Stuart Crainer talks to Rosabeth Moss Kanter of Harvard Business School about her intellectual approach to business ideas and her contention that success is really a question of confidence.
Rather mischievously, one reviewer called Rosabeth Moss Kanter 'the Eartha Kitt of change management'. The Harvard Business School professor, one of the 100 most important women in the USA, according to one magazine, and one of the world's 50 most powerful women, according to the Times, is amused by the comparison to the husky singer: 'I suppose it is very flattering, perhaps a way of saying that I've been a sustained performer over the years rather than appearing in a flash and then disappearing.'
So how would Professor Kanter describe herself? She blanches at the mention of the word 'guru': 'I see myself as an activist, an advocate, an educator. I'd rather be called a thought-leader, a developer of ideas.'
There is no doubt that Professor Kanter is intellectually formidable. Her career includes spells at Yale and Harvard Law School. She edited the Harvard Business Review, advises the CEOs of major multinationals and is also one of the founders of the consulting firm Goodmeasure.
There is an intellectual neatness – not to mention rigour – to Kanter's work. Her roots lie in sociology. In her quest to get close to the corporate action, She first tackled the narrow-minded, hierarchy-heavy corporation of the 1970s. In her classic 1977 book, Men and Women of the Corporation, she effectively sounded the death knell for the traditional corporation.
Then Kanter moved on to look at the perennially thorny issue of change in The Change Masters, innovational culture in When Giants Learn to Dance, globalisation in World Class and the new economy in Evolve. World Class outlined many of the issues later violently aired by anti-capitalist protestors. She describes it as 'an activist's book'. It looked at the need among companies, communities and regions to create an infrastructure for collaboration. It suggests that globalisation can only be a force for good if it is delivered at a local and regional level. 'I am in many ways sympathetic to the human needs of the anti-capitalist protestors. But global capitalism is in some cases a force for good.'
WINNING AND CONFIDENCE
To charges of idealism, Kanter pleads guilty, with one caveat.' I am a very realistic idealist. The ideas I have put forward work. The ideas are useful and effective. We sometimes think of idealists as setting out a utopian vision, but my work is very empirically grounded. It is based on research, not on an artificial model.'
Professor Kanter's latest book, Confidence, is built on 300 interviews with an array of sports and business people, as well as politicians. It marks a significant development in Kanter's work in that it is clearly targeted at the mainstream audience. Her examples include the University of Connecticut's women's basketball team, Nelson Mandela, the Philadelphia Eagles American football team and Greg Dyke at the BBC.
Confidence is Kanter's crossover from the business shelves to those labelled self-improvement or, in US bookshops, success. For many business thinkers, this would be an unthinkable and crass leap. But, for Kanter, the leap is more of a logical stepping-stone across familiar waters.
Her work has always been grounded in people. It is human and humane – with footnotes. 'I have always been interested in the intersection of institutions and people,' says Kanter. 'I am interested in leaders because they have to set direction, take initiative and make things happen, but they do it in an institutional context and also help to create institutions that make an impact. I am interested in being an actor, not just a bystander, perhaps close to power.' In the latter goal, she is succeeding: Kanter was invited to the economic summits of both Presidents Clinton and George W. Bush.
Clearly argued and persuasively written, Confidence is chockfull with memorable aphorisms. Witness: 'Confidence is a sweet spot between arrogance and despair.' The book's overall argument is simple. Confidence marks out the long-term winners from the losers. Winning and confidence are bedfellows. Winning produces self-confidence: confidence in fellow team members and colleagues, confidence in the system, and external confidence in a network that provides resources when needed.
'Confidence is situational,' says Kanter. 'It is not a personality characteristic. It is an expectation of a positive result, of success. From that expectation stems the will to put in the effort. It is putting in the work that brings success rather than imaging it. Confidence makes you hang in. It is about executing on high performance. Leaders shape the climate, but it is people who are delivering the service or meeting the sales targets. Sports were a wonderful microcosm to study this. The coaches can prepare the players as well as possible and shape their mindset, but the players have to go out and deliver.'
RIGHT SPOT, RIGHT TIME
Kanter points to the difference between Bill Clinton and former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani. Clinton never had the substantial challenge to rise to and focus on which his undoubted talents demanded; Giuliani had 9/11.
'You are not always born at the historical moment when you get to create a new country. You're not always living in a time when you can show that your actions made a real difference,' Kanter says. 'The thing that is striking about the Giuliani situation is that up until 11 September he was known as somewhat mean spirited, tough and difficult. What the unspeakably horrible moment did was provide him with permission to show a vulnerable, soft side. He always had gone to funerals of firefighters and police officers, but it took on new meaning under those circumstances.'
'The second striking thing was that one of the reasons he could spend as much time as he did dealing with the emotional healing was that New York City had an excellent disaster preparedness programme, so the infrastructure was in place and he did not have to spend much time figuring out how to handle the crisis because the plans were in place. There was a support system and infrastructure, which allowed him to spend his time doing work which was considered so heroic.'
LEARNING FROM FAILURE
One of Confidence's most important conclusions is that you learn more about winning from losing – simple but profound. Errors, slip-ups, crises, fumbles and troubles are ubiquitous and much more than character forming. 'They happen to everyone and every organisation,' Kanter explains. 'The real test of the momentum of a winning streak is how you bounce back from setbacks. How you deal with these is the differentiator.'
When the going gets tough, confident individuals and organisations tend to have better problem-solving mechanisms and bounce back very quickly. Losing teams tend to panic at the first crisis. They forget the game plan and the teamwork. Inexperienced leaders, who have never handled a crisis, panic or compound the error by going into denial. From such innocent beginnings Enrons occur. These are the moments that separate the high-performance wheat from the chaff of mediocrity.
Kanter's worldview is life affirming. Things can and do change for the better. But improvement – and the confidence which accompanies it – must be carefully nurtured. Complacency leads to denial. 'I see people who do wonderful things because they unlock the talent and potential that exists,' she says. 'Effective leaders do it because they create the context in which other people can become leaders, in which other people can step forward and use their talents rather than being stifled and inhibited, scared or steered in the wrong direction.' Success in the future requires confidence.