SuperCorp: A book review by Bob Morris

Posted on: June 27th, 2011 by bobmorris

SuperCorp: How Vanguard Companies Create Innovation, Profits, Growth, and Social Good
Rosabeth Moss Kanter
Crown Business (2009)

A brilliant analysis of companies at the forefront of social purpose and profitable enterprise

In recent years, Rosabeth Moss Kanter has written several books in which she focuses on individuals as well as groups that consistently produce peak performances. She understands and appreciates how difficult it is to become #1 in the given competitive marketplace and how even more difficult it is to maintain that ranking. As Tom Peters and Robert Waterman as well as Jim Collins and others have noted, that is true of major corporations and it is also true of athletic teams. In Confidence, Kanter correctly praises women’s varsity basketball coach Pat Summit at the University of Tennessee. Since 1974, her teams have won eight national championships and twice won consecutive championships (1996-1998 and 2007-2008) but Tennessee is one of very few that have ever done so. Eight of the last ten NFL Super Bowl champions failed to make the playoffs the following year and only two teams during the same period won consecutive titles, the Denver Broncos and the New England Patriots. Thirty-eight of 43 other winners couldn’t repeat.

My point is, that becoming a “SuperCorp” (however defined), especially in the current economy, is an admirable achievement but does not necessarily ensure a permanent position. That is why Reggie Jones selected Jack Welch to succeed him as CEO and then told him to “blow up” GE. That is why Toyota continues to generate so many suggestions to improve its incomparable production system and incorporated more than two million of them last year. That is why not once or twice but at least three times thus far, Tiger Woods has made radical changes in his swing (i.e. grip, stance, take-away, and/or follow-through) because he competes only against himself, no one else, and realized that improvements were needed. I suspect that, not having won a major this year, he continues to make additional refinements.

I have read and reviewed all of Rosabeth Moss Kanter’s previously published books and consider this one to be her most informative, hence most valuable thus far. In it, she focuses on a number of “vanguard” companies and explains how each literally leads the way in terms of demonstrating how” vanguard companies create innovation, profits, growth, and social bond. The “supercorps” include Banco Real, CEMEX, IBM, ICICI Bank, Omron, Procter & Gamble, Publicis Groupe, and Shirshan Bank. All of them have been literally “in the forefront of an action, an example of change to come” in terms of both social purpose and profitable enterprise, not either/or. To a much greater extent than ever before, Kanter provides within her lively narrative reader-friendly check lists that facilitate, indeed expedite frequent review of key points later. For example:

• Four general forces to which vanguard companies respond (Pages 46-47)
• Six advantages created with strategic use of values and principles (58-60)
• Five advantages when social purpose is at the forefront (111-113)
• Nine tenets of innovation initiatives that make a difference (211-212)
• Seven guidelines that summarize vanguard practices (231-232)
• “Ten Things That Anyone Can Do to Be in a Vanguard” (259-260)
• Five characteristics of vanguard leadership (261-262)

However different they may be in most other respects, all of the CEOs of vanguard companies she discusses in this book – Fabio Barbosa (Banco Real), Lorenzo Zambrano (CEMEX), Sam Palmisano (IBM), K.V. Kamath (ICICI Bank), Hisao Sakuta (Omron), A.G. Lafley (Procter & Gamble), and Maurice Lévy (Publicis Groupe) — possess highly-developed skills for establishing and nourishing relationships within and (especially) beyond their organization. Their effectiveness is explained by ability to see things in context and understand complex interactions between and among many variables. They have a bias for action and are results-driven when seeking solutions for their own organization as well as for the clients it is privileged to serve. They have what Daniel Goleman correctly describes as “emotional intelligence”: exceptional self-awareness (of weaknesses as well as strengths), empathy, respect for individuality and principled dissent, and a sincere delight in others’ achievements. They are also values-driven, take very seriously their fiduciary responsibilities as a steward of resources, and recognize, indeed embrace a higher calling than merely making money.

In vanguard companies, Kanter points out that competences and capabilities such as these are by no means limited to CEOs or only to executives at the C-level. On the contrary, they are developed in those who occupy positions throughout the enterprise, at all levels and in all areas. Kanter concedes that the vanguard model “turns organizations upside down and inside out. They become less hierarchical and more driven by flexible networks. They become more open and transparent to the outside world while bringing society and its needs inside. As an ideal and an aspiration, the vanguard model attempts to reconcile contradictions: to be big but human, efficient but innovative, respecting individual differences while seeking common ground, global in thinking but concerned about local communities.” Given what Kanter characterizes as the “inexorable march of global change,” organizations really have no choice but to adopt and then adapt the vanguard business model. The bad news is that that process will be immensely complicated and very, very difficult to complete. The good news is that it can be done, as the exemplary companies in this book clearly indicate.


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