you irritated enough that you actually would sit down and write another great book?
Bill: Sure. What I’m taking a stand against is the idea that the spirit of creativity and transformation and dramatic innovation that is so alive in places like Silicon Valley, or Austin, Texas, or the biotech scene in Cambridge, Mass., is or should be limited to these high-tech clusters of technology and culture. And my argument in the book—and it was a fun time to go out and explore it—is that that same spirit of creativity and innovation can be summoned in any field and in any walk of life, even in the most traditional, long-established, familiar fields, if leaders in those fields, whether they’re entrepreneurs or people in existing companies, can really rethink and reimagine what’s possible. Hence, the challenge I set for myself was to find truly extraordinary things going on in really pretty ordinary industries. And you know, what irritated me and what got me started is, you know, I started Fast Company magazine 20 years ago, so I spent most of my career hanging out in these super advanced, super progressive parts of the economy.
Michael: Right, exactly. You were the great champion of telling stories about Silicon Valley that made people like me go, “Wow, look what they’re doing there. How can we do it here?”
Bill: And you know, that’s fun and exciting and glamorous, but I would then go out to the broader world and I’d do a lot of speaking and so on and talk to more mainstream audiences, if you will. Their instant reaction to the ideas I was putting forth, the lessons I was offering, was, “Well, that’s all great, but you know, we’ve been around for 100 years. We can’t be like Apple or Amazon or what have you.” Or, “You know, we’re kind of a boring company,” or, “We’re in a kind of prosaic field, so we can’t try to become a passion brand like Nike or Starbucks or what have you.”
And I realized that at some point, well, two things. Number one, folks in I think traditional parts of the world were using that kind of as an excuse to not think more creatively about their business.
But secondly, it was incumbent upon me to make my ideas, my point of view, more accessible, more inviting. Show people, again, that you really can do extraordinary things in pretty ordinary fields. So, I went out to retail banks and insurance companies and fast food joints and even a parking garage, just trying to establish what fantastic, exciting, compelling work you really can do no matter where you are in the economy or society.
Michael: Yeah, I love that. I love the lack of Silicon Valley-ness, and you didn’t even have Southwest Airlines in your book as well.
Michael: Which is also another great one. As great as they are, they do tend to be an overworked story.
Bill: Well, a couple things, I think. Number one, in the world of Tesla and Uber and Google, we’ve turned these companies and their leaders into almost comic book superheroes.
And they’re so much larger than life, and they’re just astride the planet, kind of deal. And it’s fun to read, but you do wonder, “Okay, what can I learn from them?” kind of deal. And then, you’re right: a lot of our traditional, go-to case studies and stories like Southwest Airlines, you know, they really are feeling a bit tired. And part of what I’ve done really for 20 years is to seek out kind of a new cast of characters. We used to say in the early days of Fast Company, we were going to chronicle ideas before they were safe and people before they were famous. We wanted to almost be like talent scouts, out there finding important ideas and finding great organizations, and then introducing them, kind of being—letting them break out to the rest of the world. So, I feel like I’ve kind of gotten back to that in this book.
Michael: So, you’ve got kind of eight core insights. You know, two chapters clustered under four core kind of pieces to the book, and each chapter has a key insight. And rather than start at the beginning, I want to accelerate pretty much to the end of the book.
Where one chapter in particular caught my fancy, in part because you reference Ed Schein in there, who’s a great influencer on the work that I do, and I love his work.
Bill: Yes. Yeah.
Michael: The title of the chapter is “Serendipity as a way of life,” and the quote underneath it, because you provide great quotes throughout, is, “We prize collisions over convenience.” And in fact, you actually start by telling the story of one of these Silicon Valley giants, which is Tony Hsieh.
Michael: But no in his usual context of Zappos, but actually in the Downtown Project in Las Vegas.
Michael: Tell me a bit about why serendipity? Because as you hear that and people hear that, part of what they might be hearing is, “Well, doesn’t that mean kind of giving up control and giving up strategy and giving up planning and just kind of letting stuff happen and hoping that it’s going to work out?”
Bill: Right. It doesn’t mean giving up any of those things. It means rethinking the logic of how those things work. More than ever, I’ve become convinced that we live in a world where the most powerful ideas increasingly come from the most unexpected places: the young kid you’ve just brought into the organization. And he or she is super bright but not very experienced, but precisely because they don’t have a lot of the old habits of mine, they see opportunities or find solutions to problems that are kind of hidden in plain sight. But because folks have been around so long doing things the same way, those opportunities or problems elude them.
Another thing I’ve just become absolutely clear about is that often times the best source of a new, radical idea in one field is an old, proven idea from a completely different field.
And so, a big part of what you’ve got to do is look far beyond your field of expertise or your industry, and on and on it goes. And so, the old model of leadership was if I’m the CEO, if I’m running unit, if I’m running a team, I do the thinking and the troops do the work. They execute my brilliant ideas, and the difference between a good leader and a bad leader is who has a better style of communication to get people on board. But I really think the new logic of leadership and success is we live in a world where nobody alone is as smart as everybody together.
And so, it’s not just luck, or it is serendipity, but it’s serendipity by design. And what you have to do as a leader is orchestrate connections, design conversations, create the conditions under which lots of smart people can collaborate together and share information together, think together, and come up with ideas that the individual leader, no matter how brilliant, couldn’t come up with on his or her own.
Without going into great detail, Tony Hsieh in Las Vegas was about to build a new headquarters for his company, and what he noticed is he went and looked at Nike and Apple. He said, “Well, they’re beautiful buildings, but they’re kind of literally walled off from the outside world; you need passes, security.”
Bill: He said, “Look, not only am I going to put my headquarters in the middle of a city, I’m actually going to build a community of artists and designers and engineers who will never work for Zappos, but they may—they would certainly be willing to work with Zappos in terms of sharing some brainpower, creating an exciting environment.” And so, the idea was his company was a start-up, but he also wanted the city around his company to be a start-up, and the theory that if you surround your headquarters with lots and lots of smart people, rubbing against those folks and interacting with those folks is a way to keep the ideas inside the company fresh. And to me, it’s a real intriguing mind flip. So, you need leaders with great personal strength and character and a value system, but your leaders also have to have a genuine sense of intellectual humility. They have to get over the fact that just because I’m, quote unquote, “in charge,” I’ve got to do all the thinking. But it takes a lot of work to actually create a different set of conditions for lots of people to get to think together.
Michael: How do you hold that tension between the kind of visionary-ness and foresightedness, or maybe just strength that people expect in a leader, leaders themselves and the people around them, and the case you’re making—which is a good one, I think—for the sense of humility and curiosity?
Bill: It’s like anything else. I think it’s, first of all, you have to be clear with yourself, I think, about what it means to be a leader today. And I think the reason leadership in business, leadership in politics, leadership in the non-profit world, feels so exhausting so much of the time is that leaders are imposing upon themselves unrealistic burdens. The world is just too complicated for a CEO to say, “My definition of the job is I will solve every problem that this organization has,” or, “I will identify every opportunity we need to identify.”
I think there has to be a sense of liberation from that and an honesty first with yourself that if I want to be a successful leader, Bill Joy, the Chief Scientist at Sun Microsystems way back when, said, “It’s just mathematically true that 99.99% of all the smart people in the world will never work for your company.” There are too many smart people in your company …
But if you could get just a small segment of those people to work with your company, what an incredible advantage that is. So first, you have to be honest with yourself that life doesn’t begin and end with you or with your direct reports, and then you’ve got to be honest with your colleagues that, “Look, if you’re looking up at me and saying, ‘This is a leader who’s going to solve all of our problems or build all of our businesses,’ you’re in the wrong company. That’s not how I define my job. I define my job as, A) bringing to life the values, behaviours, ways of being that we prize in this organization.” I think that’s an incredible role for a leader. “But then, B) I’m going to help create the conditions whereby all of us can invent the future of this organization together. And so, I think it just requires real intellectual honesty, first with ourselves, then with everybody else, that this is the world we live in today.
Michael: Alright, Bill, we take this break in the interview where I get to ask my favourite three questions, so here we go. So, question number one: what was the crossroads you came to; what was the decision you made that, when you made it, made all the difference?
Bill: To me, it’s a no-brainer. It was the decision 20 or so years ago to launch Fast Company with my Harvard Business Review colleague, Alan Webber. Alan and I were having a wonderful time at the Harvard Business Review, where they had had young and restless editors there. We were travelling the world. We could go in to see anybody we wanted to see. But it was so clear to us that the world of business was changing, the world of work was changing. There was an opportunity to create not just a new magazine but a whole new point of view about what was possible in business. But to do that, we had to leave the very warm and comfortable confines of the Harvard Business School, where it would have been very easy to stay for a long, long time. And so, it took a lot of soul-searching and, you know, a lot of wrenching conversations before we decided it was time to go out and strike out on our own. But I mean, that decision has defined everything I’ve done really since then.
Michael: Well, I’m glad you did, so thank you for doing that. It made my life better, for sure. Question number two: whose work has influenced your work? I mean, this could be writers and thinkers, but it could just be kind of role models or coaches or whoever in your life.
Bill: Yeah. Yeah, I’m going to say two different sources. The first one has to be Tom Peters, the great management thinker, for a couple of reasons. First of all, you know, In Search of Excellence was …
Michael: A good book.
Bill: You know, and I was young when it came out, but it really was the first book of its genre, of excitement, of big ideas that became a phenomenal best-seller. But, and so, I became a huge Tom Peters fan. But here’s the kicker: when we started Fast Company, we tried—what we wanted to do was raise $50,000 from ten prominent people as our charter investors to help us get going. He was my hero. The very first person to write a cheque to invest in Fast Company was none other than Tom Peters, and I still remember sitting at Alan Webber’s—my co-founder—kitchen table when the phone rang and it was Tom saying, “I just saw your business plan. Where do I send the cheque? I’m in.” And so, to think that this guy whose work I admired for so long was really the guy who also got us off and running in Fast Company was kind of a tremendous thing for me.
The second one, this will be a little obscure for your listeners, but when I got out of college way back when, the first thing that I did is I wrote a book with the consumer advocate Ralph Nader called The Big Boys, and what we did was we profiled ten different CEOs, each of whom represented a different style of power. And one of the CEOs we profiled was a guy—he’s long since dead, but a guy named Bill McGowan. Bill McGowan was a founder of a company called MCI Communications. They were the telecom start-up that not only won big but completely dismantled the old AT&T/Bell System monopoly. And I spent hours and hours and hours with this guy, and McGowan was the first entrepreneur I had ever met who had such a sense of disruption about him before that term had ever been used. He just revelled in tweaking the nose of the establishment, and I loved the fact that when he built his house—he was based in Washington, D.C.—the cornerstone of his house, he put the Bell System bell logo with a big crack running through it as kind of an extended middle finger. And that sense of business as not just (inaudible) but a sense of adventure and tilting at windmills and just loving the fight and challenging the status quo. The energy and his enthusiasm was so infectious. That’s what really got me believing in business as a force for positive change and social change, and not just making money and shareholder value, although he was good at all that stuff, too. So, I have very warm memories and got a lot of inspiration from Bill McGowan of MCI.
Michael: That’s a great story. And your story of Tom Peters reminds me of when Peter Block, who’s a hero of mine …
Bill: Yes, of course.
Michael: … wrote a blurb for my very first book, and it was perhaps a similar experience of, “Oh my God, my hero is throwing his weight behind that!” How wonderful.
Bill: Yeah. Exactly, exactly.
Michael: Alright, so third and final question, Bill, is this: you know, at Box of Crayons, we say we help people and organizations do less good work and more great work, work that has more impact, work that has more meaning. So, as you think of how you’re showing up in the world at the moment, what feels like your great work right now?
Bill: Well you know, obviously it’s the new book, Simply Brilliant, but within that, I mean, I really—and we didn’t get to talk about it much on the podcast, but the message I am trying more than any other to communicate these days—and I do think in some sense I am an advocate for a point of view; always have been—is this idea that I think without intending it, the innovation economy that we all love so much has really created this kind of winner take all economy and winner take all society where a very small group of people, who are doing work they love and unleashing all these tremendous innovations, are just benefitting so disproportionately from all of the stuff that they’re launching that it’s just not a sustainable way to run a society and it’s not a very good way to run a company.
And so, I’m just, everywhere I’m going, trying to get people to step back, think big, and ask themselves, “Can we create more organizations, but maybe even more importantly, can we create societies where more people rather than fewer people feel like they’ve got a seat at the table and a piece of the action?” I’m just worried that there’s this tremendous and exciting and wonderful party going on for about 20% of the economy and everybody else is kind of looking, pressing their noses up against the glass, saying, “Wow, that looks like a lot of fun. I wish I could get in on that, but I can’t find the door. There’s a velvet rope and I can’t get in.” And I really do worry in a kind of profound way that until we, as business leaders and as people who, you know, have a claim on the social conversation, figure this thing out, we’re just heading for a very unsustainable situation.
Bill: And then all of the stuff we love is going to get undone because—and I don’t think it’s people being greed heads or behaving badly, it’s just that we aren’t reckoning with the logic of that which we are creating, which is that, you know, fewer and fewer people are benefitting more and more disproportionately. And we’ve just got to, as I say, more people deserve a piece of the action and a voice in the future.
Michael: Well you know, one of the phrases I underlined in the book is you articulating the tension between the importance and the success of capitalism and the importance of fair play and that tension. And that’s really what you’re shining a light on right there.
Michael: Bill, brilliant. We’ll get back to the interview now. So, if we go right to the very first chapter where you talk about this, and your comment then just about the values piece triggered it, because actually, the first chapter is actually just about—or, not just about values, but it’s about your values proposition.
So, it’s connecting about where do we—what do we stand for in this world? And I love the stories you tell here about basically how do we get to be on the lunatic fringe?
Bill: Right, right.
Michael: It’s the phrase that comes up a bunch of times, which is, God, it’s not enough to be the same anymore: you have to be courageously, boldly different in some aspect of what you’re doing, kind of …
Bill: Well so, yeah, I think this is the big strategic flip.
Michael: Right, it’s the Blue Ocean Strategy, right?
Bill: Yeah, yeah, kind of. So in the old days, the idea was success was saying, “We’re going to be the best at what lots of other people are already doing.” I think—but there’s so much competition now and so many tremendously competent organizations in every field; that, too, is a force for kind of business exhaustion. My theory is the real definition of success today is to say, “We are going to be the only ones in our field who do what we do. What do we promise that nobody else can promise? What do we deliver that only we can deliver? What are we the most of in our business and how do we always push ourselves to become even more of that?”
And that kind of logic very quickly takes you out of pure economics, cost, quality, features, reliability, the kind of economic value proposition, and immediately pushes you into what I think of as the human values proposition. Not just how do we become more efficient, but how do we become, in everything we do, more memorable for the rest of the world to encounter? How do we create experiences around our product that nobody else has possibly thought of? How do we create interactions, maybe using technology, maybe not, that leave our customers our or suppliers or our colleagues with a sense of, “This is the kind of organization and culture I really want to do business with”?
And here, too, it’s kind of a pushback against the kind of Silicon Valley mindset in the sense that in a world which is everywhere we look kind of totally being reshaped by technology, but I think what people in so many industries are hungry for now is a deeper and more profound sense of humanity. Whenever you encounter a brand or an organization or a place, it just sends you signals, gestures, messages that we are kind of humanizing the nature of our interaction. You’ve got real human beings in the company treating you as a customer as a real human being, and that is a truly—and we’re so into finance and IPOs. We’re so into mobile apps and virtual reality, I think that basic sense of humanity is a missing ingredient in so many of our companies and our brands and our experiences.
Michael: I mean, actually, if you look at the kind of overall thesis of the book, I would actually say that that, you probably articulated it right there. I mean, the words that keep showing up are humility and love and kindness and this sort of sense of fairness and fair play. This kind of call is paean for being how do we be more human and generous and humble and messy almost with each other?
I guess my question would be if your inner organization, where it doesn’t feel like that’s the case, where you feel like you’re doing that hard work, ploughing the competitive thing against everybody else, you’re in that kind of vicious circle and competing, where there are old structures, old systems, a culture, is it possible to change or do you just need to kind of get lucky that you find one of these organizations that kind of had figured that out from the start? I mean, you talk about the John Lewis partnership. And you know, the guy, his first year in charge, he wrote the constitution that is all about, “This is how we do business around here.”
Bill: Yeah. Yeah.
Michael: I’m wondering if you can find your way back to the path you point to if your organization has wandered into the wilderness.
Bill: So, obviously, it’s a lot easier if you’re smart or lucky enough to be in an organization like John Lewis or like Lincoln Electric, another company I write about in the book, where there was some visionary founder who, many, many years ago, set down, and in the Lewis case, as you say, literally a written constitution, which describes these behaviours and the sense of fair play and so on, but that’s a pretty small slice of the world, of course.
So, I remain very optimistic that it is possible for people who are deep in the ranks of the organization, who are there because they believe in the product or they believe in the mission, but you know, the day-to-day reality is exactly what they’d hoped for, that there really is the possibility for grassroots change agents over the long term to reshape and reinvigorate and change the organizations there. Part of—and you know, my advice to people—and it’s funny coming from the founder of a magazine called Fast Company—is to recognize that, you know, when it comes to making change, in a lot of ways slow and steady wins the race.
Bill: Don’t think you’re going to have a brilliant point of view or have a clear sense of the future and somehow you’re going to shake things up almost instantaneously. It goes back to that famous quote from Teddy Roosevelt a hundred years ago. You know, when people asked him, “You know, how do you change the world for the better?”
And he said, “You know, you do what you can with what you have where you are.”
And I think that’s—a lot of the stuff starts small. Maybe you’re running a business unit. Maybe you’re running a country organization. Maybe you’re running a ten-person team. Well, create the reality and the conditions you want to see in whatever unit you’re working on and document that you could deliver tremendous business results by working in these new, better, more humane, more progressive ways. And then, constantly try to avoid asking for money or resources, and instead ask for more freedom and independence. A lot of change agents that I know sort of say to themselves, “Unless I’ve got a big budget to work on whatever I want to work on, the company isn’t taking me seriously.”
And my argument is actually, you know, be careful what you wish for. I’d rather have freedom and independence and be able to do things my way, and then once things are really in a groove, try to start sharing your methods, message with others around you, with those above you, and so on. And you know, I find that the seeds of most organizations’ future are already kind of planted. Maybe it’s in a faraway business unit or in a neglected operation somewhere, and if those things are allowed to flourish, at some point you’ll catch the attention of the senior leadership and they’ll give you at that point a little more resources, a few more people. And you find that over the years, those things tend to work.
And so, I find being a force for renewal inside the organization, it really can be done. You know, it doesn’t happen often or all the time, but it really can be done.
Michael: I mean, in your book, you start with the values proposition. You know, be different. You know, don’t try and compete against everybody else, but find out how you can truly stand out from everybody else. You finish with more of a paean to, you know, be humble, be kind, make sure that everybody wins.
f I’m running a team, right? I’m running a 15-person team, and I’m like, “Okay, Bill’s inspired me. I’m going to get this together. We’re going to be the team that changes this.” Do you have an opinion on where you start? I mean, does it matter where you start? Or do you go, “Look, you’ve got to figure out what you stand for first, and then you get to build the other stuff into it”?
Bill: Well, I do think there has to be, at the heart of everything, a core insight, a point of view, a sense about what you’re creating for the future that people can rally around and get excited about. I’m not really into being different just for the sake of being different. I’m into people having a really clear sense of, “These are the ideas we stand for and this is what it means to be part of this company, this business unit, this team.”
And so, maybe as, I don’t know, hackneyed as it sounds, I mean, a lot of the companies and leaders I write about in this book, they have a kind of, really kind of a manifesto of the sort you would tack on the wall somewhere. And it says, you know, basically, “This is the impact we’re trying to have on our field, this is what it means to be a member of this organization, and these are the attributes and values and behaviours we hold dear.” And the language of that, it’s not, “We want to be the best customer experience in the industry or deliver 20% return on …” It’s raw. It’s edgy. It’s meaningful. I write about Quicken Loans in the book.
Michael: Yeah, exactly.
Bill: Where they have these 18 pithy aphorisms, their “isms” as they call them, and they’re really kind of funky and interesting and clever, and they expect everybody to kind of know them, understand them, internalize them, and so on. And so, I do think it begins almost kind of with a belief system, but a belief system rooted in the impact you’re trying to have in your field, the difference you’re trying to make, the special performance you’re trying to deliver.
And then, the second thing is to always make the connection between what you’re trying to achieve and who you’re trying to be in the marketplace, and what you’re trying to build and how you want people to behave in the workplace. I meet a lot of companies that have very well-developed competitive strategies but they have very little sense of, “Okay, if we want to be special and compelling and distinctive in the marketplace, then we have to be just as special and compelling and distinctive in the workplace, and here’s how we’re going to go about creating that.”
And it is the rare organization that puts those two things together every single day and says, “If this is what we want to do to the outside world, this is what it means to be a member of the tribe, if you will, when you show up for work on Monday morning.” And that very clear connection between the impact you’re trying to have and the behaviours that you celebrate is also something that’s just really important to be decisive about and be clear about, whether you’re, again, running a whole company or you’re running a ten-person project team.
Michael: Well you know, you actually talk about USAA in your book as a company that has values that feed from the inside to the outside.
Michael: And actually, USAA have just become a big client of Box of Crayons, my company.
Bill: Oh, very good! How exciting!
Michael: So, it’s very exciting for us, and we’re to and from San Antonio in Texas quite a lot at the moment.
Bill: Oh, that’s great. That’s great.
Michael: And I mean, two things. First of all, I got to say to them, “Have you read this book? Because you guys are quoted in this.”
And they’re, like, “I haven’t.” You know, the team I was working with are, like, “We hadn’t heard that.” So, I’m, like, spreading the gospel within USAA for you.
Bill: Very good.
Michael: But truly, when you work there, you really get a sense that this is vision-/mission-/values-led organization, and those values just infuse the whole—I mean, you walk up and down that enormous building they’ve got and it’s just you can feel it in your bones.
Bill: Exactly, and it’s—go ahead.
Michael: And it’s rare.
Bill: It’s rare and it’s not by accident. You know, they design the culture, I think, with the same level of care they design their financial services products. What I love about the USAA example is they are super innovative. They really have been, for years and years, the technology leader in financial services, the first to market with all sorts of things long before the big banks get them. But it’s not like, again, you know, you’ve been there: they’re not some razzle dazzle.
Bill: It’s a pretty buttoned-down, you know …
Michael: Yeah, by their own words, they’re conservative. I mean, they’re a military culture, right?
Michael: So by their own words, they’re like, “We’re pretty conservative.” Yeah.
Bill: Exactly, and when it comes to actual technology and products, they’re nimble, agile. They have a real experimental mindset, and it’s because they are able to combine a set of human values with the very unique mission of the company, which is to serve active and retired members of the U.S. military and their families. But they’re probably the best example, I think, of a company that understands the connection between what we’re doing in the marketplace and how we’re behaving in the workplace.
Michael: So, Bill, as a final question, I mean, I truly enjoyed the book. I said so in the introduction and I’ll say so again. You know, it just felt great stories the whole way through, powerful insights the whole way through. But as you say, you’ve been looking for great stories for 20 years or more. Was there anything that surprised you in terms of doing this research, going around the world, you know, in North America and beyond, to find companies doing things a little bit different outside Silicon Valley, outside Austin, outside kind of the Silicon New York?
Michael: What were you most kind of caught off guard by in terms of what emerged?
Bill: You know, maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised by this, but I was surprised—if not surprised, I was struck. What I was struck or surprised by is how really impressive and powerful leaders come in so many different personality types and styles. When you spend a lot of time in Silicon Valley or other high-tech, there is a kind of way of being a Silicon Valley CEO or a venture capital innovator that has to do with tremendous confidence, bordering on arrogance. And everybody dresses a certain way and talks, and there tends to be an almost formulaic style of leadership in these high-tech sectors.
But you get out in the mainstream world; you meet certain leaders like Vernon Hill, the CEO of Metro Bank in London, who is just the classic colourful, top-down, my way or the highway kind of entrepreneur just doing amazing things in banking. And then you go to Anchorage, Alaska, and you meet the CEO of the hospital system there for the Native Alaskan and American Indian population, one of the most troubled populations in terms of health outcomes on the planet, and what she and her colleagues have done in the last 15 years is just so totally remarkable.
Michael: Yeah, it’s breathtaking. Yeah, it’s an amazing story.
Bill: And you know, she won a MacArthur Genius Award and a Malcolm Baldrige Quality Award, and yet she is the most philosophical, humble, self-effacing leader. You know, I often times go out and speak to (inaudible) and they say, “Oh, come bring one of your CEOs and interview them on stage.” And as much as I’d love to interview her, she’s so self-effacing. And so, unless you spend lots and lots and lots of time with her, you can’t really understand the sources of her strength and why she’s had such an impact on this organization.
Michael: You tell that story in the book, which is like, you know, you met her and she’s, like, “Come and tell me your story.”
Michael: And you’re, like, “Wait, what are you doing? I want you to tell me yours.”
“No, we have to trade stories.” Yeah.
Bill: Yeah, she immediately turns the table and says, “How can I be honest with you unless I understand where you’re coming from?” and everything.
And then, there are just all different shades between those two extremes. And it really did just deliver home to me the idea that in a world where, you know, there’s such a diversity of business models and strategies and people and everything, leadership itself can come in so many different personality types and, you know, so many different forms of strength and charisma, whether it’s the incredibly extroverted charisma of some innovators or the much more quiet, confident, supportive leadership of others.
And so, it really has forced me to be much more circumspect about what a leader looks like, what a leader talks like, how a leader behaves, and that sort of thing. And you know, the other thing, I found it very uplifting because it’s not like you have to be a certain kind of way to have a tremendous impact on your company or in your industry.
Michael: Bill, it’s been a great conversation. I know people will want to learn more about you and certainly find out more about the book. Where can they find you?
Bill: The easiest thing is just my website, williamctaylor.com, and there’s my background, and all about the history of Fact Company. Of course, stuff about the new book. And in terms of Twitter, I’m on @williamctaylor.
Michael: Perfect. Bill, thank you so much.
Bill: Fantastic. Thank you.