Exploring Vanguard Companies in Kanter's 'SuperCorp'

Last Updated Sep 1, 2009 10:40 AM EDT

Harvard Business School professor Rosabeth Moss Kanter calls them "vanguard companies," a short list of firms redefining themselves for business success in the 21st century.

These companies are rewriting their strategies to infuse a sense of wider societal purpose in their corporate values, Kanter writes in her new book SuperCorp: How Vanguard Companies Create Innovation, Profits, Growth, and Social Good.

More importantly, these values are not just something tacked up on the lunchroom wall but are actively baked into each company's core mission.

Among the companies she writes about are Mexico-based Cemex, one of the world's largest building materials companies; Omron, the Japanese electronics company; and Banco Real, a bank headquartered in Sao Paolo, Brazil.

I also found some surprising names among Kanter's exemplars, such as IBM and Procter & Gamble, who you might typically think of as old guard rather than vanguard. But they "reflect the paradigm for emerging vanguard companies that pursue their everyday business opportunities in a way that reflects humanistic values and promotes the highest standards in the countries where they operate. This, in turn, helps them grow quickly and effectively, with strong profits and solid reputations."

How do vanguard companies act?

  • An alley near Banco Real's headquarters was known as a dangerous haven for drug dealers, not to mention an eyesore. With police not likely to act, Banco Real organized its own employees and community volunteers to pave and light the alley, install a garden, and build two kiosks that employ local teenagers. The bank was also the first in the region to trade in carbon credits.
  • When Sam Palmisano took over IBM in 2002, one of his first actions was to refresh the company's values by engaging 140,000 IBMers in a 72-hour Web chat about what IBM stands for. The community identified three overarching values: Dedication to every client's success; innovation that matters, for our company and the world; trust and personal responsibility in all relationships.
  • When Cemex acquired RMC, a troubled ready-mix cement company, it also acquired that company's highly unpopular and ecologically damaging plant in Rugby, England. A television program named it as one of the top 10 buildings people in the UK would like to see demolished. Instead, Cemex upgraded training and pay of plant employees, invested in numerous capital upgrades such as a new air filtration system, and financially supported the town's launch of a business improvement program.
Not only are actions such as these great for society, but they also benefit companies on their bottom line, Kanter argues.

Read an excerpt from SuperCorp: The Strategic Value of Values: A New Guidance System

  • Sean Silverthorne

    Sean Silverthorne is the editor of HBS Working Knowledge, which provides a first look at the research and ideas of Harvard Business School faculty. Working Knowledge, which won a Webby award in 2007, currently records 4 million unique visitors a year. He has been with HBS since 2001.

    Silverthorne has 28 years experience in print and online journalism. Before arriving at HBS, he was a senior editor at CNET and executive editor of ZDNET News. While at At Ziff-Davis, Silverthorne also worked on the daily technology TV show The Site, and was a senior editor at PC Week Inside, which chronicled the business of the technology industry. He has held several reporting and editing roles on a variety of newspapers, and was Investor Business Daily's first journalist based in Silicon Valley.