Nominated by: Kristine Carr
Seconded by: Lucy Fallon-Byrne and Nele Leosk
Rita is widely regarded as being one of the world’s foremost experts on strategy and innovation and, for over a decade, has been consistently ranked amongst its top management thinkers.
Rita was born in New Haven, Connecticut, to scientific parents who were researchers at the Yale Medical School at the time. Her mother, Helge Liane, and father, Wolfgang, had just received their doctorates – in microbiology and organic chemistry respectively – and had emigrated from Germany and the UK after obtaining their degrees. The family moved to Webster, New York, in 1967, when her father accepted a role with Xerox. A running joke in her family is that Webster had one of the most difficult slogans for Germans to pronounce, “Welcome to Webster, Where Life is Worth Living.”
Rita did her undergraduate studies in Barnard College, graduating in 1981, magna cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa with a degree in Political Science. She earned her Masters in Public Administration from Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, having started working on it before competing her BA. After graduation, Rita took an entrepreneurial turn, attempting to create a business that would build on her interest in public policy and politics. The first business, Lawri Consulting, enjoyed some success but turned out to be a very boom-and-bust proposition. The second business, Unworried Words, took some of the learning from the first but Rita decided that it wasn’t a business she wanted to run and subsequently took a role with the City of New York Department of General Services. While there, she eventually became an IT Director, responsible for the implementation of an early digital transformation effort, called the Commodity Line Item Purchasing System (or CLIPS, for short).
She met her husband, John McGrath, a Northern Ireland national, in 1984, and they were married in 1986. Her son, Matt was born in 1988 and her daughter, Anne in 1990.
In 1989, Rita was accepted to the Ph.D. program in Social Systems Sciences at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School. She pursued her research as the mother of two young children, winning the inaugural Kauffman Foundation Fellowship in Entrepreneurship in 1992. Her dissertation, The Development of New Competence in Established Organizations was completed in 1993, which she wrote while also having 6 peer-reviewed articles published as a student. Rita’s original intention was to continue her successful academic career with a post-doc but an interesting opportunity opened up to join the Management of Organizations Division of the Columbia Business School, which she did in July of 1993. She taught the core MBA course “strategic management of the enterprise” in those years and had an impressive record of publishing in both academic journals and in practitioners-focused media.
In 1995, her article Discovery-Driven Planning – outlining thinking which has since been recognized as an early articulation of what has become the “lean-startup approach” – was published in Harvard Business Review. It has been praised by the late Clayton Christensen (Harvard Business School Professor and author of The Innovator’s Dilemma) as one of the most important management ideas of all-time, who provided an endorsement of her 2009 book Discovery Driven Growth to that effect.
She was promoted to Associate Professor in 1998. Her paper, Falling Forward: Real Options Reasoning and Entrepreneurial Failure, won the Academy of Management Review’s Best Paper award for 1999. In 2000, Rita joined the editorial board of the Strategic Management Journal. She also, together with Ian MacMillan (then Professor of Innovation and Entrepreneurship at Wharton, now Professor Emeritus), published her first book (and the first of 3 written with Ian MacMillan) The Entrepreneurial Mindset: Strategies for Continuously Creating Opportunity in an Age of Uncertainty.
In 2001, Rita was chosen as a key part of Columbia’s mission to combine theory with practice, joining a small group of faculty focusing primarily on Executive Education (the resulting program went on to be rated the best in the world for several years by the Financial Times). In the same year, her paper Assessing technology projects using Real Options Reasoning (co-authored with Ian MacMillan) won the Maurice Holland “Best Paper” award from Research-Technology Management and she won the McKinsey “Best Paper” award from the Strategic Management Society for her paper Real options reasoning and a new look at the R&D strategy of pharmaceutical firms (co-authored with Atul Nerkar).
In 2005, Rita’s second book Marketbusters: 40 Strategic Moves That Drive Exceptional Business Growth, co-authored with Ian MacMillian was published. Strategy+Business magazine named it one of the best business books of the year.
In 2009, in recognition of her significant contribution to the field of strategic management, she was elected a fellow of the Strategic Management Society and named its Deputy Dean two years later. She also published her third book Discovery Driven Growth: A Breakthrough Process to Reduce Risk and Seize Opportunity (co-authored with Ian MacMillan).
Rita was named to the prestigious Thinkers50 global ranking of management thinkers in 2011 and has consistently ranked in the top ten. She received their Distinguished Achievement Award in Strategy in 2013, a year in which she was made a Fellow of the International Academy of Management and that also saw the publication of her first sole-authored book The End of Competitive Advantage, which was hailed by Strategy+Business magazine as the number one business book of the year. 2014 also saw her win another award for her highly commended paper Continuous Reconfiguration in the Transient Advantage Economy published in the academic journal Strategy and Leadership.
Rita has served on the editorial boards of the Academy of Management Journal (1997 to 2002), Strategic Management Journal (since 2000), the Academy of Management Review (since 2002) and the Journal of Management Studies (2003 to 2010) among others and has won numerous awards from the Academy of Management Journal for her work.
Her articles have appeared in major media outlets, and she is often cited as an authoritative source by reporters ranging from outlets such as the Wall Street Journal, Wired and Fast Company. Rita is active on social media and in 2013 was featured in an article in Fast Company as one of the “25 smartest women to follow on Twitter.”
In addition to her Columbia commitments, Rita is sought after as a speaker and advisor to organizations seeking to make sense of uncertain and rapidly changing environments. Her most recent book, published in 2019, is Seeing Around Corners: How to Spot Inflection Points in Business Before They Happen, the same year she was ranked the fifth most influential management thinker by Thinkers50. She often speaks at prestigious gatherings (such as the World Economic Forum meetings and the Global Peter Drucker Forum) and, since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, she has been helping people apply her approaches to strategy under high levels of uncertainty.
She is the founder of the consulting company Valize, a member of the Marshall Goldsmith 100 Coaches Pay It Forward Project, and a trustee of the McCarter Theater Center in Princeton. She was the recipient of the 2016 Vienna Strategy Forum’s Theory to Practice award and, in 2020, was voted “Most Influential International Thinker” by HR Magazine.