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FROM: July / August 2005, PAGE 62 EDITED BY: Milton W. Zwicker

Confidence: How Winning Streaks and Losing Streaks Begin and End

Rosabeth Moss Kanter. Crown Business, 2004. $27.50.
ISBN: 1-4000-5290-4. www.randomhouse.com/crown.
REVIEWED BY MILTON W. ZWICKER

It’s a familiar refrain: If you want to win in court, on the golf course or in the bottom line, you need confidence. Rosabeth Moss Kanter provides us with a concrete understanding of what this refrain means, and how it works, in her book Confidence: How Winning Streaks and Losing Streaks Begin and End.

According to Kanter, a Harvard Business School professor, “Confidence underlies the performance of individuals, teams, businesses, schools, economies and nations.” Yet despite that fact, she says there is remarkably little understanding of what lies behind the idea of confidence.

Why, for example, do some law firms blow apart while others succeed at whatever they do? Kanter’s research shows that losing streaks are often created and then perpetuated when people lose confidence in their leaders and systems. Winning streaks, on the other hand, are fueled by confident people who are secure in their own abilities and the abilities of their leaders.

She illustrates her ideas with examples from business, sports, schools and many other organizations—big and small. In the process, she takes the mystery out of confidence—where it comes from, how to get it and how to keep it. At the same time, she explains how to use its cornerstones—accountability, collaboration and initiative—to turn losers into winners.

(My favorite story of an organization that overcame its bad habits is Peabody Elementary School in Memphis. There, as Kanter explains, principal Marty Pettigrew used the cornerstones of confidence to turn an inner-city elementary school into a winning organization.)

When you read what Kanter calls the “nine pathologies” that unfold during losing streaks, you can’t help but think of what happens inside law firms when they begin their death marches:
  • Communication decreases.
  • Criticism and blame increase.
  • Respect decreases.
  • Isolation increases.
  • Focus turns inward.
  • Rifts widen and inequities grow.
  • Initiative decreases.
  • Aspirations diminish.
  • Negativity spreads.

According to Kanter, overcoming these bad habits takes a lot longer than getting good habits in place.

Kanter shows why many organizations are brimming with talent but are failures. Fortunately for readers, she lays out a program for how to build and maintain a winning streak or turn around a downward spiral, providing a host of ideas that you and your law firm can put to good use.

For example, Kanter explodes the myth that confidence is simply a frame of mind or an attitude. Instead, she demonstrates that it’s a collection of interdependent habits, characteristics and behaviors. She writes, “Leaders of high-performing organizations don’t count on impulse or emotions alone to produce the behavior of winners. They establish disciplines and embed them in formal structures.”

Winning all the time is difficult because of what Kanter calls the “paradox of success.” This paradox, she tells us, “creates its own problems that make it hard to sustain.”

This is when competition gets tougher. Our expectations and those of our clients grow. The fundamentals, which we thought were so solid, begin to fall apart.

Confidence is the “bridge” that connects our expectations and performance, investments and results. But like real bridges, this one needs constant attention so that it won’t collapse. Everyone would like to be 100 percent confident 100 percent of the time. But that is not a realistic expectation—you can, however, be a winner more often than a loser. Kanter’s Confidence has the tools and ideas to show you how.

Milton W. Zwicker

is Managing Partner of Zwicker Evans & Lewis in Orillia, ON.