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Leadership Lessons From 11 Years Of Running Fast Company

The editor-in-chief bids farewell.

Leadership Lessons From 11 Years Of Running Fast Company
[Photo: Celine Grouard]

For the past 11 years, I’ve had the good fortune to be the editor of Fast Company. It has been a passion project much more than a job. I’ve met CEOs, movie stars, and presidents. I’ve been on big stages, inside boardrooms, on TV news shows. I’ve gotten to learn from a cohort of creative collaborators across industries who have blown me away over and over again.

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Fast Company is a family, and it’s been a privilege for me to nurture—and be nurtured by—its unique character. With this writing, my time at Fast Company comes to a close. From my very first issue in May of 2007, I sensed that there was something special about this place. In time, I learned how special it could really be.

Before I head off to my next venture (you can reach me at The Flux Group), I can’t help reflecting on my editor’s columns from the more-than-100 print issues that I’ve overseen. There are some memories—and characters—that I will never forget.

Putting Mark Zuckerberg on my first cover, when Facebook had just 19 million users, was certainly a good way to start. The alternating cycles of hope and hype around social media have often obscured a larger story: how the personal development of this singular, influential, ultra-wealthy human being is impacting business, technology, and culture. Few 22-year-olds would have the capacity to steer an enterprise to global scale, which is what makes Zuckerberg “The One True Unicorn,” as we later called him. His company has been built around the idea of constant iteration (embracing mobile, buying Instagram, etc.) and that has in turn helped breed an embrace of speed-of-change that is now rocketing through the innovation economy. But that strength comes with its own Achilles’ heel: When you move with too much haste, unintended consequences may arise—ones that are less easily re-engineered, as Facebook is now grappling with.

Here’s another prescient call: “The Race Has Just Begun,” an article in the summer of 2013 by writer J.J. McCorvey about Amazon. I wrote in the editor’s column that month, “What Amazon and [Jeff] Bezos have planned—via Amazon Prime and AmazonFresh—will make today’s status quo feel archaic.” What we saw in Amazon, and indeed, in all four of today’s tech titans (a group we internally dubbed Amazappooglebook) was an ambition, capability, and momentum that would drive each other and the broader business landscape to rethink established assumptions.

When we won the National Magazine Award for Magazine of the Year in 2014, we took it as a validation of our efforts, including our decision to lean into diversity in our coverage. Just a few months earlier we’d put music impresario Pharrell Williams on our cover, prevailing industry wisdom had been that neither black men nor celebrities tend to sell well for business magazines, yet that cover went on to be among Fast Company‘s best newsstand performers ever. The issue before, we chose to highlight on the cover 23andMe CEO Anne Wojcicki, whose now-resolved conflicts with the FDA pale in comparison with the troubles of Theranos’s Elizabeth Holmes. (I do regret not having put Anne’s sister, Susan Wojcicki, the CEO of YouTube, on a cover, though we did feature her prominently twice.) We’ve been committed to presenting visual and editorial diversity, whether through the gender balance of our Most Creative People in Business community or by profiling the likes of Shonda Rhimes and Angela Ahrendts. We weren’t perfect, but we made a strong effort; we’ve seen others adjust their coverage in response.

The longest article we ever ran at Fast Company during my tenure was in 2008, an opus about China’s activities in Africa that remains a highlight for me, for its ambition and scope. In 2011 we presented a yearlong series of features about “China’s emerging innovation culture,” aiming “to give readers a new window into a part of the world [that] presents constant new discoveries.” Since then, we have routinely included Chinese firms among our annual Most Innovative Companies Coverage. (In one of my columns, I chastised attendees at the Cannes Lions Advertising Festival for packing a session featuring Anderson Cooper and Conan O’Brien and largely ignoring a competing presentation by a top executive at Tencent: “All [he] had to offer was insight into the most dynamic, fast-growing media and technology market on the planet.”)

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Who did I most enjoy meeting at Fast Company? Interviewing President Barack Obama was certainly memorable. So was getting to know Saudi Princess Reema bint Bandar, who has dedicated herself to helping women in her homeland. Perhaps most surprising was getting to know Nike CEO Mark Parker, hardly a household name like the company founder, Phil Knight. Parker is a designer by trade and temperament—always sketching shoe ideas. He’s an unassuming sort who has guided Nike not by fiat but through cultivating creativity. Sports insiders certainly know who he is: At one event, backstage, I watched a trail of bold-name athletes come by to ask his counsel and express their thanks. (He also introduced me to Serena Williams, who in turn invited me to a dinner, so what can I say?)

And then there is Generation Flux, a phrase I coined in a cover story (with help from former executive editor Rick Tetzeli) that sought to put into context the dramatic change underway in workplaces across the country and around the world. I believe we have entered a new age, one where the old rules no longer apply, and where we all have to learn how to operate in new ways. I think we’re still in the early days of this transformation, and it excites me. Sure, there’s plenty to be worried about; there always is. I don’t want to downplay that. But I think that decrying the reality of where things are moving is foolhardy. If anything marks my time at Fast Company, it is the unerring assertion that there are always amazing things underway in our business world, and if we can amplify those efforts, we can lead our world toward a better place.

I did several follow-ups to that initial Generation Flux cover, one called “Find Your Mission.” In this time of flux, there is no more valuable advantage than having a mission that undergirds your enterprise. It is not only a critical motivational tool, but provides a filter for determining which of the many changes buffeting us are worth responding to and which you can let go by.

My very first editor’s column declared: “Fast Company is a publication that doesn’t just report on developments; it stands for something. We embrace the idea that business serves a purpose in our world that goes beyond dollars and cents, and that a responsible and sustainable enterprise can be a vehicle for progress. We believe these higher goals don’t contradict the quest for profitability. On the contrary, we’re convinced businesses that reflect and embody them will be tomorrow’s leaders.”

I continue to believe that more than ever. That spirit of positive change is now a rising force in business. (When even Larry Fink at Blackrock, a hard-nosed investment firm, encourages public companies to use part of their windfall tax gains to improve our global community, you know something is afoot.) These ideas continue to animate and inspire me, and I’m confident they will continue to expand in influence, via Fast Company, my new venture The Flux Group, and all of you.

As I sign off, I would be remiss if I didn’t thank all the sources and subjects who dedicated their time and trust to Fast Company, and of course our readers, whose encouragement provided the fuel for our efforts. Most of all, I must thank the team that I was able to work alongside. You taught me new things every day, and gave warmth and shape to our excellent adventure.

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Thanks again for everything. Keep fluxing!

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About the author

Robert Safian is the editor and managing director of The Flux Group. From 2007 through 2017, Safian oversaw Fast Company’s print, digital and live-events content, as well as its brand management and business operations.

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