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William C. Taylor

William C. Taylor

Founding editor of Fast Company and co-author of Mavericks at Work, William C. Taylor is working on his next book, Practically Radical. Follow him on Twitter @practicallyrad

Acid test of strategy

We live in a world that is defined by increasingly obsolete (and often downright false) choices: Are your products low-price or high-quality? Is your brand a "passion brand" or a mass-market brand? Is the goal of your organization to make money or have a positive impact in the world? For the best companies, these formerly either-or choices are now both-and requirements. That's what makes business today so confusing, so challenging, and, when things click, so exciting and creative.

The same goes for the future of corporate philanthropy, and the relationship between business success and social good. We are living in the age of disruption. You can't do big things anymore if you are content with doing things a little better than everybody else or a little different from how you did them before. In an era of hyper-competition and non-stop dislocation, the only way to stand out from the crowd is to stand for something special. Originality has become the acid test of strategy.

The term I use is strategy as advocacy. In any field, winning organizations don't just offer competitive products and services. They stand for important ideas--ideas that help to shape the agenda for their field, ideas that reshape the sense of what's possible for customers, employees, investors, and society. The most successful organizations don't just out-compete their rivals. They redefine the terms of competition by embracing one-of-a-kind ideas in a world filled with me-too thinking.

Oftentimes, the most original and distinctive business ideas--ideas that make tons of money and create loads of wealth--have a huge impact on society as a well. Who cares what Southwest Airlines does for philanthropic purposes (although I'm sure it does some great stuff), given that its growth and success has democratized air travel in the United States, and made it possible for tens of millions of people to see things and do things and visit places they never would have seen, done, or visited without this fabulously successful business?

I'm sure that one of my favorite entrepreneurs of the last 35 years, Washington's Bill McGowan, the monopoly-busting innovator behind MCI Communications, did lots of impressive work with the fortune he made breaking apart the Bell System monopoly. But did anything he did with his corporate philanthropy hold a candle to the social revolution he started by helping to unleash the great explosion in communications the world has ever known?

I'm not arguing against corporate philanthropy, or arguing that it doesn't matter. But what has struck me about innovation and entrepreneurship over the last few decades is that the most successful businesspeople aren't motivated primarily by the intricacies of spreadsheets or the power of dominating a narrow niche. They bring to their work a genuine sense of mission--and that sense of mission drives not just how they share the wealth they create, but how they create that wealth in the first place. Corporate philanthropy is not irrelevant. But sharp distinctions between how you do business and how you serve society, how you make money and how you make a contribution, are irrelevant. That's an obsolete vestige of either-or thinking in a both-and world.

By William C. Taylor

 |  November 17, 2009; 6:11 AM ET
Category:  Corporate leadership Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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Another radical Mullah/evangelical priest representing market-economy extremism.

He should read more economic history. Sure, excellent ideas and serving the common good are often important for successful companies.

Most time however, rationalizations, the right contacts with bigger power players than yourself or your own company is more important. Killing competition by foul-play often works better and quicker than letting the market weed out the bad apples.

The writer of this column should study more economic history. Look at Cocal-Cola, Microsoft, the tobacco industry, diamond industry, banking industry, fast-food industry, the garbage business, the arms industry.

Look further back, look at gold mining in South Africa or cotton production in the US.

You name it.

As a firm beliver in the way a market economy works in theory, its still quite easy to conclude that most big successful private money making enterprises have consisntently broken the very rules they claim to play by.

Presenting good ideas and serving hte common good has nothing to do with it.


Posted by: thabomuso | November 18, 2009 7:13 AM
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Well said Shadowmagician, well said.

Posted by: gringoinmiami | November 17, 2009 11:57 PM
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Quite true - one of the most original and distinctive business ideas-an idea that made tons of money and created loads of wealth and had a huge impact on society as a whole (although you said "well") was "securitization".

"Bundling" hundreds of sub-prime mortgages and selling them as prime investments, taking a comission and claiming there was no risk was a stroke of genius.

That it was a business success (at first anyway) there is no doubt. As to the social good, I heard 401(k)s lost 40% of their value, there was an economic, global meltdown, and taxpayers were strongarmed into bailing out Wall Street.

You may want to restate your core argument.

Posted by: shadowmagician | November 17, 2009 4:18 PM
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