The Soft Edge: Where Great Companies Find Lasting Success

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9781118829424: The Soft Edge: Where Great Companies Find Lasting Success

What Does it Take to Get Ahead Now—And Stay There?

High performance has always required shrewd strategy and superb execution. These factors remain critical, especially given today’s unprecedented business climate. But Rich Karlgaard—Forbes publisher, entrepreneur, investor, and board director—takes a surprising turn and argues that there is now a third element that’s required for competitive advantage. It fosters innovation, it accelerates strategy and execution, and it cannot be copied or bought. It is found in a perhaps surprising place—your company’s values.

Karlgaard examined a variety of enduring companies and found that they have one thing in common; all have leveraged their deepest values alongside strategy and execution, allowing them to fuel growth as well as weather hard times. Karlgaard shares these stories and identifies the five key variables that make up every organization’s “soft edge”:

  • Trust: Northwestern Mutual has built a $25 million dollar revenue juggernaut on trust, the foundation of lasting success. Learn how to create an environment that engenders trust and propels high performance.
  • Smarts: In most technical fields your formal education quickly becomes out of date. How do you keep up? Learn how the Mayo Clinic, Stanford University women’s basketball team, and others stay on top by relentlessly pursuing an advantage through smarts.
  • Teamwork: Since collaboration and innovation are a must in the global economy, effective teamwork is vital. Learn how global giant FedEx stays focused and how nimble Nest Labs relies on lean teams with cognitive diversity.
  • Taste: Clever product design and integration are proxies for intelligence because they make customers feel smart. But taste goes further into deep emotional engagement. Specialized Bicycles calls it “the elusive spot between data truth and human truth.” How can you consistently make products or services that trigger these emotional touch points?
  • Story: Companies that achieve lasting success have an enduring and emotionally appealing story. What’s your company’s story? How do you tell it your way? Gain the ability to create a powerful narrative in a world where outsiders often exercise the louder voice.

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Rich Karlgaard

Rich Karlgaard Q&A for The Soft Edge

The Soft Edge seems to tie into many of the trending themes in business these days (ie the power of culture, values, emotional intelligence. ) Is it a choice for business leaders, or a requirement?

It’s always a choice. I’ve seen companies succeed in the short term with a great strategy and flawless execution. If you want to build a company to flip, perhaps you can ignore the soft edge. But companies that last, that survive disruptions, and that fight off economic headwinds, go deeper than just strategy and execution. They find their endurance in soft edge values – trust, smarts, teams, taste, stories. Their employees are committed and their customers are loyal.

As a publisher of one of the most respected business magazines what is something you feel most people don’t understand about being successful?

The founder of Forbes, B. C. Forbes, wrote this in the very first issue in 1917. “Business was originated to produce happiness, not pile up riches. ” This was a warning! Not all success takes you where you want to go. The companies I profiled in The Soft Edge were happy places and super successful. The leadership was highly regarded by employees precisely because the leaders had built and nourished cultures that brought out the best in people. This is what creates lasting success.

Of all the companies or people you talked to – who stood out to you the most?

Two companies really surprised me. One was Northwestern Mutual, the $25 billion insurance giant. The last thing I could ever do is wake up each morning, get on the phone, and sell insurance. I just couldn’t do it. But Northwestern Mutual’s reps do it with a sense of joy and purpose. The other company is Specialized Bicycles. The chief designer told me his goal, in building some of the world’s best racing bikes, was to find “the sweet spot between data truth and human truth.” That’s a great line and a noble aspiration. It’s what every company should seek.

Can you hire to improve your Soft Edge? Alternatively, are their ways businesses are sabotaging themselves unknowingly?

When it comes to hiring, two major findings in The Soft Edge are the importance of grit and of cognitive diversity. On grit, you want to hire people that have surmounted big challenges in their lives. Northwestern Mutual likes to hire military veterans. Specialized likes designers who have built things with their hands. They like salespeople who’ve suffered a 100-mile ride in sleet. On cognitive diversity, Nest Labs puts geeks and artists in same room when products are being designed. SAS Institute likes data analysts with backgrounds in music and art.

Out of the five things that make up The Soft Edge – which is the most important?

Trust is the foundational soft edge. It has two components: External trust is whether your customers, suppliers, investors and shareholders trust you. Internal trust is whether your employees trust you. If you fail to engender trust in either area, your company will have problems that will not fix themselves. In a knowledge economy, trust is huge. No company can forcibly pull ideas out of employees heads, and employees will not give their best ideas to leaders or colleagues they don’t trust.

Tell me something that you didn’t put in the book and you wish you had.

I wish I had linked soft edge excellence to long-term investment strategy. I ran out of time to do the research. But anecdotally, it is there. Warren Buffett is famous for buying shares in great companies when their stock prices are low. We all understand a low price. But what, in Buffett’s mind, is a great company? It turns out that most of Buffett’s investments are in companies that display soft edge excellence in addition to clever strategy and flawless execution.

From the Back Cover:


“Entertaining, magnificent, enlightening, and so relevant to the future.”
—VIVEK WADHWA, vice president of research and innovation, Singularity University; fellow, Stanford University’s Center for Corporate Governance; research director, Duke University’s Center for Entrepreneurship and Research Commercialization

“The great irony of our age is this: the faster technology progresses, the more crucial it is to organize around timeless human truths. Rich Karlgaard shows the way in The Soft Edge.
—GARY HAMEL, director, The Management Lab; author, What Matters Now

“Anyone with a stake in tomorrow’s bottom-line outcomes should take a close look at Karlgaard’s cutting-edge book.”
—AMY EDMONDSON, Novartis Professor of Leadership and Management, Harvard Business School; author, Teaming

“Karlgaard has delivered a bold, timely argument: the ‘soft side’ of business is not only relevant and powerful, it is the only remaining competitive edge in our new economy.”
—STEPHEN M.R. COVEY, New York Times bestselling author, The Speed of Trust and Smart Trust

“Karlgaard sharpens the ability of corporate leaders to master the soft edge—a hard reality in today’s latticed world.”
—CATHY BENKO, vice chairman and managing principal, Deloitte LLP; bestselling author, Mass Career Customization

“Rich Karlgaard shows how the very best companies enchant us with purpose, affection, empathy, coolness, and grit.”
—GUY KAWASAKI, author of APE: Author, Publisher, Entrepreneur; former chief evangelist, Apple

The Soft Edge is on my short list of best business books of the year. It’ll end up on yours, too.”
—JIM KOUZES, coauthor, The Leadership Challenge; Dean’s Executive Fellow of Leadership, Santa Clara University

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