Rosabeth Moss Kanter holds the Ernest L. Arbuckle Professorship at Harvard Business School, where she specializes in strategy, innovation, and leadership for change. The former editor of Harvard Business Review (1989-1992), Professor Kanter has been named to lists of the “50 most powerful women in the world” (Times of London), and the “50 most influential business thinkers in the world” (Accenture and Thinkers 50 research). She is the author or coauthor of 17 books. Her book Confidence: How Winning Streaks & Losing Streaks Begin & End (a New York Times business and BusinessWeek #1 bestseller) describes the culture and dynamics of high-performance organizations as compared with those in decline, and shows how to lead turnarounds in businesses, schools, sports teams, countries, and more. Her classic prizewinning book, Men & Women of the Corporation (C. Wright Mills award winner for the year’s best book on social issues) offered insight to countless individuals and organizations about corporate careers and the individual and organizational factors that promote success. Other books of hers are When Giants Learn to Dance, World Class: Thriving Locally in the Global Economy, and The Change Masters, which was named one of the most influential business books of the 20th century by Financial Times.
Prof. Kanter chairs a Harvard University group creating an innovative initiative on advanced leadership, to help successful leaders at the top of their professions apply their skills not only to managing their own enterprises but also to addressing challenging national and global problems. Through Goodmeasure Inc., the consulting group she co-founded, she has partnered with IBM to bring her leadership tools to public education as part of IBM’s award-winning Reinventing Education initiative. She advises CEOs of large and small companies, and speaks widely, often sharing the platform with Presidents, Prime Ministers, and CEOs at national and international events, such as the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. Her latest book, America the Principled: 6 Opportunities for Becoming a Can-Do Nation Once Again, offers a positive agenda for the nation, focused on innovation and education, a new workplace social contract, values-based corporate conduct, competent government, positive international relations through citizen diplomacy and business networks, and national and community service. It is this book that Erik discusses with her for our interview.
[Bio adapted from Harvard.edu.]
tompeters.com asks ...
Rosabeth, your book's subtitle is Six Opportunities for Becoming a Can-Do Nation Once Again. Why are we not can-do at this time?
RMK: I think the 21st century did not start out well for the country. The dot-com bubble burst, and it was a scary time for a lot of businesses. A recession began, arguably in the middle of 2001. Then there were the terrorist attacks on the United States. All of that depressed the national mood. And if that wasn't enough, the response to those challenges further depressed the national mood for the majority of Americans. One was a stimulus to the economy that favored the rich. Therefore, the squeeze on the middle class got worse. Another was invading Iraq to start a war that many Americans look negatively upon.
During this time, some of the emerging market countries really began to take off. There was a fear in the United States that they were taking American jobs. In fact, they were becoming more competitive. Their educational systems—for example, those in India and China—were so good that they began to produce a large number of scientists and engineers. So, there was a sense on the part of some Americans that our place in the world was being jeopardized and that the respect that people in other countries had for America began to erode.
Recent surveys have shown that as many as 70 percent of the American people think the country is headed in the wrong direction. Now, there's no agreement on exactly what the right direction would be. But there's a great deal of pessimism. And yet we stand for such wonderful things, so I wanted us to go back to root principles and create a positive direction again.
What are some of those principles?
RMK: Fairness, inclusion, generosity to other nations, entrepreneurial spirit, the creative spirit that is willing to challenge orthodoxy, and the spirit of helping one another in town after town. Those are all part of the American spirit.
Are some of the issues of which you speak just a part of a larger cycle of a social organism? Or has the state of the world at the beginning of this century really done major damage to our psyche?
RMK: Some of the retreat from what I think of as "core American principles" did begin earlier. First of all, we've had 28 years of politicians running for public office by saying that government is the enemy; there's been a lot of negativity about public life. There also has been a trend toward individuality, fueled by great prosperity in the '90s, which some said led to greed over idealism. But creating wealth can also become an occasion for philanthropy. We have both tendencies in America.
New technology has both contributed to individuality and also provided new tools for creating community. What do we choose to stand for? In the book, this leads me back to values and principles and what our leaders ask us to stand for. I include practical examples of what can be done to make a difference.
You mention Warren Buffett's enormous gift to the Gates Foundation. It seems that should kick-start a strong notion of philanthropy on a larger scale in this country.
RMK: I think we could be heading for another era. If people are unhappy with the direction of the country, they are going to vote for change. I wrote my book to be published close to the presidential election because that's a time when we think about values and the direction of the country. I wanted to make a contribution to a positive progressive agenda that transcends any particular candidate.
Leadership doesn't occur just in Washington. It occurs community-by-community, in the actions we take as citizens, and what we demand of our national leaders.
The book may be unattractive to right-wing readers as you skewer them on a regular basis.
RMK: It's a point of view on ideology that's often represented by the far right, the religious right in particular. I wouldn't say it's hard for them to read. It's a wonderfully engaging book. They might not like all of my conclusions, but they will like some of my conclusions. I am trying to talk about the things that unite us, rather than the things that divide us.
People who try to divide us are clearly not going to like that message. When candidates say things like, "This is a Christian nation," I wince. This is not a Christian nation. This is a nation of moral principles, some of which come from the Judeo-Christian tradition which embraces many religions.
Religion is a positive force in people's lives. But it's also a source of narrowing vision. When people, on religious grounds, want to stop science—not to have an ethical conversation but to stop certain lines of inquiry dead in their tracks or distort scientific facts—I think that's not something we can all agree on. I'm looking for those principles that unite us.
People who want all the wealth for themselves are certainly not going to like my saying that we need to think about responsibilities to other people. So, of course, there are going to be some people who disagree with my message. I am setting forth a positive, progressive message. And I want to remind everybody that, for a long time, both political parties actually agreed on many of these principles, and the differences were minor. We now have some extreme points of view.
I skewer some of them because they're in power. Congressional ethics is a problem on the part of both political parties. The view of Congress that the American people hold is very, very low at the moment. Their approval ratings are less than those of the President.
I'm not saying that this is totally non-partisan. Remember that I'm a business guru and business school professor. I'm thinking about what will keep our country strong for the future. Strength isn't military strength. That's certainly a piece of the equation. But strength is the ability to tap markets elsewhere and grow the economy in the United States. And for that we need the talents of all people.
Inclusion is a principle that has stood us in great stead in the U.S. We've embraced all kinds of people that had an entrepreneurial spirit but did not have opportunity where they came from.
So I consider many of these principles pragmatic. I believe that open minds, a spirit of dialogue, and a spirit of inquiry are positive. I think the people who won't like this book are the people whose minds are closed, who think that they already know all there is to know and that they speak directly to God. Those people probably won't like my book.
I'm pretty sure of that.
RMK: Many Republicans will like these ideas because they do believe we must invest in public education, be respected in the world, have flexible workplaces, and have companies that abide by high standards. There are many people of both political parties, who support civilian national service—community service—as a way to do our work, train young leaders, and unite us around an agenda of improving our communities.
Immigration is a huge issue right now. It seems hard for the average American to sort it all out. One aspect concerns people from foreign countries being prohibited from staying here after getting advanced math and science degrees. Our current policies are forcing them to go back to their countries. And India and China are providing better innovative hot spots, right?
RMK: That's certainly an issue. And that's where business really wants more openness. Educating lots of people around the world in our colleges and universities has actually been a competitive strength of the United States.
The question becomes, what kind of immigration policy should we have? That's a hot button issue because there are many different populations involved. It's a very complicated issue, so I don't talk about that directly in the book.
But I do talk about the talent issue. We must make sure that the products of our public schools are able to hold their own with the rest of the world in terms of math and science knowledge. We must use all our educated female brain power. I report on how poorly we're doing in closing the gender gap according to the World Economic Forum's gender gap study.
RMK: The lack of flexibility in the workplace causes us to lose talent for the period of time that women are primary caretakers of their children, sometimes for much longer.
There are 21st century solutions. We have workplace policies, for example, that were created in the 1930s for the industrial age. We're in the digital age. We have tools that we could use to solve some of these problems.
We spoke with Sylvia Ann Hewlett about On-Ramps and Off-Ramps and creating opportunities for women to get back into the workforce. We've also spoken with other people who say that the younger generation is playing by a whole different set of rules, and they aren't going to work as hard as the current Baby Boomers. It was proposed that things will change due to the nature of the X, Y, and millennial generations.
RMK: Well, the question of whether they'll work as hard is a different question from whether they will stand for the ways that workers have been treated. I think that this generation is certainly willing to work hard, but they need an opportunity to have a voice earlier in their careers, to have more flexibility. They don't want to sacrifice family. They don't want to sacrifice personal interest. Many of them want to be doing good along with earning a living.
Many of my students graduating from Harvard Business School with MBAs say they want to start non-profits. They want to work hard and become wealthy because they'd like to be Bill Gates. But they'd like to do it earlier in life. I think there's a lot of idealism. I think what we see in this generation is less conformity. Not that they're not willing to work. They'll work for things that matter to them.
I think they're intelligent and hardworking. But they're not going to become slaves to work. There's a social consciousness about them that's different than 20, 30 years ago. I think a lot of these changes are going to come from the people themselves. That's one part of your message I enjoyed, your focus on the individual working within the community, within companies to make these things happen.
RMK: We do need to rethink the connections between all these institutions. Look at Teach for America. Here are young people who are going on to careers in a wide range of fields who are still willing to spend two years after college working in disadvantaged schools. They know it's important.
The longer lifecycle will permit more of that. I talk about community service programs and official national service, not only for young people but also for the Boomer generation. Baby Boomers will have 20 to 30 productive years of life ahead of them after they finish with their primary careers.
It's exciting to think about people retiring, but not going to Florida and playing golf for the rest of their lives. There's such a huge opportunity there. Someone could make a lot happen by unifying them.
RMK: Absolutely. That's something I'm working on at Harvard. It's another opportunity for America. I put these things in terms of opportunities. These opportunities transcend whoever is President. They're an agenda for whoever becomes the next President. These are things that people should put in front of the current candidates as well as their governors.
Do you have any particular folks in mind who you think are going to respond and help effect the kind of change that you'd like to see happen?
RMK: The people who lead the national service movement have a vision for America in which people begin to use their skills on behalf of their communities as young people, even as elementary school children. Due to the early start, they grow into a different kind of leader, a different kind of businessperson. They very much have a vision for the country.
There's a set of thoughtful Americans who've always been concerned about the state of our country. Executives and entrepreneurs should be thinking about the system, and not just their own company. So I propose what I call values-based capitalism. Business leaders are increasingly aware of the need for this. I've spoken recently to a new network in Massachusetts called the Progressive Business Leaders Network. They understand that they should get involved in public policy and show that people in business really do care about the state of communities.
Social entrepreneurship is essential. We cannot expect government to do everything. We need to have good public servants, but they need to work in collaboration with the private sector. Teach for America, City Year, and Citizen Schools are great projects, but they need local, state, and federal governments to spread the programs everywhere.
Tell us about the "citizen diplomat."
RMK: Diplomacy, the image of a country, is not just in the hands of a government. In our country, defense-related spending is about 21 percent of the federal budget. If you add up every program of diplomacy, outreach, and foreign aid, it comes to less than one-sixteenth of one percent of the federal budget. But look at all the other people outside the government who are working to solve problems in developing nations. They are doing more for the image of America than official State Department programs. Some of my friends decided to help the community in a South African black township. When I traveled there, I witnessed attitudes toward America change among community members because of these acts of kindness and generosity.
I have young people in my office all the time with proposals. One wants to start something bigger than the Peace Corps, in which students graduating from high school would take a gap year before they go to college and work on an international assignment. She's going to try to gather private-sector support for this. But imagine what could be done if the White House supports this through an Office of Social Entrepreneurship at the Cabinet level and provides a challenge grant. There are many ideas for mobilizing many more Americans to do good in the world.
The other source of citizen diplomats is businesspeople. You talked earlier about the people who are getting their advanced degrees in the U.S., and going back to India or China. All of those people now have ties to the United States. We have a whole network of people who can be ambassadors. Every U.S. businessperson who tries to do business in China is representing their country. Each one of us who is sitting in another country trying to build business relationships can also be an ambassador and a diplomat. That's part of the American principle of community self-help. Surveys show a gap between how people in other countries view America as a nation, versus Americans, the people. They like the people a lot more than they like particular policies of the administrations.
Recently I've read about smaller groups, NGOs, or individuals having a more positive impact. I know you espouse action from the individual, but how is that converted to a large scale?
RMK: I talk about big citizenship. It was Bill Clinton who said, "The era of big government is over. The era of big citizens has begun."
RMK: Big citizens are individuals in groups and communities who understand their responsibilities to other people. They care about making a difference for other people. They are not simply ambitious for themselves. Ambition can be a good thing, and I hope everybody gets rich and enjoys the American dream. But the only way we're going to get there is if we have institutions that support everybody having opportunity. That's the difference that I think a progressive agenda offers. It isn't simply volunteers or individuals one-by-one. It's that we need a way to organize this to have force.
But this isn't limited to the progressives. The first President Bush talked about "a thousand points of light;" all those great actions to help communities and the world. I say the more points of light, the better. Unless we focus those points of light like a laser beam on problems, we will continue to have the same problems. Individuals get more done in a group, in a collective, oriented towards common ends, with support from our instruments of public service. Often that's government. So I want more private-sector action. But I want people to see this as a collective responsibility.
Citizen diplomats are the change agents for the world. I've always stood for empowerment of people. The voice of people in organizations at all levels is what creates innovation. That's what I became known for in my book, The Change Masters. Innovation can come from anywhere in a company if you have the opportunity to voice the idea, and then are given the resources and the support to act on it.
We have many social entrepreneurs in America. We have many solutions to the problems of education and healthcare. What we need is more support from our leaders to get those solutions put in place and to continue to make progress on solving problems. That's what "progressive" means in a progressive agenda, that we believe in hope and that we're not stuck with what we have today; we can make it better.
I wanted to lift the mood of the American people and say, "We can make it better."
It's a classic message. It's a message that every American will understand.
RMK: It's a very Tom Peters message. Erik, it's been great talking with you.
I appreciate your time.