Webber ‘Global Detective’ Alan

After five summers with Austria’s Walzell Institute, an award-winning publisher and entrepreneur runs for Governor of New Mexico

American businessman Alan Webber is fascinated with the dynamics of change.  As founding publisher of the award-winning magazine Fast Company and former editor of the Harvard Business Review, Webber’s take on trends in entrepreneurship and the shifts that shape the social and political life behind them, has won him a loyal following.

It has also led him to Austria, where from 2004 though 2008, Webber became a driving force of the Waldzell Institute of “human potential”, first as participant, then as moderator of the Institute’s summer conferences.

His adept handling of topics from world religions to revolutions in the business world or the meaning of work earned him a reputation as a skilled facilitator.

In the years that followed, he became a kind of “global detective,” he told an audience at Google in 2009, “trying to make sense of what’s going on in the world and trying to be a solver of problems.”

Now Alan Webber is running for Governor of New Mexico. It’s an uphill fight, as he is hardly a household name, and he will often begin a talk with, “You’ve probably never heard of me…”

But in American politics, this can sometimes be a good thing, especially in the face of entrenched interests that have lost the public trust.

In a sense, the decision to run was the next step in a life built in pursuit of change.

“I feel called to make a difference, to contribute to making life better in New Mexico,” he says. “We all have a choice: we can either stand by and watch events unfold, or we can step up and contribute to making things better. My choice is to step up.”

 

So while not exactly an original insight, in Webber’s case, it grows out of a convincing resume of out-of-the-box thinking, which in the face of the current stalemate, may resonate with voters.

New Mexico is a state already plagued by a steady brain drain, that ranks last in overall child welfare and near the bottom in new job creation.

Webber’s response is a proposed surtax on the wealthiest two percent (income exceeding $200,000) of New Mexicans to fund educational initiatives.

He has also outlined a plan to capitalize on the state’s untapped potential for solar energy—here New Mexico ranks second. Webber hopes that by 2025, 20 percent of New Mexico’s energy production will be solar.

“If you look at old problems with fresh ideas, and you never give up, you can make anything happen,” Webber says. “What I know how to do is to bring together innovative people… to revolutionize how we work, learn and grow as a state.”

What he doesn’t know how to do he says, is play the “old tired political games” that have gotten New Mexico into difficulties in the past. “The only way to make [real] change is to change who participates.”

Understanding change is often a question of timing, and so far, Webber’s instincts have served him well: Administrative assistant to Neil Goldschmidt, then mayor the of Portland, Oregon, he was on site for the city’s rebirth, in which creative zoning and a return to mass transit helped make Portland one of the U.S.’s most livable cities.

The initiatives had their critics, like incumbent Governor, Republican Susana Martinez, who called Webber’ push for transportation alternatives “out of step with mainstream New Mexicans.”

Webber’s next move, however, rounded out his history. Following Goldschmidt to Washington, Webber assisted his boss, the new Secretary of Transportation under President Jimmy Carter, in Federal efforts to revive the U.S. auto industry in the face of competition from Japan.

From there, Webber turned to magazines, first as editor of the Harvard Business Review and then as co-founder with Bill Taylor Fast Company in 1999.

When Webber sold the magazine for $340 million just five years later, it was the second highest price ever paid for a U.S. magazine.  Honours – for journalism as well as publishing smarts – flooded in.

It was a mix that attracted Austrian politician and consultant Andreas Salcher, who heard him speak at an award ceremony in May of 2004 and recruited Webber for his new Waldzell Institute, at the historic Abbey of Melk, Lower Austria.

Salcher had collected a daunting list of speakers, including acclaimed scientists, Nobel Prize laureates, and religious leaders. He wanted to know if Webber would join that list. And for the next five summers, Webber was at the heart of the dialogue.

Named after the fictitious setting of Herman Hesse’s novel The Glass Bead Game, Waldzell became an annual meeting of the minds designed to put on display the best humanity had to offer, ultimately creating an “especially intellectual work of art,” according to Salcher.

Webber joined the conference’s first annual meeting, with a keynote address that illustrated revolutions of science, art, and spirituality – each of which touched on by different speakers – and then the revolution he had observed in business that led to the founding of Fast Company.

“My larger point was that the five or six different revolutions that were represented at the gathering were indicative of a larger turning point,” he said.

Webber is a man of “larger points,” who is able to sell audiences on broad concepts and their implications, says Thomas Plötzeneder, a friend and former member of Waldzell’s advisory board – someone who can take complex ideas and compress them into a single sentence.

Webber’s political challenge, however, does not reside in Waldzell, Melk Abbey, or the world of big ideas. It lies in New Mexico, where, on June 3rd, he has to compete for a nomination with four other Democratic hopefuls, each boasting more public sector experience and the same steadfast desire to defeat Martinez, whose approval ratings have remained resilient thus far.

To succeed, Webber must convince New Mexican voters that his entrepreneurial skill and feeling for trends can translate into the unique brand of problem solving their state needs. Webber’s promise of change has won him supporters across the world. He is now hoping it can win at home.

That hasn’t stopped criticism from the right. Governor Susana Martinez, New Mexico’s Republican incumbent, has criticized Webber’s initiatives in the Northwest, specifically a 1971 memo titled “Disincentives to the Automobile,” as “out of touch with mainstream New Mexicans.”

Alan Webber initiated his first foray into organized politics after graduating from Amherst College in Massachusetts. In the 1970’s, he served as the administrative assistant to Neil Goldschmidt, then the mayor of Portland, Oregon. He later followed Goldschmidt, who had just been appointed Secretary of Transportation, to Washington D.C., where Webber worked as his Special Assistant. Decades later . When he sold Fast Company in 2004 for $340 million, it was the second highest price ever paid for a U.S. magazine.  The honours flooded in, for journalism as well as publishing smarts.

The year is 2004 and Webber, after some prodding, is in Melk Abbey for the inaugural Waldzell Conference. The conference is named after the fictitious setting of a Herman Hesse’s novel The Glass Bead Game,” a place where “extraordinary people come together to create an especially intellectual work of art,” according to Salcher and Grundula Schatz, the conferences co-founders.

Webber delivers a keynote speech. Once again, he’s talking to people who have probably never heard of him. That does not stop him from establishing quick rapport with the international crowd. Salcher calls him the conference’s “star,” noting Webber’s skills as a listener and social facilitator.

This time, when Salcher asks him to remain affiliated with Waldzell, Webber doesn’t hesitate. He returns to Melk for the next three years as the Conference Chairman, drafting executive summaries of the meetings, moderating and leading discussions, and using his extensive North American network to attract more people to Waldzell.

Through Webber, Salcher claims to have learned much about the American mentality and where it differs from that of Europeans.

“When Europeans go to conferences, we listen, we take our notes. Americans are more interested in having an official dialogue during the session,” said Salcher. “From Alan I learned that it’s possible to have such big dialogues.”

Thomas Plötzeneder, a friend of Webber’s and former member of Waldzell’s advisory board, was also struck by Webber’s skills in conversation. Plötzeneder recalls Webber moderating a conversation between the Dalai Lama, a Jewish rabbi, a Ukrainian Orthodox archbishop, and a scholar of Islam from the Al-Azhar University in Cairo.

“Alan can build a bridge where other people cannot,” he says. “That’s leadership.”

When, in 2008, Webber leaves Waldzell – the annual conferences would convene for the last time in 2010 after a change in leadership – he does with fond memories of Austria, the charm of its small villages, and the history of its capital.

Experiences at Waldzell ranged from the curious and speculative—Sacher nostalgically recalls with a nightlong conversation with Webber and author Paul Coelho about France’s merit as a social democracy—to the grave and diagnostic.

In 2006, Webber wrote of a “great sickness” in his home country: “As if we had all collectively gone into a sleepwalking state where we have lost our capacity to make sound judgments and to align our values with our behaviour, and until that fever breaks, we are all a victim of it or an unwilling participant in it.”

 

Alan Webber

Alan Webber

Nearly eight years after that diagnosis, Webber stands by his words but also indicates a shift in the nation’s discourse.

“My sense today is that the United States is a much more self-aware country than it was immediately after the shock of 9/11 and the national conversation has regained much of its balance and optimism,” he says.

October 28, 2014. Webber has just been asked if the rumors are true, was he really going to run for governor?

“Yeah,” he says in characteristic modesty. What more do you expect from a candidate you’ve probably never heard of?

The race has him vying for a Democratic nomination against four candidates, each with more public sector experience than he. Though Republican incumbent Susana Martinez continues to boast strong poll numbers, not everything is shimmering in the Land of Enchantment.  New Mexico is suffering from a steady brain drain and ranks near the bottom in new job creation and dead last in overall child welfare.

Webber has cast himself as a progressive political outsider, a forward-thinking entrepreneur with a track record of civil service. His policies fit the ideological bill, passing the liberal checklist at nearly every issue. Webber’s vision for the state includes a surtax on New Mexico’s wealthiest two percent (income exceeding $200,000) to fund mentoring programs, computer coding clubs, and other educational initiatives. He also hopes to capitalize on the state’s solar potential—here New Mexico ranks second—by increasing solar energy supply from one to 22 percent.

As the June 3 primary elections draws near, Webber and his campaign are in the middle of a final push for the nomination. A March 25th poll indicated that 69% of New Mexicans had not yet formulated a definitive opinion on Webber. Five weeks have since passed. With each day Webber must attempt to reach a voter base that, according to pundits and polls, is satisfied with the status quo.

“If Alan had the opportunity to talk to every voter personally, he would win tremendously,” said Salcher, knowing full well the impossibility of his wish. He may be right. From Albuquerque to Vienna and the 5,700 miles in between, Alan Webber has made a life out of winning over new people. He’s conversed personally with world leaders and spoken in front of large, international audiences. He’s overseen large publications, even sold one of his own. But on June 3, 2014 he’ll be a name on a ballot. He’ll be the name “you’ve probably never heard of.”

The setting is the 2004 American Society for Training and Development (ASTD) Conference in Washington D.C. Webber, together with Bill Taylor, his co-founder of Fast Company, has just accepted an award for the magazine’s human resources writing. It’s another in a long list of accolades for Webber, the author of multiple books and former editor of the Harvard Business Review.

 

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