25 Apr 2011
Harvard Business School Professor Emeritus Renato Tagiuri Dead at 91
Scholar was key figure in the human aspects of management and the study of family businesses
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Renato Tagiuri Photo: Baker Library

BOSTON—Renato Tagiuri, Professor of Social Sciences in Business Administration, Emeritus, at Harvard Business School (HBS) and a renowned expert on interpersonal relations and the human aspects of management as well as a pioneer in the field of family businesses, died on April 15 at Brookhaven in Lexington, MA. He was 91.

A member of the Harvard University faculty since 1952, Tagiuri became a professor at Harvard Business School in 1957, where he spent the next three decades teaching in the School's Executive Education programs, first in the Advanced Management Program (AMP) for senior executives and then in the Owner/President Management Program for entrepreneurs and leaders of family-owned organizations. An influential scholar and superb teacher, he left the active faculty in 1986, but continued to write, lecture, and consult long after his retirement.

"Ron Tagiuri was blessed with a great mind that he used relentlessly to explain complicated, indeed messy, problems involving people, relationships, and organizations," said Senior Lecturer John Davis, faculty chair of the School's Families in Business Program and a long-time colleague of Tagiuri. "He provided orderly, constructive approaches to managing these challenges. His ability to do this so fluidly has much to do with the fact that he deeply understood human psychology and tackled problems like the exacting engineer he was."

Born in Milan on April 28, 1919, Tagiuri was raised by his grandparents in Verona after the death of both his mother and father when he was still a young boy. Always something of a "tinkerer," he was studying engineering in England when Italy entered World War II. As an enemy alien of military age, he was arrested and deported to Canada, where he spent more than three years in a prisoner of war camp on St. Helen's Island in Montreal.

Released at the end of the war and having no surviving family, Tagiuri remained in Canada to continue his education at McGill University in mathematics and physics, since it was too late in the year to join the engineering class. A part-time job in a McGill psychology laboratory engaged his interest in the behavioral sciences and led him to pursue a master's degree in psychology. A fellowship then enabled him to move to Harvard, where he earned a Ph.D. in the Department of Social Relations in 1951 and remained as a member of the faculty.

According to Davis, "Harvard at that time was the home of many of the world's leading psychologists and sociologists, and it was uncommon for a graduating student to be asked to join the faculty, but Tagiuri was. For six years he taught in the department and did path-breaking work on the topics of person perception and social relationships. He earned his place as part of the establishment in the psychological world at Harvard, but he was eager to explore new horizons."

One path led Tagiuri to the Boston Psychoanalytic Institute (at that time newly opened to candidates without a medical degree), where he went through a rigorous training program to become a psychoanalyst in 1957. Another brought him to Harvard Business School. After he had read HBS professor Fritz Roethlisberger's book Management and the Worker, Tagiuri's interest in management was piqued. "I walked over to Soldiers Field and had a rewarding conversation with Professor George Lombard, an expert in organizational behavior," he said in a 1995 interview. A short time later, he was hired by Dean Stanley Teele as part of an effort to broaden the HBS faculty's perspective. Because Harvard Business School allowed him to pursue his practical bent, Tagiuri found that it suited him perfectly as a place where he could test the utility of his ideas about human behavior in the workplace.

"Ron liked to say that when he arrived at Harvard Business School he knew nothing about business and management and that he used the case method to learn from the experiences of his executive participants," Davis recalled. "Eventually, he concluded that most managers use too many concepts inconsistently to understand and deal with human behavior in the workplace, often doing the unnecessary while failing to attend to the essential."

Tagiuri believed that managers had to do relatively few things to enable people to achieve their very best, among them developing a clear and shared mission, as well as explicit values and guidelines. In addition, managers must ensure that employees have the necessary skills, time, and energy and provide access to information, timely feedback on performance, and worthwhile rewards.

According to Tagiuri, managers also need to show a caring attitude, listen more while talking less, and establish a relationship of mutual trust. "Ignoring any of these components makes work much more difficult for everyone," he warned. "Subordinates can help their superior manage them better by delicately demanding that they attend to these aspects of the relationship."

In 1973, Tagiuri began teaching in the Owner/President Management (OPM) Program, a pioneering HBS effort focusing on the management of private companies. "Ron was an extraordinary teacher, " Davis remembered. "He focused his OPM classes on fundamental skills these leaders needed to improve, such as communication and managing key relationships. Every class was a model in Socratic dialogue. Over the years, scores of OPM graduates have told me how something he said to them or asked them changed their lives or the way they managed."

It was in the OPM program that Tagiuri became interested in the problems of family businesses, noting how the overlapping of the family, the ownership group, and the employee group produced the pivotal characteristics of these systems. Tagiuri, along with Davis, invented the Three–Circle Model of family business systems, which remains the fundamental paradigm of the family business field. Tagiuri was among the first to observe that these firms require special governance structures. He was also a pioneer in studying the delicate process of relatives working together.

A prolific scholar, Tagiuri authored or coauthored more than 100 publications, from cases and working papers to books and journal articles. "His productivity as a writer is impressive, but his concepts and deep insights are what make his work so highly influential," said Davis. "An article co-written with Harvard psychologist Jerome Bruner titled 'The Perception of People,' which appeared in the Handbook of Social Psychology in 1954, was pivotal in its time and still considered a must-read classic. His 1965 Harvard Business Review article, 'Personal Values and Corporate Strategy,' was among the first to argue for the importance of personal values in the development of corporate strategy. His 1995 HBR article, 'Managing People: Ten Essential Behaviors,' distilled years of thought on leadership into an essential list of good leadership behavior."

During his years at the School, Tagiuri was considered one of its most rigorous thinkers, and he was a supportive reviewer of colleagues' work. He was also active in the School's international efforts. He played important roles in establishing management schools in Turkey and Central America, helped start and taught in an international senior executive program in Switzerland, and lectured and consulted in Latin America, Asia, and Europe.

With a strong interest in management education in Italy, he was an advisor to the Scuola di Direzione Aziendale of Bocconi Universtiy in Milan and was a member of the planning committee of the Scuola di Gestione Aziendale in Genoa. He also participated in the launch of the Italian version of Harvard Business Review and served as a consulting editor.

An advisor to many companies during his career, from 1989 to 2008 Tagiuri was chairman of the Owner Managed Business Institute, an international advisory firm and education and research center for family companies. From 1973 to 1986, he served as faculty chairman of the Industrial Research Institute's Seminar on Management in Industrial Research.

Tagiuri was the recipient of Harvard Business School's Distinguished Service Award in 1995 in recognition of his "outstanding service to the School and to the field of business education." In 2004, he received the Richard Beckhard Practice Award from the Family Firm Institute for his contributions to the practice of advising family companies. The University of Verona awarded him an honorary doctorate in 2005.

Tagiuri is survived by his wife of nearly 65 years, Consuelo (Keller), a psychiatrist whom he first met during their student days at McGill; three sons, Robert and Peter, both of Cambridge, MA, and John of Needham, MA; and five grandchildren.

A memorial service is planned for later in the spring.

About Harvard Business School

Founded in 1908 as part of Harvard University, Harvard Business School is located on a 40-acre campus in Boston. Its faculty of more than 200 offers full-time​ programs leading to the MBA and doctoral degrees, as well as more than 80 open enrollment Executive Education programs and more than 60 custom programs. For more than a century, HBS faculty have drawn on their research, their experience in working with organizations worldwide, and their passion for teaching to educate leaders who have shaped the practice of business and entrepreneurship around the globe.​​​​