Books: What has luck got to do with winning?

Confidence is all in business, and this original book explains how it can make or break a company's fortunes, says Ros Jay.

by Ros Jay, a business writer and co-owner of publisher White Ladder Press
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Confidence

Rosabeth Moss Kanter

Random House

£20

MT price £17

To order, visit www.mtmagazine.co.uk

Some businesses just seem to belong at the top of the heap. You know it, and they know it. It's not that they don't encounter as many setbacks and obstacles as other companies; it's just that somehow they have the confidence to brush them off. Just as most of us know that whatever the engineers tell us, aeroplanes are actually held up by the collective willpower of the passengers, so many top-flight businesses stay up through their own self-belief.

But we also know that very few businesses manage to stay on top forever.

Maybe they last two years, 10 years, 20 years, at the top - and then it all starts to crumble. Why? This question is at the heart of Rosabeth Moss Kanter's new book Confidence: How winning streaks and losing streaks begin and end. Kanter has assembled an army of examples to drive home the lessons she has learned in her extensive career. Her examples are drawn chiefly from businesses of all sizes and from sport, although she also cites an entire country, South Africa, in her exploration of the flipside of this question: how do you end a losing streak?

Kanter devotes much of the start of her book to discussing what creates winning streaks, which, she concludes, is a matter of confidence. She defines confidence as a combination of factors such as self-belief, motivation and empowerment, and illustrates how teamwork, open communication and strong systems are essential to building a winning company. Much of what she has to say we have heard before, though to judge by the number of businesses that fail to put these basics into practice, perhaps it warrants repeating.

Kanter deluges us with examples and case studies, many of which illustrate much the same thing. Some of these are fascinating, such as the way Continental Airlines kept flying through the power blackout that hit the northeastern US a year ago and which grounded most of the competition.

However, I wearied a little of the endless sports-team examples, almost all relating to basketball, baseball and American football.

Where the book gets really interesting is when Kanter starts to talk about what causes winning streaks to end. Kanter has studied scores of organisations and has identified the factors that can make the difference between a few manageable setbacks and the start of a downward slide into failure. Panic, arrogance and neglect of systems can lead to a horror scenario where managers retreat to their own turf and stop sharing knowledge, where systems crumble, communication decreases, a blame culture takes a foothold, talented people leave and confidence evaporates.

Kanter then relates all the classic symptoms of losing organisations - and again we have heard this before. So have the losing companies, and they are well aware that they are failures but don't know what to do about it. Once again, Kanter takes us down a fascinating path as she looks at how organisations can get out of the mire.

New leadership helps, but it is not enough on its own, and Kanter illuminates the process of clambering back up the hill in intriguing detail. She demonstrates how complex an operation it is, with often conflicting demands. In the short term, self-belief must be restored in employees without losing sight of the need for long-term change, which may not show results for some time. And yet morale slackens if results aren't forthcoming pretty quickly.

Confidence is something of a roller-coaster read. It starts at the high plateau of success, where you feel you're on relatively sure ground. Then the fun and fascination begin as you plunge down from the top of the winning streak into the valley of failure. Here the ride slows down for a while, but starts to get interesting once again as you grind your way painfully back up to the summit.

Kanter knows her stuff better than just about anyone, and much of the old ground is reassuring to cover again. The examples she uses vary from fascinating to mildly irksome, and I was sorry she hadn't included any political parties in her study. Both Michael Howard, struggling to drag his party out of a losing streak, and Tony Blair, precariously perched at the top of the roller-coaster, would benefit from reading this. However, her insights into how organisations can maintain winning streaks or reverse losing ones make this book an original and intriguing read.

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