Jim McKenney dies at 77

18-mckenney1-225I just got word that Jim McKenney, Harvard Business School Professor (Emeritus), died last week.

Jim was responsible for the MIS Doctoral students at HBS and my thesis advisor after Benn Konsynski left for Emory in 1992. Jim taught me many things, such as interview technique, longitudinal research strategies, and how to understand corporate strategy from behavior rather than theory. Most of all he taught me how to draw parallels between technical, organizational and societal evolution. He was an expert on the US airline industry (he was on the board of Continental Airlines) and had life-time memberships to most airline clubs, as well as a strong network of contacts in all kinds of transportation businesses.

Jim was defiantly original in everything he did. Small and wiry, he wore a bowtie and spoke quietly and eruditely in large classrooms, constantly surprising students with wry observations on why organizations did as they did. I still remember how I talked to him about an organization that did something specific (I have forgotten what). As I was trying to work out why, Jim said “That’s not a strategy – that’s just bad management!”

Jim had a big Victorian (I think) house with self-tended garden in Lexington where he and his lovely wife Mary held annual summer parties for faculty and friends. As he became my thesis advisor and I also worked as his research assistant, I frequently made the trip up to Lexington to retrieve papers or ask questions.

Jim is one of two reasons (the other is Benn) that I (and my good colleague Ramiro) wear bowties. His reason for wearing them was practical – when he arrived at HBS, he was a poor junior faculty with worn shirts collars, and the bow tie hid that fact effectively. That’s the story he told, anyway. I have a sneaking suspicion his real reason was to be original, though, to mark a distance to the slicker parts of HBS and cut a noticeable and contrarian figure around campus.

Jim was stricken with Alzheimer towards the end of the 90s, and we lost touch. I last saw him in 99, still living in his large house, still gardening, but gradually being reduced. Still, you could find that spark of originality underneath at times, and I like to think he never lost it completely.

My thoughts go to Mary and the rest of the family – may their memories be of an interested and interesting man, well read, soft-spoken, opinionated, kind and unabashedly original.

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3 thoughts on “Jim McKenney dies at 77

  1. Mike Zack

    Jim was my thesis advisor, also. I grew to think of him not only as a mentor but as an uncle/grandfather/older brother. Every conversation with Jim was a delightful intellectual excursion. There was absolutely no telling what might be the result, other than knowing more than when the conversation began.
    I recall my first meeting with Jim, when interviewing for admission. His first question to me was, “Do you know Jim McKenney?” Ever the astute individual, I replied, “No. (pause) Wait – you’re Jim McKenney!” It turns out that his son Jim, Jr. had just hired into the consulting firm I was working for, and that’s who he was asking about. This brief conversation formed the pattern for the countless number of conversations I was to have with Jim. They often began as a puzzle (usually based on my complete misunderstanding of what he was getting at), followed by an epiphany (often weeks later).
    Another favorite story: Some of you may know that Jim played jazz bass for a short while in his early years. Being a jazz musician myself, we talked a lot about music. It was always, “These cats really swung.” Or, “I heard this cat on sax!” Well, one day we were in Jim’s doctoral seminar for MIS students, and he started talking about some neuroscientists who were doing brain research. As he described it, “They had these cats all wired up to trace their brain signals.” Fascinated, I asked him, “Who were these guys they were monitoring?” He replied, “No! They were CATS!” … I and the field of MIS owe a lot to Jim. He will be missed.

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