Leadership Hall of Fame: William C. Taylor, Author of "Practically Radical"

We continue our examination of the new business book Practically Radical with an interview of author William C. Taylor—one of the cofounders of Fast Company magazine. Taylor explains how the book came together, and how the business world has changed in the years since his last book.

William C. TaylorWhat was the impetus for writing Practically Radical?

I want Practically Radical to be a manifesto for change and a manual for making it happen, at a moment in business and social history when change is the name of the game. We're all still struggling to learn lessons from the catastrophic meltdown of the last few years. I started to worry that too many organizations and leaders were learning the wrong lessons—they were becoming conservative and risk-averse, they were learning to resist innovation as opposed to embracing it as the only way out of our funk. I hope readers will use Practically Radical as a resource to think bigger and lead smarter. I have tried to offer a set of ideas and a collection of case studies about how to make big positive change in difficult times.

How has the business world, and the world at large, changed since you wrote your last book, Mavericks at Work?

Polly LaBarre and I wrote Mavericks at Work at a moment when the economy in general and the startup world in particular were booming. The spirit of the book was encapsulated by the famous quote that led off Google's IPO prospectus: "Google is not a conventional company. We do not intend to become one." The narrative of that time, and the driving theme of the book, was starting from scratch and taking on the corporate establishment.

Times are different today. The defining challenge is whether leaders can make deep-seated change in long-established organizations. Sure, startups still matter—Facebook is today what Google was five years ago. But the long-term health of the economy also depends on whether or not the giants companies and institutions of the economy can make the transformation to a new era of technology, markets, and business culture. That's the challenge I focus on in this book.

Practically radical Did you do anything differently when creating this book?

I did a few things differently (at least for me). First of all, I was determined to look beyond the traditional boundaries of business, to learn lessons from great leaders and game-changing innovators in all parts of the economy. So I spent time with the Secretary General of Interpol, the renowned global crime-fighting organization, with the wonder CEO of Girl Scouts of the USA, who is one of the most charming and determined change agents I've ever met, with the chief of the Providence RI police department. The goal was to unearth leaders and organizations that were thriving in all kinds of difficult circumstances, and to learn lessons from their work.

Second, even as I cast a wide-angle lens, I made it a point to go deep into a few specific sectors of the economy. I spent a lot of time with leaders from the health-care field—hospitals in particular. Is there any sector of the economy under more pressure than health care? So I thought readers could learn a lot of lessons from leaders and innovators who are breaking new ground in this field.

I also spent lots of time with the "good guys" in banking and finance. Again, you can't grapple with the world as it is today without addressing what's gone wrong, and who's doing it right, in banking and finance. So I made sure to draw lessons from this field too.

The third thing I did differently with this book, which I guess is not so different anymore, is that I used blogging and other social media to experiment with my ideas before I committed them to the book. For a writer, what's great about the Web is that it allows you to experiment with language, to tell stories, to tease out lessons, and to see quickly what material strikes a chord with readers, what really engages them.

In the years since Alan Webber and you founded Fast Company magazine, much of the mission has become common place—work IS personal, business IS social. What do you think about this development?

One of the great signs of progress for an upstart, a "challenger brand" like Fast Company, is when some of its core ideas, ideas that seemed so offbeat and disruptive, become part of the mainstream conversation. That's called success, particularly when your ambition is to shape the conversation in your field!

In fact, 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.

What are your three favorite business books, and why?

The first is Weird Ideas that Work by Bob Sutton, the endlessly interesting Stanford professor who should be familiar to most members of the Fast Company community. Bob's book is the smartest and most original take on leadership and organizational creativity that I've read, and it is just so witty and fun. I love it and have learned so much from it.

Another book I simply could not put down is When Pride Still Mattered, the biography of Vince Lombardi written by David Maraniss, the Pulitzer Prize writer. I know it's a cliché—business and sports, football coaches as leaders. But Vince Lombardi is such a larger-than-life character, and Maraniss's book is such a nuanced look at one of the iconic American leaders and competitors of the last fifty years, I learn something new every time I pick it up.

Finally, I'd have to say In Search of Excellence by Tom Peters and Robert Waterman. It's the business book that begat hundreds (probably thousands) of subsequent business books, and it's still the best. Also, Tom has been a friend and supporter for nearly two decades—he was literally the very first person to invest in Fast Company, he has provided endless amounts of ideas and inspiration. In some sense, any of us who think and write about business, who share new ideas and tell stories of success, are following in his footsteps.

And just about anything by Peter Drucker. He was truly amazing.

What makes a business book stand out from all the others?

The three ingredients to a great business book are the originality of its thinking, the simplicity of its lessons, and the power of its storytelling. If there are no big new ideas, what's the point? But if you can't put those ideas to work, where's the value? And if you don't see those ideas come to light inside real organizations, where's the credibility? Those are the three ingredients I try to use in my books.

William C. Taylor's new book is Practically Radical: Not-So-Crazy Ways to Transform Your Company, Shake Up Your Industry, and Challenge Yourself (HarperCollins). Taylor is cofounder of Fast Company magazine and coauthor of Mavericks at Work. Follow him at twitter.com/practicallyrad or at the official site for Practically Radical.

Read more from Practically Radical and our Leadership Hall of Fame.

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3 Comments

  • William Taylor

    Bob,

    So nice you saw the Fast Company interview--thanks for weighing in! One of these days, I hope we can spend a few hours and really swap ideas. One of the pieces of language that I learned from you and from IDEO (but I guess maybe George Carlin said it first???) is vuja de--can you look at a familiar situation with fresh eyes? Or, as another innovation thinker puts it, How do you make sure that what you know doesn't limit what you can imagine? Here's to the power of weird ideas!

  • Matt Edmundson

    Any chance you can arrange to have this book available in the UK on the Kindle Version? I'd love to read it, just can't get it -- D'oh!

  • Bob Sutton

    Bill,

    Thanks for the nice words. Weird Ideas that Work is the worst selling of all the five management books I've written -- but I still love it best (perhaps that is just a defense mechanism). It came out a few days after 9/11 in 2001 and people were not in the mood for weird ideas! My favorite book on creativity is the Gordon Mackenzie's amazing Orbiting the Giant Hairball, which I first heard about in Fast Company long ago. I look forward to reading the new book, I LOVE the title. Creativity is often about pushing yourself and others just to the point where everyone is squirming, worried, and perhaps even a bit angry, but not so far that people freak out and can't think and get defensive. That word "practically" reflects the spirit. I think of Pixar's Brad Bird or Alice Waters or IDEO's David Kelley right away.