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Profile of winners and losers winds up a draw

In ''Confidence," her latest book, Harvard Business School professor Rosabeth Moss Kanter asks some great questions.

What separates winners from losers, in sports, business, and life? Why do some organizations go on long winning streaks while others stumble along year after year? And perhaps most interesting, how does a loser turn itself around and move into the winner's column?

To find the answers Kanter got out of the classroom and plunged into the field. Many fields actually. She looked at men's college football teams, women's college soccer teams, the Philadelphia Eagles professional football team, multinational corporations such as Gillette, urban schools, and even one country, South Africa under Nelson Mandela.

What Kanter found is that winners have a lot in common: People throughout the organization believe they can succeed; individuals are held accountable; communication is open and honest; initiative is encouraged. The winners have confidence, but confidence is not some magical quality that guarantees success. Unlike Peter Pan, you can't just think lovely thoughts and fly.

Chronic losers suffer from a multitude of ills: They have low expectations; their leaders don't want to hear bad news; employees blame one another for failure; risk-taking is discouraged.

Kanter profiles plenty of winners and losers, but the most intriguing sections of her book focus on companies that move from one category to the other.

Gillette is a case in point. The Boston company was hugely successful through much of the 1980s and '90s, but in the late 1990s Gillette hit a wall. Sales growth tailed off, but the conservative Gillette culture refused to accept the fact that conditions had changed.

Gillette's ''see no evil" attitude created problems of its own. The company began to miss its earnings targets, which hurts its reputation on Wall Street. To compensate, Gillette stuffed the channels, pushing too much product onto retailers' shelves. The strategy can work in the short run, but over time, it amounts to nothing more than a coverup.

When Jim Kilts assumed the top job at Gillette in 2001, he had to confront the issue head-on. ''Every turnaround starts with the same overriding challenge," writes Kanter, ''the need to make unpopular decisions about a situation whose full ugliness has been denied." Kilts stopped the channel-stuffing, set more realistic targets, and put Gillette on a path to renewed success.

For Kanter, the soft stuff matters. Morale is important and little things can affect morale. In a city school, painting the walls can turn a dreary environment into a cheery one. At Continental Airlines, an offer to pay bonuses -- even tiny bonuses of $65 a person -- motivated the work force to improve the airline's on-time performance. Continental's encouragement of teamwork -- another squishy concept -- helped the company beat the pants off the competition during the blackout that struck much of the country on Aug. 14, 2003.

Kanter has some nice examples, but her book might have been stronger had she focused on fewer case studies and told each story in greater depth. Some of her winners and losers get rather cursory treatment. Kanter may also give too little credit to plain old ''smarts" in sorting out winners from losers. The winning New England Patriots, for example, are praised for their one-for-all teamwork. But would the Patriots be where they are if coach Bill Belichick hadn't seen star potential in a backup quarterback named Tom Brady?

Another local sports team, the Boston Celtics, provides an interesting contrast. The Celtics were one of the great dynasties in all of sports. The key word is ''were." Over the past decade the Celtics have ranged from mediocre to awful, largely because of poor personnel decisions. Their trades have been disastrous, their draft picks even worse.

It's great to have confidence. It's great to have good morale. But in the end, it never hurts to make wise choices.

Charles Stein is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at

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