In the world of business today, there are only two topics of conversation. The first is, What's wrong with America's CEOs? (Or, put more bluntly, When are they going to stop screwing up?) The second is, How can I make sense out of so much economic uncertainty? (Or, put more simply, How am I going to make it through this mess?) The two topics are intertwined — and at Fast Company, we talk and think a lot about both.
And we hear a lot as well. Not too long after the Enron scandal first broke, for instance, we found ourselves at dinner with a seasoned executive, a man who has served as CEO for a number of large corporations. The question on the table: What did he make of the CEO scandals? His answer had the solid directness that comes with authority, experience, and honesty. "As CEO," he said, "not a month goes by that someone isn't in my office offering me a deal or an opportunity that pushes the envelope." In fact, he went on, part of his job as CEO was to do just that: to push the envelope — to drive for more growth, higher profits, and larger market share. "But the real test," he said, "is to know when you're pushing the envelope and when you're crossing the line."
His point, ultimately, is that things aren't as simple as they are often made out to be. Or rather, the messy parts outnumber the simple ones. Theft, perjury, and fraud are punishable business crimes. Incompetence, sloth, and indecision are unacceptable business sins. That leaves a lot of room in the middle. Or, as one CEO told us, "We're like NFL quarterbacks: We get too much credit when the team is winning and too much blame when it's losing."
The same kind of balancing act, it seems, is what the times demand of us as individuals — seeking not just to survive, but also to make something out of the tumultuous economic environment. The best story we've heard that makes that point comes from Sun Microsystems' Patricia Seultz, one of the most powerful women in Silicon Valley. As executive vice president for enterprise services, she's responsible for a huge — and growing — part of Sun's business.
We asked Pat how she was making sense out of the dramatic ups and downs in business in general and in technology in particular. She smiled and told us a story about something that happened a few years ago involving one of her daughters. They'd gone to see Jumanji, an adventure film with lots of in-your-face action, including rhinos, lions, and other animals almost bursting through the screen. As her daughter watched the film, Pat watched her daughter. "Are you too scared to be at this movie?" Pat finally asked. "I'm scared," her daughter replied. "But I'm having fun."
Which is not a bad way to sum up the right attitude for businesspeople today. If you're not scared, then you're not paying attention. If you're not having fun, then you're probably not doing a good job.
A version of this article appeared in the October 2002 issue of Fast Company magazine.