More Great Insights from Harvard’s Kanter

Posted by Dawn Marie Bailey

In a keynote address at the Baldrige Program’s recent Quest for Excellence® Conference, Dr. Rosabeth Moss Kanter shared key insights in the form of five of her favorite mantras. Friday we shared the first two; following are the other three.

#3 It Takes a Cross-Sector, Multistakeholder Coalition

“It takes a village” is an African proverb, but according to Kanter, success today takes a “cross-sector, multistakeholder coalition.”

According to Kanter, at Harvard University Advanced Leadership meetings, dignified leaders who have served as CEOs, venture capitalists, hospital system CEOs, physicians, managing partners at law firms, and government cabinet members still have to be taught “to think across sectors, not to think adversarially about government versus business versus whatever . . . but really always think cross-sector multistakeholder—who has to be at the table, from outside the building, to think bigger, to solve problems?”

As an example of such a coalition, Kanter described the city of Milwaukee’s success moving from an aging industrial city to a global water hub (one of three global water hubs in the world). Members from the community, including the business community, are collaborating to turn the infrastructure into one that focuses on what all of the declining industrial businesses had in common: water. Now Milwaukee businesses are making products and services leveraging water technology; a water council is redefining the city across industries; a graduate school is offering fresh water sciences; and entrepreneurs are turning abandoned factories into fish farms. In these factories, they are also growing sprouts as a healthy snack for Milwaukee’s school children.

#4 It’s Not Easy

“Kanter’s law,” she said, “is that everything can look like a failure in the middle because when you are doing things that are new and different . . . there can be naysayers. . . . There are so many obstacles and road blocks on the journey that the difference between success and failure is how long you give it before you give up.”

rk quote1A typical obstacle is forecasting problems, said Kanter. It’s difficult to know how long something is going to take and how much it is going to cost—something we all have a tendency to underestimate, she added.

Kanter stressed persistence and willingness to deliver as characteristics of success. “We know a ton of things are going to happen to throw [you] off. . . . Sometimes it’s more important to do it better the second time because you can’t always the first time get it right,” she said.

The middles of new projects and initiatives can be tense times, she said, “you hit obstacles you didn’t know were there because you’ve never gone down that road before. . . . The middles are another time [to be] in touch with your cross-sector multistakeholder coalition.”

Kanter said that she loves small improvements, quick wings, but if change involves anything big (which she encourages), “you have to persist and persevere, you have to have continuity of leadership. . . . There has to be a really dedicated team, and I also go back to mission and purpose. If you don’t have a strong sense of why you’re doing this and whom you are doing this for, it’s way too easy to give up. And giving up is by definition a failure.”

#5 The Happiest People Solve the Most Difficult Problems

“If you really want to motivate your staff,” Kanter said, “it’s not by making the work easier but by making it more challenging.” She said people seek out jobs in Silicon Valley and high-tech companies because they get to stretch, to learn new things, to have impact.

“The happiest people I know, amazingly, miraculously, are working on things that seem intractable,” she said. “Now they have to get over the sense of discouragement in the middle, but they have a sense of purpose, meaning, mastery, challenge, along with membership in community and a sense of meaning.”

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One Response to More Great Insights from Harvard’s Kanter

  1. Bryan Zak says:

    Now I can explain what was going on when I stopped in Martinsville, VA at the STP 500 NASCAR event on my way to the Quest of Excellence conference. What I experienced at the STP 500 was a cross-sector, multistakeholder coalition resulting in a huge economic impact.

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