01 Apr 2001
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Q&A: Suzy Wetlaufer

Practicing What HBR Preaches
by Susan Young

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Suzy Wetlaufer (MBA 1988) describes working at the city desk of the Miami Herald, where she was a reporter for two years, as “tremendously fun and exciting.” However, she adds, “I just never got comfortable invading people’s privacy — knocking on somebody’s door after a tragedy to beg for an interview didn’t work for me.” A stint as a New England business correspondent for the Associated Press was a better fit. “Suddenly I was interviewing CEOs and covering banking scandals, and I thought, ‘Wow, this is where it’s happening,’ ” says the energetic former Harvard Crimson reporter.

Wetlaufer, who applied to the School on a lark, accepted a position at Bain & Company after graduating from HBS as a Baker Scholar. She and a Bain partner later wrote an article about leadership styles and submitted it to the Harvard Business Review. “It was a match made in heaven,” she says of her first encounter with the 78-year-old business magazine. Wetlaufer joined HBR as a senior editor in 1996 and was named editor last October. She has worked with many of the world’s experts on leadership and organization to publish groundbreaking articles. As editor, she oversees a staff of 35, as well as editorial acquisitions and development for the magazine, which recently increased its frequency from six to ten issues per year. “HBR has always been serious, authoritative, and elegant,” notes Wetlaufer. “We are working now to be more like ourselves, only better. We’ve added ‘modern’ and ‘immensely relevant’ to our list of qualities, so that if you aren’t reading HBR, you are missing out.”

Tell us about the recent changes at HBR and what inspired them.

The house wasn’t on fire, that’s for sure — our numbers were excellent, and our readers were satisfied — but we had a series of strategy discussions to figure out how to improve the magazine. That’s what smart businesses do, after all — constantly think about ways to be better. Ultimately, we decided we wanted to raise our level of reader engagement, so that’s why we’ve updated our look, increased our frequency, and added three new editorial departments. The fact is, we are a magazine for practicing managers, and practicing managers need good ideas more than six times a year.

What are HBR’s goals?

As the Economist says, HBR single-handedly sets the agenda for business in the world today. Our goal is very modest — to keep doing that. We want to have an impact; we want to improve the practice of management, to make businesses more productive, more effective, and more enjoyable. When business runs well, the whole world runs better.

How does it feel to carry that responsibility?

When a legacy like this has been handed to you, you don’t goof around. We have to publish very robust, well-thought-out ideas or else we’re hurting our readers and our legacy. To tell you the truth, there’s a very small margin for error in what we do.

What keeps you awake at night?

I have four kids! But actually, they’re pretty big now, and work itself doesn’t really keep me up. I have a terrific group of colleagues, and I never make a decision alone. There’s so much intelligence and integrity here that I have complete confidence in what we do. Of course I sometimes worry about another publication attempting to do what we do and doing it as well. I worked at Bain long enough to get that “business is war” mindset — don’t turn your back too long or else....

What’s the most rewarding aspect of your job?

Seeing the impact of HBR. I recently gave a speech to a group of CEOs, and one of them pulled me aside afterward and told me that an HBR article had completely changed the way his company operated. There’s also something incredibly rewarding about discovering brilliant people and bringing their ideas to our readers — being a “midwife to ideas,” as one of my authors put it. It feels fantastic to be able to make a difference.

Who are your typical readers?

They’re very intelligent, action-oriented executives who believe that business is driven by ideas. More specifically, our typical reader is a senior-level executive between 40 and 44 years old who runs a company or a unit in almost any industry you can think of. We also have a solid and increasing number of entrepreneurs reading HBR.

How do you find your authors?

We receive thousands of submissions each year, but about half of our articles are actually acquired by the editors. Sometimes we simply decide, “So-and-so is extremely smart. We should be capturing what she’s saying in our pages.” Or we might come up with a topic and then seek out the person who is doing the best thinking on it. We don’t have rules about who can or should be published in HBR. Just whoever has the most relevant, deeply researched, or well-thought-out new ideas.

Who is your competition?

Well, I could say, “No one, because no business magazine does exactly what HBR does.” But I usually answer, “Everybody.” And I’m not just talking about magazines. Executives have only so many hours in the day. Our competition is anything that can stir someone’s intelligence — a book, a seminar, a consultant, a good conversation. We have to give our readers ideas that are better than what they get anywhere else.

Can you give an example of how HBR practices what it publishes?

In the April issue we have published the first-ever HBR List of Breakthrough Ideas, which enumerates five of the top management concepts that were published last year. Our editors worked closely with counterparts from HBS Press — discussing and debating the ideas. This is an example of incredible teamwork among colleagues and across units at HBS Publishing. The list is a product of the kind of collaboration that is often the subject of HBR articles.

Can you tell us about your career as a novelist?

I hate to talk about it. Briefly, after I had my first son, I wrote a novel and sold the movie rights. I then got a contract to write two more novels. When I turned in my second novel, the publisher wanted me to change it and make it much more violent. I refused — the plot involved children — and a messy lawsuit ensued. It was horrible. Even after all this time, it really pains me. But everything happens for a reason. Around the time of the conflict with my publisher, I bumped into HBR. It allowed me to write and to work with other people again, which I had really missed while writing novels.

What’s a typical day like for you?

This morning I woke up at 5:45 and got my kids dressed, fed, and ready for school. I drove the carpool for two of them, and I got to the office at 8:00. Since then, I’ve done a little of everything that we do at HBR — I edited; I acquired an article; I spoke with authors; I wrote the beginning of the list article; I did a few employee reviews; I interviewed a candidate for a job. I sang “Down in the Valley” to an editor who is in the thick of a very long piece. A typical day is pretty frenetic and contains a lot of everything, and that is fabulous. It’s the perfect job for me. Never a dull moment.

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Class of MBA 1988, Section B
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