Hiring smart people crucial in new economy

Despite his inferior knowledge about Java or Linux when compared to the WebSphere 2000 conference delegates who had filled an auditorium to hear him speak, Bill Taylor’s advice on how to grow one’s business in the new economy proved more valuable than most of the conference seminars.

The editor and co-founder of Fast Company — a Boston-based magazine aimed at the people, companies and business practices that drive the Internet economy — took a light-hearted approach while delivering a headstrong message in his keynote at the recent IBM Corp. conference held in Miami.

“I am your humble servant,” Taylor joked from the outset. “I am here to give you advice as modestly as I can for you and your company, so you can continue to grow.”

The former editor of the Harvard Business Review described the current state of business as the most significant in the history of the industrialized world. The very essence of the new economy, he said, is not how much, but whom and how.

“We’re at a magical moment in business,” Taylor said. “You don’t need the most people, the most money or the best offices to create the most economic value and you see this new reality every day.”

Taylor himself sounded amazed at some of the fantastic elements that comprise the overall metamorphosis business is experiencing. Although his passion for the Internet and e-commerce was plainly evident, Taylor’s speech took an unpredictable twist: he called for a more humanist approach to e-business.

“Way too many companies are getting way too much venture capital or going public way too early without any brains; really, how many on-line pet food retailers do we need?” he queried the crowd to a smattering of laughter. “We’re so worried about innovation that it threatens to derail us. If you want to be part of a great organization, start with this premise: it’s not just about out-coding your competition, but out-thinking them. The only true leadership is thought leadership.”

Even the most astute e-business leader is longing for a little guidance, and Taylor’s speech was specifically geared for that demographic.

He recognized the convenience factor for the consumer in general, stating there’s never been a better moment in history to be a customer, as companies can no doubt attest. But all that hurdle jumping an enterprise has to do can leave its staff weary, and although Taylor warned against allowing one’s staff to lose sight of how the world looks in the eyes of the consumer, he implored business leaders to take stock of those around them.

“The customer experience needs to be the core design principle (of your business’s strategy),” he remarked. “But don’t get drunk on IPOs and stock options that will cause you to lose sight of what’s really important…people want to believe their work matters to the organization and to the world, they want credit and recognition…and they damn well better enjoy their company.”

Hiring processes have never been more crucial than today, Taylor added, citing Yahoo! as an enterprise with its thought channels tuned in to this fact by hiring talented individuals who boast a passion for living.

“Ask yourself: why would smart people want to [work for your company]? The answer can’t be ‘We’ll give you a lot of options.’ It’s amazing how inarticulate most CEOs are when confronted with that question — it’s an absolutely crucial question,” he said. “Just because you’re a leader doesn’t mean you have to have all of the answers, that’s based on an old model of leadership…Most people want leaders they can relate to and believe in. It’s not your job to figure out the strategy for your company, figure it out [with your staff]. Leaders who do that arrive at better answers and they themselves are much happier in their jobs.”

Taylor also criticized workaholics — those who put in an 80-hour work week — for inflicting an unnecessary amount of stress upon themselves.

“Figure out how to stop, slow down, you’ll feel better,” he said. “It’s in those quiet moments of reflection when you figure out how to outsmart your competition.”