This month we put 28 top leaders on the spot in our “Interview Issue.” Senior Writer Burl Gilyard noted that under the circumstances, I should be interrogated as well. He cornered me recently to conduct the following impromptu interview for this month’s Editor’s Note.
“The Interview Issue”: Is it true that you stole this idea from Businessweek?
[Coughs.] No comment.
How did you select interview subjects?
As a team we thought of people who are great leaders, not only in their organizations, but as influential people in their industries and our community. And how they’re going to be even more relevant in 2014 and the years to come.
Is there anyone you wanted to interview, but couldn’t get?
Yes. We wanted to get Stephen Hemsley from UnitedHealth Group. When you think about the significance of that company, not only nationally as the largest health insurance company, but because of the jobs it creates in the Twin Cities and how much it means to our economy, we still hope to someday hear from Mr. Hemsley in his own words in these pages.
When you hear the term “thought leader,” do you lean in or run in the opposite direction?
Depends on who they are and what they’re talking about.
What’s your favorite national business magazine and why?
The Economist. It provides great perspective and context, incorporating intelligence and news from around the world, and is written with a voice that is fair, but colorful. It’s just very well-written. I also like Inc. for how it talks about the people and personalities behind the numbers and performance.
What do you think business reporters miss when covering stories?
They miss personality, action, the energy, the angst, and the old line from Wide World of Sports—“the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat”—that occurs every day in business. Also numbers and context and perspective: understanding what’s really going on inside a business. Which is hard to do as a business writer because you’re looking at it from the outside; there are a lot of complexities to consider. But it always comes back to the personalities and the people that really make business what it is.
You once ran your own business [Profits Journal]. What’s the best business advice you ever received?
Don’t do it. [Laughs.]
Do you regret ignoring this advice?
No. There was a lot of good advice and worthwhile experiences along the way. I think the best thing that people said and that I took away from it all was “Anybody can have a good idea. It’s the execution that matters.” I used to worry so much about having the right ideas, but really that taught me that [business] really is knowing how to execute extremely well.
What’s your least favorite business cliché?
I think most people who use the word “disrupt” don’t understand what it means.
The current recovery seems fairly muted. What do you hear when you talk to local business leaders?
Of course frustration, No. 1. No. 2, a bit of a learned helplessness with some. But overall the continued need to be even smarter, and to be even more MacGyver-like with what you have.
MacGyver-like, man. How did he take the things he had in all those shows and [put them together so that] he would somehow come up with some brilliant solution to survive and come out of it smiling?
Businesses have to continue to reinvent themselves at a pace like we’ve never seen in our lifetime and may never see again; which are both good—because we’re seeing some great work and great accomplishments—but it’s also really taxing because we don’t have much by way of revenue growth or additional earnings to play with.
So it comes back to that MacGyver-like situation: How do you make it work with what you have?
What’s the biggest misperception that business leaders have about business journalists?
That they don’t really care to understand things as much as I know business journalists do care to understand things.
I also don’t think businesses realize that their legal counsel and their own stereotypes of journalists hinder what could be more effective relationships with the media in some instances. Some companies have great relationships with the media, but many others think that the best way to work with the media is to not work with the media. And that’s just a lost opportunity for them.
You can see Minneapolis City Hall from your office window. What role should government play in the business community?
As little as possible.
If you weren’t editing this magazine, what would you be doing?
I don’t know. I’m too busy doing this job to think about other possibilities.
Tom Petters recently said that he was guilty. Do you have any regrets about the interview that you did with him last year?
Nope. The interview was “the untold story of Tom Petters.” We set it up very well, saying this was his view, his version of what happened. He also, in talking with me, never said he was innocent. And even in the story we didn’t say he was claiming he was innocent.
In the age of the Internet, what do you see as the future of magazines?
Like “plastics” from The Graduate, the word today is “content.” Whoever has really useful, unique content will find people wanting it and ways to monetize around it— oftentimes not using social media or the Internet to do so.
I think the next wave for us as publishers has to do with big data. We need to start thinking about how we can distribute unique, valuable content to people who really want it, using the same big data approaches that marketing companies are using. It would mean lower costs, more efficient delivery, happier clients.
In the current economy, what advice would you have for someone who’s just graduating from college?
Stay home. . . . just kidding.
Be unique in a way that makes money and makes you happy. Too many people can sometimes go for things like a business degree, but how do you set yourself above and apart from the thousands of other people getting that business degree?
The days are gone where you can just follow your passion and then hope to find a job out there. You really have to think now, “How do I fit my passions with a career that pays?”