Rosabeth Moss Kanter: An interview by Bob Morris

Posted on: June 6th, 2011 by bobmorris

Rosabeth Moss Kanter is the Ernest L. Arbuckle Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School, specializing in strategy, innovation, and leadership for change. She advises major corporations and governments worldwide, and is the author or co-author of 15 books, including her most recently published Confidence: Others include Evolve!: Succeeding in the Digital Culture of Tomorrow. Other award-winning bestsellers include Men & Women of the Corporation, The Change Masters, When Giants Learn to Dance, and World Class: Thriving Locally in the Global Economy, and Rosabeth Moss Kanter on the Frontiers of Management. Her current work focuses on leadership of turnarounds – how winning streaks and losing streaks begin and end – which she is examining in businesses, major league sports, inner-city schools, and countries whose economic fortunes have changed. She is also interested in the development of new leadership for the digital age – how to guide the transformation of large corporations, small and mid-sized businesses, health care, government, and education as they incorporate new technology, create new kinds of alliances and partnerships, work across boundaries and borders, respond to accountability demands, and take on new social responsibilities.

Morris: Who have had the greatest impact on your own development as a business thinker? How so?

Kanter: There have been many influences over the years, Peter Drucker being one of the most important because he has helped so many of us to think differently about organizational leadership and management. Frankly, I learn something of value from everyone I meet. My Harvard colleagues. My students. The executives I work with. For an eager student (which is what I am), there is so much to be learned from everyday experiences. I’m a sponge. Always will be.

Morris: Of all the books you have written thus far, which seem to have had the greatest impact on senior-level executives? Why?

Kanter: Time is a function of impact. The longer a book of mine has been in print, the greater its impact seems to be as people absorb and digest my ideas. I am especially proud of The Change Master: Innovation and Entrepreneurship in the American Corporation [first published in 1983] because it raised questions and addressed issues at a time when so many great changes were occurring in our society, indeed throughout the world. Change masters are my heroes and heroines because they are mavericks, they challenge the status quo, they see what others don’t see. They are dreamers who make their dreams come true. They have vision and courage. They really care about making a difference. They are revolutionaries. And they are very hard workers.

I am also pleased by the reception to When Giants Learn to Dance: Mastering the Challenges of Strategy, Management, and Careers in the 1990s [first published in 1989].  In it, I insist that even the largest organizations really can transform themselves and I explained how. By the way, John Akers once said that changing IBM’s culture was more difficult than getting elephants to dance. Of course it’s really difficult, as Lou Gerstner also found out years later. The title of his own book is Who Says Elephants Can’t Dance? He and his top executives were change masters at IBM. All organizations, especially the larger ones, will always need change masters. Dissatisfaction with the status quo and efforts to improve it should be encouraged rather than discouraged. Regrettably, that is often not the case.

Morris: What do the most effective organizations share in common?

Kanter: They demonstrate the “Five Fs”: They are focused, flexible, fast, friendly, and fun. They are constantly improving on what they do and how they do it. They are resilient and can rapidly respond to problems as well as to opportunities. By “friendly” I mean  partnership-oriented, understanding the value of collaboration across organizations as a way to get more for everyone, appreciating the value of each and every person involved in the enterprise. Friendly people are caring people,  eager to provide encouragement and support when needed most. Not just associates in the workplace but also customers, vendors…literally anyone with whom there is contact.

Throughout human history, people have developed strong loyalties to traditions, rituals, and symbols. In the most effective organizations, they are not only respected but celebrated. It is no coincidence that the most highly admired corporations are also among the most profitable. Why? Because everyone involved is committed to certain non-negotiable core values. Traditions keep them alive. Rituals such as special occasions reaffirm them. Symbols serve as constant reminders of their enduring importance.

Morris: What about innovation?

Kanter: It is absolutely essential and everything begins with curiosity. A great thinker once described innovative thinkers this way: “Some men see things as they are and say, ‘Why?’ I dream of things that never were and say, ‘Why not?'” Innovative thinkers are constantly asking questions such as these. How can we improve recruiting, hiring and training. How can be add greater value to our products and services by making them even better? How can we do more to nourish the personal as well as professional development of our people?  What more can we do as a good citizen where we do business? Without constant innovative thinking, an organization will have few (if any) of the Five Fs.

Morris: Please explain the role of leadership when overcoming what Jim O’Toole characterizes as “the ideology of comfort and the tyranny of custom.”

Kanter: That is a major obstacle because successful organizations become complacent and thus are vulnerable to competitors which have mastered the Five Fs. Competition has never been more threatening than it is now. Innovative thinkers challenge the status quo in their organizations. They are often viewed as “troublemakers.” They threaten the defenders of the status quo. So competition within an organization can also be brutal. The most effective leaders overcome “the ideology of comfort and the tyranny of custom” by being change agents themselves. They encourage and reward innovative thinking.  I have observed that people only resist changes imposed on them by other people. I like to say that “Change is always a threat if it’s done to me but an opportunity when done by me.”

Morris: Is that one of “Kanter’s Rules”?

Kanter: In one of my recent books, Confidence,  I explain how both winning streaks and losing streaks begin and end. Organizations (especially start-ups) get on a roll and thrive for a while. They enjoy success and assume it will continue. Then their neglect of the Five Fs causes serious problems, ending the winning streak. Now they’re on a losing streak. Efforts to solve the problems do not produce immediate results.  So here’s another of “Kanter’s Rules”: “Everything looks like a failure in the middle.” So often, people become impatient and then discouraged, especially when they encounter delays, obstacles, problems, etc. They give up too soon.

Morris: Jack Dempsey once said that “champions get up when they can’t.”

Kanter: Exactly and the same is true of organizations.

Morris: In recent years, there has been great interest in the relevance of the Founding Fathers (especially Benjamin Franklin and John Adams) to the contemporary business world. Why?

Kanter: During the Boom Years, it was so easy to lose sight of basic values. For example, there was lots of nonsense said and written about the so-called “New Economy.” Some people said all economic laws have been overturned! Then all the dot.com problems developed. Corporations were heavily fined for illegalities. Many of their senior-level executives were indicted, convicted, and sent to prison. The economy suffered. Meanwhile, global terrorism — both before and following the tragic events on September 11th — made us realize how vulnerable we all are. During times such as these, we rediscover or reconnect with the core values of our heritage. That’s why we feel a greater appreciation of our Founding Fathers. Talk about change masters! Washington, Jefferson, the two Adamses, Franklin, and others (literally) built an entirely new nation after defeating England, a country which was then the most powerful in the world.

Morris: For those who have not as yet read Confidence, could you briefly explain why you wrote it?

Kanter: Life is full of cycles that have a way of perpetuating themselves.  Success and failure both feed on themselves.  Things can go downhill quickly, with people bogged down by ineffective behavior and poor teamwork, unless leaders intervene to shift the cycle.

“Leadership” is a big topic today.  We know that the world – nations and communities in addition to companies – needs more and better leaders.  So I wanted to explore how leaders make a difference, how they can shift a negative cycle, turn around a losing organization, propel a team to victory when conditions aren’t perfect.  I saw that what leaders do is build confidence in advance of victory.  Then the confidence they produce makes the hope of success turn into the reality of success, because people behave differently when they are surrounded by a culture of confidence.  They prepare more thoroughly, work harder, support the team, offer ideas that make a difference.

So Confidence is an extension of my earlier work.  It shows some of the factors involved in innovation.  It shows how leaders produce change in big systems, strategies, and structures and in human behavior.  And I’m so happy to feature, among the sports teams, two fabulous women’s teams!

Morris: Why does so much of the material in Confidence focus on sports teams?

Kanter: Sports is a perfect activity in which to see streaks and cycles, organizational and otherwise, in action – and to watch confidence build or erode.  There are repeated episodes of performance with similar rules and clear winners or losers.  I added team sports to my studies of business because there are excellent parallels to work groups in the performance of sports teams and also excellent parallels to larger, more complex businesses or organizations in the strategy, structure, and culture surrounding any particular team.  As Gordon Bethune, CEO of Continental Airlines has said – as quoted in my book:  “Running an airline is the biggest team sport there is.” Life is full of cycles that have a way of perpetuating themselves.  Success and failure both feed on themselves.  Things can go downhill quickly, with people bogged down by ineffective behavior and poor teamwork, unless leaders intervene to shift the cycle.

Morris: Henry Ford is widely reported to have said “Whether you think you can or think you can’t, you’re right.” Apparently you agree.

Kanter: Expectations matter. Confidence is the bridge connecting expectations and performance, investment and results.  When a person has confidence in himself, confidence in the other people, confidence in the system and its leaders, then more positive things are likely to happen.  That’s why once on a winning streak, winning tends to perpetuate itself, because people behave in ways that make winning more likely, the system helps them perform well, and the group or organization can attract external support and resources.  The same thing happens for losing, but in the opposite direction. 

Morris: Theodore Roosevelt once praised the man (or woman) who “is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood…[whose] place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.” He seems to be describing many of those whom you discuss in Confidence.

Kanter: It’s important to get in the game and play hard.  Sometimes you lose – perhaps because you play against the very best, or because surprises happen – but if there is organizational confidence, you bounce back from losses and convert them to successes.  I saw this at Seagate, where an engineer confessed to making a mistake that could have lost the company about $10 million in inventory, but he revealed it quickly, and the team rallied to solve the problem fast, with no ultimate loss.

Morris: Throughout Confidence, you offer several examples of the self-fulfilling prophecy. Why do so few people expect success whereas so many expect failure?

Kanter: Confidence is not just in people’s heads; it comes from the culture of the organization.  It’s easier to expect success when working in an organization that has a culture of accountability, collaboration, and initiative.  Without this, it’s easier – and more self-protective – to assume failure so the person is not disappointed and instead pleasantly surprised.  But that pessimist forgets that low confidence reduces performance and produces a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Morris: Based on your research, to what extent is confidence contagious?

Kanter: It’s definitely contagious because it is part of the culture, not something that people have or don’t have all by themselves.  Moods are contagious, as people take their cues from those around them.

Morris: Briefly, please explain the relevance of trajectories to cycles of success and failure.

Kanter: As I indicated in a previous response, I have observed that the behavior of people and the culture of an organization are very different in winning streaks and losing streaks.  But what both have in common is their momentum – once winners’ or losers’ habits and culture take hold, they tend to perpetuate themselves.

The difference between “winners” and “losers” is not whether they face obstacles and setbacks – we all do, and it is inevitable that plans do not unfold exactly as imagined or that unexpected events surprise us or that a few mistakes happen.  The real difference is that “winners” bounce back from a fumble or a loss by refusing to panic, analyzing the situation and looking for positive actions they can take to correct the problem, and then go on to resume winning. “Losers” don’t; they give up too easily – in the middle of the game or the middle of the project, when in fact there would be time left to still succeed.  But by giving up they ensure failure.  “Winners” tend to see that there’s always hope, so they put in the additional effort.

Morris: When engaged in what you call “The Game of Life,” what are the most important rules to follow? Why?

Kanter: Accountability (responsibility), collaboration, and initiative are the three cornerstones of confidence.  So to “win” not only in business or work life but in the rest of life, it is important to:

· understand one’s strengths and assets, and keep developing them
· honestly assess limitations and create improvement plans
· if there are problems, don’t whine and blame others but instead define productive actions
· reach out to colleagues and teammates; be generous toward them, and generosity will be rewarded
· break big problems into small steps and “small wins,” and celebrate each victory
· find ways to take initiative and look beyond received wisdom or tradition to seek innovation and change

Morris: Given the importance you assign to innovation in your previous books and articles, to what extent is confidence the result of innovative thinking?

Kanter: Innovation is an outgrowth of initiative, and initiative – taking positive actions in a belief that your actions can make a difference – is a big part of confidence.

Morris: You conclude this book with the observation that “Knowing that what’s underneath will hold you and help you rise to victory is the essence of confidence.” For those who have not as yet read Confidence, please explain the reference to “underneath.”

Kanter: Confidence is not lodged in people’s brains, it comes from the support system that surrounds them.  Let’s not confuse confidence overall with just self-confidence.  Self-confidence is only one part of confidence.  People also need confidence in others – their colleagues and leaders – that they can count on them to do the right thing and not to let them down.  And they need confidence in the system that everyone will be held accountable and take responsibility, that teams will collaborate toward common goals, and that it is possible to take initiative to do new things – to innovate – as circumstances change.  With all those other kinds of confidence “underneath,” then you or I have a firm foundation to stand on when we go to do our work.

Morris: Finally, to those about to begin a career in business, what advice do you have?

Kanter: Fully understand the importance of the Five Fs, not only to your organization and career but also to your personal life. Embrace change as an opportunity to learn, to improve, to make a difference in others’ lives as well as in your own. Have the courage to challenge the status quo. Remember that preparation and ambition in combination with opportunity equals success. And have fun!

Meanwhile, Professor Kanter invites everyone to visit Goodmeasure Inc. that is currently developing Web-based versions of her leadership and change tools (http://www.changetoolkit.com) to help embed them in the daily work of organizations everywhere. The application of her change tools to public education can be found at www.reinventingeducation.org.

 

 

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  1. […] Morris, B., (2011). Rosabeth Moss Kanter: An interview. Bobmorris.biz. Retrieved from http://bobmorris.biz/rosabeth-moss-kanter-an-interview-by-bob-morris […]

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