"Be Prepared For Curveballs" - Steve Forbes Interview

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Steve ForbesSteve Forbes has very clear advice for business leaders today: Plan for the unexpected. The economy is changing rapidly, and circumstances shift constantly, Forbes says. So, you have to ensure that your business can change with the tides.

"We live in an era where no matter how good or smart you are, something's going to come your way that you don't expect," says Forbes, editor-in-chief of Forbes magazine and president and CEO of Forbes Inc., in an exclusive interview with Counselor. "It could be from a mistake you made. It could be from circumstances beyond your control, but you have to be very, very adaptable. You simply have to be prepared for curveballs."

Forbes himself is one who has exemplified that in his business career. The most recognizable way he has gone with – and even beaten – the economic tide is the move his company has made into the digital space. As one of the first media companies to make a full-fledged move to the Internet, Forbes now has 25 million unique visitors to its website every month. And, Forbes is clear that the publishing world and the economy in general is increasingly moving into digital territories.

"I think print media in the future is going to have to be part and parcel of the Web, of establishing a community with readers and unique visitors on websites," says Forbes, who ran for the Republican nomination for President in 1996 and 2000. "And, businesses in just about every industry, in this day and age, have to master all platforms."

Forbes spoke to Counselor about his leadership strategies, his views on the economy, and even his favorite promotional products to use to market his own business.

Counselor: How much do you think companies and their leaders are impacted by the daily movement of markets and how the business world is covered in the media?
Forbes: No question, business leaders are impacted by the environment around them. And today it's very uncertain. You need to know the cost of labor and the cost of health care, and those are not clear right now. The uncertainty on health-care costs – and the fear of them increasing significantly – is affecting many companies and their leaders.

Counselor: In this kind of environment, what's the key to effective leadership?
Forbes: The first thing you have to do is have a clear plan to navigate the economic storm. Where credit availability is limited and where costs and expenses for health care and employees are uncertain, you need to have a plan for how you're going to deal with all of it.

Counselor: What should that plan look like?
Forbes: Ultimately, you have to decide what kind of company you want to be. You need to know exactly where you're going to take risks and make investments and where you're going to pull back and be conservative. There's an old line that says you can eat well or sleep well, but you can't do both. That applies to running a business, too. You have to figure out how you're going to do well, and what it's going to take to ensure it happens.

Counselor: How far out should this plan look?
Forbes: Well, you need different goals for different time horizons. But right now, I suggest that business leaders operate like they're in survival mode. Trim costs, try to increase revenue where possible, and strengthen relationships with your key partners – vendors and customers – that you'll need to count on when the economy gets better.

Counselor: How do you motivate employees when you're in so-called "survival mode?"
Forbes: Communication is vital. Share your company's goals and financials, so they have a sense of direction of where the company is going. The worst thing you can do to their motivation during this time is to give them a sense of drift or that the company is floundering.

Counselor: Trust is a two-way street?
Forbes: Absolutely. They need to trust that the people in charge have provided a clear direction for the company and for their livelihood. Then they'll buy in and be motivated and productive.

Counselor: What do you think the U.S. economy will look like in five years?
Forbes: I'm an optimist. I think we will make substantial adjustments to stabilize the dollar, simplify the tax code and contain health-care costs. Once we do those things, we'll really be growing, and the U.S. will be a strong leader in the global economy again.

Counselor: What will that look like in GDP growth?
Forbes: I'd expect by that time that we'll have seen several years of five, six, seven percent GDP growth. I'm expecting once all of those things happen that we'll see four percent real growth as the norm.

Counselor: What's your favorite promotional product that Forbes uses?
Forbes: We have a conference for global CEOs every year, and we always do great promotional stuff for that conference. This year, we gave out specially-made ties and scarves that incorporated the theme of the conference – The Race Ahead. So there were racehorses and dollar signs printed on the ties. I think people like simple things that they'll use. We've done books and notepads before. They help to spread our brand message and give people a positive view of our company.