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Great Organizations | Great Leaders

Coffee on the GO with Robert Safian

The editor and managing director of Fast Company on why being “fast” is about more than speed.
Coffee on the GO with Robert Safian

After its launch in 1995, Fast Company quickly carved out a niche as a decidedly different business magazine. Its optimistic tone and emphasis on telling interesting stories about people who launch starts-up, champion innovation, and challenge and transform traditional organizational cultures, struck—and continues to strike—a chord with readers hungry for a different take on business and the world of work.

Robert Safian, Fast Company’s editor and managing director, spoke with GO about what makes a company “fast,” how some large organizations are faster than small ones, and why getting fired might not be a bad thing.

GO: Why do you think Fast Company continues to resonate with people after 20 years?

SAFIAN: I think there’s a constituency of businesspeople who at the end of the day wants to judge whether their day is a success based on more than whether their bank account is bigger. They hope their bank account is bigger, right? That’s why we work. But there’s satisfaction and motivation to be derived from feeling that my work today made the world a little bit of a better place, that there was some creativity added, and that there was some impact added in a larger way. And we at Fast Company believe that there are businesspeople who think of themselves that way, and that group is growing in size. Our job is to talk to those people, encourage them, and try to recruit more people to accept that viewpoint.

GO: To read the magazine, the content on your website, and the various e-newsletters, like Co.Exist and Co.Design, is to feel like you’re part of a community. That seems like it’s been a big part of Fast Company’s success.

SAFIAN: Our content is as much about inspiration as it is about the information. It’s about getting people to feel like they’re not alone in their battles to advance their business and the mission of their business, and it can be very hard to do those things because there are a lot of things that get in the way. We want to activate that passionate community. We also don’t kid ourselves that everyone who reads our content is as passionate as that core group of people, but having that core passionate audience is really important.

GO: So, what does it mean for a company to be “fast?”

SAFIAN: Fast means creative and innovative and progressive—those are the words we use internally but it’s not something that I can reduce to a handful of rules or bullet points. It’s an aspirational term and it’s also a process. It’s not like you’re fast once and you’re done, not like you’re innovative once and you’re done. It’s much more about a mindset.

One of the things I did when I arrived at Fast Company in 2007 was I sat with the staff and I said let’s rate these companies on a scale of one to 10, 10 being the fastest and one the least fast, and I’d throw out company names—Google, Apple, GE, or IBM. It was an exercise we did to get ourselves to try to articulate internally what we mean by fast. One of the things we learned was that we tended to underappreciate bigger companies almost by default. If they were bigger, we thought, they couldn’t also be fast. I think that false assumption was something we’ve tried to focus on and address. We recognize that talking about only small start-ups does not provide a real look at the landscape of innovation and change. So, we try to be sort of business-size agnostic about it. After all, there are plenty of small companies that are not particularly progressive.

GO: Do you find that fast companies know they’re fast?

SAFIAN: When I meet with people from companies, I’ll often ask them if they believe their company is a fast company and almost no one says yes. The ones who seem to be most convinced that their companies are not fast are the CEOs. I think that’s because the CEOs are the ones who are most conscious of the things that they wish they could get done in their organization but can’t, and because they are frustrated by that reality they aren’t willing to give themselves that label.

GO: What defines the individuals whose stories you tell in the magazine?

SAFIAN: We try to identify those people who are in the trenches and are trying to make change happen without getting a lot of attention for it. We do that because we want to elevate those stories within those organizations, and we hope those organizations respond. It’s also because we want to be able to speak to our readers who feel like they’re in the same spot, and to let them know they’re not alone and to help them recognize there are other people out there fighting the same fight.

A secondary message is that if you fight that good fight and the folks you work for don’t appreciate it, there are others out there who will, and there will be a job for you somewhere else.

When I’m talking to people who are trying to drive change in their organizations, sometimes they worry they’re going to get fired, and that’s not a foolish worry. These things happen. But I also believe that in the long run those folks are better off. They’ll find a boss who appreciates what they’re doing, and they’ll be able to do more and have more impact.

GO: Is the accelerating pace of change a barrier to people taking responsibility for the direction of their companies or their jobs?

SAFIAN: I think there are pockets, there are places, there are people who want to say, “Oh my gosh, change is so hard.” But from my point of view, I think the winners are the ones who look at change and say “Wow, this is fun. This is going to be great.” And then they think about how they can step into that change to make themselves part of it.


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