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Alan Webber's 52 Truths for Winning at Business—Without Losing Your Self

Our interview with Alan Webber continues …

Be Inkandescent: Your newest title is an e-book, “The Global Detective.” Tell us about it.

Alan Webber: A few years ago I found myself at the art museum in Salzburg, Austria. There was an amazing work of art on display, “The Black Box,” a piece created by the brilliant South African artist William Kentridge, a multimedia presentation that dramatizes a horrific act of genocide committed against the Herero tribe in Namibia in 1906.

In the middle of this powerful work of art, a slide appears that says “Global Detective.” When I saw it, I knew immediately, that was my new job title. As a global detective, my job is to travel around the world, looking at what’s going on, collecting clues, trying to solve the mysteries of our time: What’s going on and why?

So, when I took off for Europe not long ago, I wrote it up as a kind of travelog/blog/narrative, describing my adventures. The e-book that’s out now covers the part of the trip that took me to Germany and Austria. There’s a Part 2 still in the works that continues the work of the global detective when I went on to Denmark and Finland.

Be Inkandescent: Now that you are a global detective, do you have any insights into the solution to the world’s global economic problems? No pressure.

Alan Webber: Thanks for asking! I do have a few clues that I’ve been gathering and trying to connect. Not long ago I was in New Zealand and China, back to back. In both places I asked the people I met, “What’s the biggest problem in your country?” In both places, they told me that it’s “the growing gap between the rich and the poor.”

Then I went to Wales to the Do Lectures. I asked the people there, “What is the biggest problem in the UK?” The answer: “The growing gap between the rich and the poor.” It’s true almost everywhere I go—and it’s certainly the recognition that’s behind the Occupy Wall Street movement.

If you look at the data on the United States, America has the largest gap between the rich and the poor of any advanced, industrialized nation in the world. And the gap is getting larger. From that gap comes a stream of social problems that are the issues that keep us all awake at night: the failures of public education, the health care crisis, and problems of unemployment, crime, the fraying of the social fabric in ways large and small.

My solution: In my role as a global detective, I’m now looking for solutions that work in addressing these social problems. “Solutions that work for problems that matter“—that’s what I’m looking for. If we can identify those solutions, find out not just how they work but why they work, what they have in common, what makes them work, then we can develop a new approach to creating positive change. We can work at the grassroots level to solve problems; and in the process, we may be able to develop ways to close the gap between the rich and the poor.

Be Inkandescent: Given a few years of perspective, do your 52 Rules of Thumb still stand up? Are there any rules you’d delete? What would you add in?

Alan Webber: Every once in a while I take out “Rules of Thumb” and read through it. It’s a little like the I Ching —depending on how I feel or what’s going on in my life, different rules jump out at me, speak to me—or don’t speak to me. Which I think is the real strength of the book.

It doesn’t try to give you a “one size fits all” set of ideas or practices. Instead, it presents 52 working precepts that you can read and use as you need them. There are some that come up more often than others—at least for me. There’s the rule that says, “Change is a math formula.” The formula is, “Change happens when the cost of the status quo is greater than the risk of change.” Another one that seems to fit the moment is, “If you want to see with fresh eyes, re-frame the picture.”

This speaks to the art of re-framing, something that organizations all over the world are struggling to do, as they seek to cope with change. And of course there are new rules that present themselves all the time, if you’re paying attention.

The other day, for example, I went to a terrific display at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, showing the work of Dieter Rams, whose designs have influenced several generations of designers, up to and including much of the work that has come out of Apple. His “rules of thumb” for design were posted on the walls at the show—and I wrote them all down. Rule #52 in my book says, “Stay alert! There are teachers everywhere.” That may be the most important rule of all.

Be Inkandescent: You are working with the Center for Social Value Creation at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business. What can we expect to see there in the coming years?

Alan Webber: Go back to what I said about the growing gap between the rich and the poor and my own search for solutions that work for problems that matter. Increasingly, I’d say, this question of social equity and economic justice is at the heart of a growing conversation about business, work, the economy, and society. Scholars are writing about it; financial analysts are proposing new metrics to change how we measure and what we measure; political leaders are offering their approaches.

It is the conversation the world is having right now—and needs to have. At the same time, young people are eager to engage in this discussion. It’s all about the future—it’s all about their future. Even if we don’t yet know the answers, at least we’re asking the right questions—and that is the role of education, whether in a business school or in a magazine. So I’m enormously hopeful that centers like the one at the University of Maryland can be important nodes where this conversation can flourish.

Be Inkandescent: Last, but not least, what are your three favorite, and most relevant, rules of thumb for 2012 and beyond?

Alan Webber: The dominant themes for 2012 and beyond are change and leadership.

1. For leaders, I’d say, “Focus on the signal-to-noise ratio.” Leaders today don’t just make decisions; they make sense. Get outside of the United States and you’ll be struck by how much noise there is in our system. People are screaming at each other: talk radio, news-as-entertainment-TV, and the blogosphere. We have too much noise, but not enough signal. So what real leaders have to offer is more signal and less noise.

2. Another key rule: “If you want to think big, start small.” The leaders I admire most are the ones who have had the courage to take an idea they believe in and test it out at the grassroots level. Make it a Petri-dish sized experiment. See if it works. See if it doesn’t work. See how it could work better. Silicon Valley likes to brag, “Get big or go home.” When I look at change in the world, it’s almost always the opposite: Start small and see if it works. Then keep trying until you find out what actually does work.

I just got back from spending three days with Muhammad Yunus in Vienna at the Global Social Business Summit. There were more than 500 people there from all over the world. What they had in common was a willingness to try their idea out, to give it a test and see what happens.

3. And my third rule, the one I go back to all the time says, “Ask the last question first.” The last question is, “What’s the point of the exercise? What’s your definition of victory?” When I look at the disconnects that afflict so many companies, institutions, and organizations, what they have in common is that they’ve lost track of why they are doing what they are doing.

Wall Street used to exist to provide capital for companies to grow; now it exists to make money on money. So in the case of Wall Street, what’s the point of the exercise? Just to make more money? CEOs used to think they were charged with building great organizations, creating great places for people to work, producing exceptional products and services. Now they focus on driving up the company’s share price, in creating shareholder value.

As change comes more unexpectedly and as demands on all of us grow, being able to answer, “What’s the point of the exercise?” is not only a great source of personal comfort. It also is a source of great power and influence. It’s what makes for real leaders and successful entrepreneurs.

For more of Webber’s insightful Rules of Thumb, click here to read his blog, and here to buy the book.

What are your Rules of Thumb?

Check out the Inkandescent Rules, shared by our columnists, and PR clients, and the entrepreneurs, authors, and business leaders whom we have interviewed since founding Be Inkandescent Magazine in January 2010.

Then send us an email with your Rule of Thumb: hope@inkandescentpr.com.

Here’s to a wonderful 2011 holiday season, and a very happy 2012 to you and yours. — The Inkandescent Team

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