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The Leader’s Agenda

A letter from the founding editors.

For the past few months, as the economy has continued to duck and dive in a frustrating pattern of retrenchment, reassessment, and redeployment, members of the Fast Company community have been asking us one question more than any other: What does it mean to be a fast company when you’re trying to navigate your way through an economic downturn? We answer that question with our fourth annual Best of the Best special report. So what does it take to be the best of the best?

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Try starting with grassroots leadership. If Harvard Business School prides itself on being the West Point of capitalism, well, then West Point, it turns out, is the West Point of leadership. And make no mistake: This school, which offers its students the opportunity to major in leadership, turns out men and women who know how to lead in battle and, increasingly, how to lead in business.

The next thing you’ll need: strategic innovation. For Unilever Corp., the world’s largest consumer-goods manufacturer, strategic innovation looks like a poor village in rural India. In fact, Unilever believes that by 2010, fully half of its global sales will come from the developing world, where the company intends to offer its well-made products to poor consumers who are ignored or overlooked by “global” producers. Here’s Unilever’s strategic insight: Meeting the demands of poor consumers is about creativity — developing products and processes that do more with less.

The third element: customer service. To appreciate the power of excellent customer service, you need only read about the compelling journey of EMC Corp. EMC went from being a company whose products were failing left and right — and which was jeopardizing its customers’ fundamental operations — to being a company that offers to help solve the problems of its competitors’ products. Just how good is EMC? So good that for every hour EMC spends fixing faulty hardware and software, it spends nine hours anticipating and preventing such problems. Those are the key attributes of a fast company in a slow economy.

And there’s more for you to put on your agenda: advice from 10 remarkable thinkers and accomplished executives who share what’s on their agenda; the story behind the story of a handful of key “agenda items” — innovations that have shaped business and our lives; and a revealing update on Michael Saylor and MicroStrategy Inc., a company we profiled last year as a “best of the best” that has spent most of this year reinventing its growth strategy, processes, and products — and which has worked to overcome a potentially fatal operating error.

The best way to survive this downturn and prepare for what comes next? Set your own agenda for the future — an agenda based on the best of the best.