Does experience matter? With twentysomething CEOs leading billion-dollar companies and digital natives tutoring their elders, it does sometimes seem as if youth has all the answers.
If only it were that simple.
In an age of flux, it’s worth reminding ourselves that every day should be an education. The best CEOs recognize this, no matter how young (Jeremy Stoppelman of Yelp and Mikael Hed of Rovio are in their thirties) or old (Mike Duke, the Walmart CEO pushing hard on its digital business, is 62). Which is why this issue features a slew of lessons from those three and scores of other leaders in widely varied industries.
What lessons have I learned in 2012? Too many to catalog here, but a few jump out:
You can’t keep up. There’s a feature in our Now section called "The Recommender," where sources share their favorite new websites, apps, books, and more. I'm often asked what I look at, and my answer is: not everything. When I’ve tried to be "fully informed," I just get frazzled. The trick, for me, is paying attention to the recommendations of my trusted network; those people do a good job of clueing me in to what matters.
Trust your instincts. As a journalist, I’ve been trained to be a skeptic. But when it comes to Fast Company’s business, we can’t always afford to spend months vetting new opportunities (as more traditional media operations might). We’re more likely to jump in and test things, as we did with flash-sale site Fab a year ago. We recently signed a licensing deal with a partner in Beijing to launch Fast Company China, a Chinese-language edition. There are dozens of outfits we might have worked with, but when we found one partner who met our criteria, we jumped. If we have to adjust down the road, we will.
Community is plural. I used to struggle to define Fast Company’s audience, because it’s so broad—big companies and small, all industries, all ages. No more. Our audience is really a bunch of vibrant communities that don’t hew to the terms of traditional market segmentation. What matters is that they share something more sophisticated: a psychographic.
There are no rules. In the face of constant change, we’d love to emulate models of success. But I’ve given up on that. The only way to learn from the successes and failures of others is to apply them to our own situation in nondogmatic, flexible ways.
Leadership is more important than ever. When I set out to write my two Generation Flux cover stories (February and November), I knew a major theme would be the bottom-up power of networks, of crowdsourcing. I was surprised, however, to find that the role of leaders—to create and nurture environments where many contributions can be recognized and channeled—is more important than ever. Without it, bureaucracy stifles the new, and innovation goes unrealized.
Business isn’t getting easier, but it’s getting more fun. Sure, competition in all industries is intense, and we are all only as good as our next product or service. But for me, that challenge is more exhilarating than exhausting. The businesses we report on here at Fast Company have always got something to teach, and I'm still hungry to learn.
A version of this article appeared in the December 2012/January 2013 issue of Fast Company magazine.