by Rosabeth Moss Kanter (2009, Crown Business)
Rosabeth Moss Kanter is the Ernest L. Arbuckle Professor at Harvard Business School, where she chairs the Harvard Advanced Leadership Initiative, which offers “innovative collaboration across business, education, government, law, and public health.” Dr. Kanter is the author of numerous books and articles, including several New York Times bestsellers. The London Times has named her as one of the “50 most powerful women in the world.”
Book review by John Terrill
There are many people in the world who are giving up on business as a source of transformation and service. This outcome seems to be heightened by the recent financial crisis and growing public disillusionment that has resulted from yet another round of catastrophic ethical breaches in business. In this important book, and based on a three-year study of more than 350 key leaders at about 15 major companies around the world, Dr. Kanter challenges this idea. Rather than pessimism, the author contends that the best performing, most agile and innovative companies in the world will be the most progressive and socially responsible. In the author’s own words:
Vanguard companies are ahead of the pack and potentially the wave of the future. The best of the breed aspire to be big but human, efficient but innovative, global but concerned about local communities. The best have business prowess and clout with partners and governments but try to use their power and influence to develop solutions to problems the public cares about.
The book is structured in four parts. The first section deals with the pressing challenges of globalization (and anti-globalization sentiment) that are forcing a change in existing models of business. Vanguard companies, like Banco Real, Digitas, IBM, Proctor & Gamble, Shinhan Financial Group, and Nokia, are successful because they are learning how to respond to four powerful forces: (1) increasing uncertainty and volatility; (2) growing complexity; (3) need for greater work diversity; and (4) intensifying pressure for transparency and responsibility.
The second and third sections deal with how vanguard companies align values, strategic priorities, people, and societal needs to achieve business excellence. These sections also show how in doing so, this positively influences supply chains, communities, and countries in which they operate. The fourth and final section looks to the future, addressing some of the challenges that loom and characteristics that will be needed for transformative leadership.
There are many things I appreciate about this book. Dr. Kanter chronicles interesting stories of diverse companies doing well while serving society. For example, in response to Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans and the surrounding region in 2005, IBM codified innovations for NGOs into a kind of “disaster relief in a box,” which featured an open-source disaster management software, Sahana, which was originally created by the technology community in Sri Lanka in the aftermath of the devastating tsunami in Southeast Asia.
The author also presents a convincing argument for how for-profit business can contribute to human flourishing. Vanguard companies and their leaders see business and technology as a powerful force for making the world a better place. And while addressing unmet social needs with technology, not “charity or hand-me-downs,” they strengthen their own processes of innovation.
There are other helpful insights, especially related to changes in present-day workplaces and changing motivations for work, as well as helpful examples of how vanguard companies partner with other societal institutions, like NGOs, governments, educational institutions, and the like, to magnifying their impact in the world. Kanter also offers helpful input on how to harness diversity and identity for impact, but she seems to dismiss the importance of faith as part of what makes us unique and effective in our workplaces.
Unfortunately, I found the book to be a bit repetitive and cumbersome. I would only recommend if you are highly interested in the topics examined and want to stay current with the author’s latest research. I wasn’t convinced that Dr. Kanter had truly broken new ground and differentiated her work from insights coming from other streams within business management and education, such as social responsible business, conscious capitalism, and corporate social responsibility movements.
John Terrill directs the Center for Integrity in Business in the School of Business & Economics at Seattle Pacific University.
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