May 12, 2013 10:00 pm

Interview: Rosabeth Moss Kanter

Rosabeth Moss Kanter, chair and director of Harvard University’s Advanced Leadership Initiative©Jason Grow

Untapped talent: business is yet to catch up with demographic changes and appreciate the need for lifelong learning in the workplace, says Prof Kanter

Rosabeth Moss Kanter doesn’t use the “R” word. As the chair and director of Harvard University’s Advanced Leadership Initiative, a universitywide programme that shepherds successful seasoned professionals from their income-earning years to work on public service projects, Prof Kanter believes the very notion of “retirement” – to this group of individuals at least – inspires mild antipathy.

“We talk about transitioning,” she says. “We never use the ‘R’ word. Never ever.”

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And besides, the year-long programme is hardly a way to ease into the golden years. Upon arrival, fellows take a demanding “core course” led by star Harvard faculty. They mentor students and participate in think-tanks – campuswide summits on topics from education to healthcare. They take a guided field immersion trip – this year it is to Shanghai. Then they plan a long-term project to tackle a big social issue. This might mean starting a foundation or social enterprise, building a campaign for a cause or writing a book.

“We don’t expect them to know what they want to do before they come here, and if they do come knowing, we expect them to change their mind a few times or broaden their view of what it might be,” she says.

The programme’s goal is “to employ a leadership force that can think differently about seemingly intractable community, national, global problems and bring innovative solutions”, says Prof Kanter. “We are not here to change them. We consider them all leaders [before they start]. But the very fact of being in this environment starts changing people. People refer to this as ‘transformational’.”

The programme is in its fifth year. Harvard does not specify exact criteria for qualification, but implies that fellows have 20-25 years of leadership experience “with a track record of accomplishment”. They must be “motivated to make a difference for communities and the world”.

She cites Doug Rauch, the former president of Trader Joe’s, the upmarket supermarket chain, as an example. Rauch, a fellow in 2010, started the Urban Food Initiative, a grocer that sells meals made with food that is edible but past its sell-by date to low-income customers in Boston. “He’s not trying to have just one [store]. He’s trying to create a national model,” she says.

“We think there is an untapped leadership forced to work on problems that by definition do not fall into the slots we’ve got. Health is not the hospital. Education is not only the school, and the city is not City Hall.”

Prof Kanter, who is 70, is petite with wispy blonde hair. A native of the Midwest, she is personable, talks with her hands and has an easy laugh.

She is the author or co-author of 18 books, from academic tomes to business best sellers. She earned her doctorate in sociology from the University of Michigan, has received 23 honorary doctorates and is often on lists of the world’s most powerful women.

Prof Kanter is disarmingly articulate. Her speech is peppered with lucid digressions: just when you think she has gone off topic for good, she miraculously manages to tie the various threads of conversation together. “I am a systems person,” she says by way of explanation.

The changing US workforce

Life expectancy in the US at birth is 77.5 years, up from 49.2 at the turn of the 20th century, according to the Congressional Research Service. In 1900, 19 per cent of women of working age were in the workforce against 58 per cent today, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

She says two demographic changes over the past century – the rise of women in the workforce and the revolution in healthcare that has increased longevity – have accentuated the need for life-long learning at work.

Yet the workplace has not adjusted, she says. “We are now at a point where we are between models. We have not changed the underlying assumptions about how we organise work to fit either of those changes,” she says.

“We have a large pool of talented and educated women and yet workplaces haven’t necessarily changed to accommodate the reality of their lives. That’s an issue. [At the same time] the arguments go on in France about [changing the retirement age to] 60, 62 or 65. They make a huge difference to the Treasury, but all those numbers are ridiculous because many people are most likely going to live well into their 90s. I think this is a moment where there is a confluence of a lot of forces.”

That is why there is a need for more programmes like the Advanced Leadership Initiative, she says. Naturally, Harvard can do many things other schools cannot. (Harvard is the wealthiest university in the world, with an endowment of $32bn.)

Still, Prof Kanter insists other colleges and universities can and should start similar programmes. Any “Big 10” US university could do this, she says, as could state university systems that have a range of professional schools.

It is not the brand-name Harvard professors that make this programme so distinctive; rather, it is its interdisciplinary nature.

“The breakthrough in thinking is that we’re bridging schools and disciplines,” she says. “You could even do this within liberal arts by connecting economics, politics, sociology, and psychology with the sciences.”

She suggests models such as Bill Clinton and Bill Gates – powerful men who started foundations as second careers. “If you are the Bills – Clinton and Gates – you can just do it. But what if you aspire to a little part of what the Gates Foundation and the Clinton Foundation are doing? There are no established pathways.”

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