Daniel Roberts: An interview by Bob Morris

Daniel Roberts zoom jacketDaniel Roberts is a writer-reporter at Fortune, where he has worked since 2010. He is the lead reporter on the magazine’s 40 Under 40 franchise. He has also written for a wide range of other publications, in print and online, including Sports Illustrated, Salon, and The Daily Beast. He has reported news for the Wall Street Journal, New York Daily News, and New York Post. Roberts is a graduate of Middlebury College and the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.

His book, ZOOM: Surprising Ways to Supercharge Your Career, was published by Time Home Entertainment (September 2013).

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Morris: Before discussing ZOOM, a few general questions. First, who has had the greatest impact on your professional development? How so?

Roberts: I’ve had a lot of great mentors along the way, from college until now, but two that jump out, just professionally, have been David Hajdu, a writer and professor who inspired me in grad school, and now, at my current job, Jen Reingold, one of the editors at Fortune.

Morris: What do you know now about the business world that you wish you knew when you went to work full-time for the first time? Why?

Roberts: Write shorter emails. In the journalism world, editors don’t want a long email, no matter what, even if you think you’re giving them crucial background or information. They just don’t have the time or interest, and they get annoyed. It took me a long time to get that through my thick head and I’m still learning it today. I’m verbose and have to curb my eagerness and enthusiasm over email.

Morris: From which non-business book have you learned the most valuable lessons about business? Please explain.

Roberts: I’m cheating slightly since I’m using books about my own industry, but there are two novels about newspaper people that, while they weren’t about the business per se, reveal big lessons about the journalism industry through the routines and frustrations of their characters: The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman and Pete Hammill’s Tabloid City. There are obvious and instructive takeaways, about the business of putting out a daily newspaper, that emerge through the fictional stories of both.

Morris: The greatest leaders throughout history (with rare exception) were great storytellers. What do you make of that?

Roberts: Well, think about what being a leader means, at the most basic level: it means you’re someone that other people want to follow. So it follows naturally that those who are eloquent, able to inspire, able to rally the troops, will be most adept at earning devoted followers and loyal people that want to be on your team and believe in your vision.

Morris: In recent years, there has been criticism, sometimes severe criticism of M.B.A. programs, even those offered by the most prestigious business schools. In your opinion, in which area is there the greatest need for immediate improvement? Any suggestions?

Roberts: I think business programs everywhere need even more focus on entrepreneurship and building a company from the ground up. That’s what is clearly renewing America, and I don’t only mean in technology, and from the little that I know about these programs I gather that they may still be a little bit 1.0 in that regard.

Morris: Looking ahead (let’s say) 3-5 years, what do you think will be the greatest challenge that CEOs will face? Any Advice?

Roberts: Keeping up with the rapidly-increasing rate of change from year to year in technology and media and the way that people— their customers— live their daily lives. Certain older, established companies will struggle to look current and innovative as everything around them is changing.

ZOOMMorris: Now please shift your attention to ZOOM. When and why did you decide to write it?

Roberts: Well, it’s a Fortune title, so our publishing team came to us — that is, to me and Leigh Gallagher, who edits the 40 Under 40 franchise — and they suggested that, with the fifth iteration of the list approaching, we might look through the reporting and stories we’ve done for this list and select a handful of the most compelling people that have been on it, tell their stories in book form.

Morris: Were there any head-snapping revelations while writing it? Please explain.

Roberts: I’d say that I was continually surprised how many of these people took big risks, and not even calculated, careful ones but large, ballsy chances with their careers. That was a quality consistent almost across the board. They took bold leaps and it paid off.

Morris: To what extent (if any) does the book in final form differ significantly from what you originally envisioned?

Roberts: The content inside the book is very much in line with what we wanted to do, I would only say that because there are so many useful takeaways in its pages, the book as a whole is presented a bit more as a career advice guide, when really I like to say it’s simpler than that, it’s 27 compelling, in-depth profiles of 33 successful young businesspeople. It’s really more a book of profiles than a book of career advice.

Morris: Please explain the nature and extent of collaboration with Leigh Gallagher, in addition to the Introduction she provided.

Roberts: Leigh edits the 40 Under 40 list and has since its beginning in 2009 (she’s also the editor who hired me in 2010) and so she was a close consultant on the entire book and helped steer it, along with the book’s outside editor Alexis Gelber, to completion. Leigh’s wonderful introduction, meanwhile, perfectly explains the birth of the book and I think serves as a great entryway.

Morris: However different the 40 Under 40 “Zoomers” may be in most respects, what do they share in common?

Roberts: In addition to their propensity to take on risk, I think almost all of them had a very gung-ho attitude— they’re unafraid to ruffle some feathers, they care more, I think, about the success of their business ideas than what people may think of them personally.

Morris: In your opinion, what are the most valuable lessons to be learned from them in terms of both personal growth and professional development?

Roberts: Well, I always caution that, of course, you don’t hear as often about the failures— that far, far more startups fail than succeed. But the people in this book, who all certainly succeeded, experienced failures too. And the way they handled themselves during failure was really significant to their overall future achievements. We use the phrase “fail well” to describe the way that many of these young businesspeople actually benefitted from making mistakes.

Morris: I was impressed (sometimes surprised, in fact) by how open the 40 were when asked to share their thoughts and feelings as well as their experiences. How do you explain their candor?

Roberts: Perhaps it’s a function of being young, but it’s not just about age, I think that when you’ve only been at it for so long you’re able to be more open and honest about your own shortcomings and accomplishments, you’re more open with the press, etc., and all of that tends to change as you get older or rise higher at a big company. But it also might show something about the business world at large, a growing openness and, as you suggest, candor.

Morris: For those who have not as yet read ZOOM, how and why is the material presented within nine chapters, with a focus in each on 3 of the 40 Under 40ers?

Roberts: It occurred to us early on that all of these people represent certain career lessons and themes, and so rather than go in no particular order, we grouped those in the book based on nine pillar lessons that their career paths demonstrate, with the caveat that of course each of them represents more than one thing. But for example, three of the people we profile all stayed at one single place or company and built their career that way, they were so-called “company men,” so we call that chapter “Stand By Your Company.” In another one we include entrepreneurs that observed specific needs or gaps in the market and sought to address them, creating what you might call “convenience” products, so we call that chapter “Find a Problem.”

Morris: Right, each of the chapter title suggests a core value or concept that Zoomers embrace. Please share what you consider to be the key point or take-away for some of these. First, “Challenge Goliath”

Roberts: You can take on the giants, the leaders of an industry, if your product or idea is original and focused enough.

Morris: “Get In Over Your Head”

Roberts: It can be a good thing to take big risks, to take on challenges that scare you and that you might even think you aren’t capable of meeting.

Morris: “Start a Cult”

Roberts: About the importance of corporate culture and building a team of employees that not only work well together but enjoy work and have a similar vision.

Morris: “Do One Thing Well”

Roberts: The importance of focus and keeping a narrow goal with a company or business, rather than trying to bite off more than you can chew.

Morris: “Think of Others”

Roberts: The idea that social conscience shouldn’t be an afterthought aimed only at getting some good PR, but can be baked into the entire way a company does its business from day one.

Morris: The last chapter title, “Bounce Back,” reminds me of an observation by Jack Dempsey: “Champions get up when they can’t.” In your opinion, how important is [begin italics] courage [end italics] in an increasingly more competitive business world? Please explain.

Roberts: Crucial. The people in the book had the courage not just to aggressively pursue their goals in business but also to acknowledge failure, or come to higher-ups with bold new ideas, or to leave comfortable, safe positions for risky ones. It may be the single most common character trait of all the Zoomers, their ‘corporate courage,’ if you will.

Morris: I was especially interested in the responses provided in the “In Their Own Words” section (Pages 225-249). What had you hoped that the questions would evoke? Were there any surprises? In your opinion, what valuable [begin italics] life lessons [end italics] do their responses suggest?

Roberts: This may be a bit specific but many of those answers are simple “life hacks,” as the now-popular phrase goes, that give tips for making certain stressful moments in business easier. So I think that section of the book, overall, shows us that all those little tricks add up, that if you have clever, tried-and-tested aspects to your routine that can simplify your life, everything else improves too.

Morris: Let’s say that a CEO has read and then (hopefully) re-read ZOOM and is now determined to ”supercharge” individual as well as organizational performance throughout the given enterprise. Where to begin?

Roberts: Start by encouraging a far more open environment that invites people, regardless of their rank, to suggest ideas and feel safe approaching people with suggestions or new ventures. Foster innovation.

Morris: For more than 25 years, it has been my great pleasure as well as privilege to work closely with the owner/CEOs of hundreds of small companies, those with $20-million or less in annual sales. In your opinion, of all the material you provide in ZOOM, which do you think will be of greatest value to leaders in small companies? Please explain.

Roberts: For those running their own business, the chapters on corporate culture and on observing problems and seeking to solve them will almost certainly be the most useful.

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Dan cordially invites you to check out the resources at these websites:

ZOOM link

40 Under 40 link

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