Rosabeth Moss Kanter is one of the foremost academics working in the management arena. Her academic CV is second to none, and it is the sophistication of her insights and the depth of her research that have earned her the huge respect she has garnered. But hers are not merely incremental ideas – her work has charted some of the biggest issues facing organisations from the 1970s to today.
Rosabeth Moss was born in 1943 and grew up in Cleveland, Ohio. She was educated at the elite Bryn Mawr College, where she studied English and Sociology, where she also met her first husband, Stuart Kanter. She graduated in 1964 and went on to earn an MA and PhD in Sociology, at the University of Michigan.
Following her PhD, Moss Kanter’s first academic appointment was at Brandeis University, as Assistant Professor of Sociology. She stayed there until 1977, during which time her first husband died and she married Barry Stein, with whom she later (1977) founded a management consultancy, called Goodmeasure Inc, to sell her consulting services to many of the largest US corporations.
1977 was a key year for Moss Kanter. She also moved to become a Professor of Sociology and Professor of Organisational Management at Yale, where she remained until 1986, when she moved to Harvard Business School as a Professor of Business Administration. From 1979 to 1986, she was also a Visiting Professor at the Sloane School of Management at MIT.
The centrality of 1977, however, is because it was the year that saw the publication of the first of Moss Kanter’s books – and one that made a huge impact. It was lauded in its own right and has been seen, in retrospect, as the first of a triptych of connected and hugely important works. We will look at them below.
As well as being an academic and consultant, Moss Kanter has a slew of prestigious awards,and is also notable as the last academic to edit the Harvard Business Review (1989-92) and as an advisor to presidential candidate Michael Dukakis.
But it is the breadth and depth of Moss Kanter’s work we need to focus on. And there is so much of note that we need to get started right away.
Moss Kanter’s Big-three Works
1977 saw the publication of a revolutionary book; ‘Men and Women of the Corporation‘. It analyses the distribution of power within a large US corporation and how white men dominated, leaving women and ethnic minorities disempowered. Her research demonstrated that it was not the behaviours of women and minorities that created this power gap, but the very system within which they worked, and the structures of power and opportunity. At the time, this was a revolutionary insight. Moss Kanter showed the importance of creating change to empower everyone.
With the great pressures for change that she identified, we can see a logical progression in Moss Kanter’s next book, 1983’s ‘The Change Masters: Corporate Entrepreneurs at Work‘. Shockingly, this astonishingly good and important book is out of print; to me, it is her most important. It describes how some companies and some individuals master the process of change through integrating and innovating, moving right to the edge of their capabilities, and benchmarking themselves against their aspirations, rather than against the status quo in their market place. She refers to ‘New Entrepreneurs’; change masters within a business that radically improve it, rather than leaving and starting afresh somewhere else. They transform vision into reality. Once again, the concept of empowerment features strongly, as does the need for joined up networks of communication, and decentralisation of resources.
The third book in the triptych looks at the changes US corporations needed to make to remain competitive in the global environment of the 1980s and 90s. Published in 1989, ‘When Giants Learn to Dance‘ likens the global economy to a sporting competition. What struck me was her articulation of seven skills that characterise the most successful ‘business athletes’;
- ability to get results without authority, through influence alone
- competing positively, through co-operation, rather than negatively through aggression
- maintaining the highest ethical standards
- self confidence tempered by humility
- an understanding of the importance of process for getting things done
- relationship building, across functions, departments, and organisations
- achievement focus – what McClelland would describe as a high nAch
More Recent Work
It is only space, not a critique on the works themselves, that prevents me from detailing Moss Kanter’s works, from 1992’s ‘The Challenge of Organizational Change‘ to ‘Move: Putting America’s Infrastructure Back in the Lead‘, published a few months before this blog, in spring of 2015. Along the way, there have been:
- 1995: World Class: Thriving Locally in the Global Economy
- 1997: Rosabeth Moss Kanter on the Frontiers of Management (a collation of Moss Kanter’s writing)
- 2000: Evolve: Succeeding in the Digital Culture of Tomorrow
- 2004: Confidence: How Winning Streaks and Losing Streaks Begin and End (about turnarounds)
- 2007: America the Principled: 6 Opportunities for Becoming a Can-Do Nation Once Again
- 2009: Supercorp: How Vanguard Companies Create Innovation, Profits, Growth, and Social Good
A Summary of Moss Kanter’s Themes
Rosabeth Moss Kanter is notable as an academic of business, but her approach has always remained a staunchly sociological one. Her focus on empowerment has followed closely on that of previous thinkers in humanistic management and particularly echoes the work of Mary Parker Follett, whom she admires greatly. Like Follett, she takes a very much integrative attitude, valuing holistic management structures, rather than segmented corporations. This is a theme that comes out strongly in both Change Masters and Giants. She describes these as characteristics of a ‘post-entrepreneurial firm’, where innovation is the principle benefit of combining the the strength of a large organisation with the agility of a small one.
Her writing is characterised by three admirable characteristics that are often not found together: subtle and complex ideas, detailed research evidence, and a highly readable writing style.
The Advanced Leadership Initiative
I want to end with a short reference to Harvard University’s Advanced Leadership Initiative, which Moss Kanter leads, as Chair and Director. It aims to prepare ‘a leadership force of experienced leaders who can address challenging national and global problems in their next stage of life’. These are men and women who, after their primary income-earning years, want to contribute to community and public service for their next years of life, using the skills they already have, to make an impact on significant social problems, in health, welfare, children, and the environment. I know little more about it than this, but what a wonderful initiative. A kind of lower-key version of The Elders, I guess.
Moss Kanter talks about leadership as being about leading positive change in this 17 minute TED talk, ‘Six keys to leading positive change‘.
There is a good selection of short videos and articles by Rosabeth Moss Kanter, on some of her latest thinking, on the Big Think website.