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Bill Belichick, CEO

Coach's ability to see a task and tackle it brilliantly wins management experts' praise

The way Jack Welch sees it, the defining moment of Bill Belichick's season came in September when the Patriots coach refused to meet Lawyer Milloy's salary demand and let the popular safety join the rival Buffalo Bills. The decision was wildly unpopular with the fans and the Patriot players. Worse, in the first game of the year, the Bills stomped the Patriots 31-0.

"Belichick could have lost the team over that," said Welch, the former chief executive of General Electric Co. and a well-regarded student of management skills. "Instead, he energized the team, and they rallied back."

Belichick happens to run a football team, but his job description is much the same as any leader or manager: He has to recruit talent, lay out a vision, and motivate his staff to execute on that vision.

"He's done a brilliant job," said Stuart Sadick, who recruits executives for a living as managing partner of the Boston office for Heidrick & Struggles International Inc., a search firm.

Welch and Sadick were two of the people we consulted to evaluate Belichick as a manager. Our other consultants were chief executives themselves or academics who study organizations and leadership. It helped that all were Patriot fans.

The specialists took it as a given that Belichick is a star. What else do you say about a coach who leads his team to a Super Bowl twice in three seasons and who presides over a 14-game winning streak?

It was also taken as a given that Belichick is smarter than your average bear or football coach. A Wesleyan graduate and a thinking man's jock, Belichick is legendary in football circles for his ability to study game films and find the chinks in his opponents' armor. But it was Belichick's management skills -- his strengths as a leader -- that our specialists chose to emphasize. They found a lot to admire. In their opinion, Belichick:

* Is a good role model.

"Belichick is remarkably focused," said David D'Alessandro, chief executive of John Hancock Financial Services Inc. "He's all business and no nonsense."

With Belichick, the only thing that matters is winning. Everything else is a waste of time. His players pick up on that. When the Patriots were trying to woo Rodney Harrison, now one of their defensive stars, they took him to eat at the Ground Round, no one's idea of a four-star restaurant.

"I didn't mind," Harrison told the Globe. "I liked it, in fact. There was no b.s. about it."

Belichick's all-business approach spills over into the way his players act on and off the field. The Patriots don't taunt opponents, and they don't gloat. They talk about the things Belichick does -- concentrating on details, executing the game plan, cutting down on mistakes, taking one game at a time. It sounds boring, but to Peter L. Slavin, the approach makes sense.

"A lot of teams rely on emotional highs to succeed," said Slavin, the president of Massachusetts General Hospital, who has a business degree from Harvard to go along with his medical degree. Emotional highs work for a game or two, but not for a season, said Slavin. What does work is Belichick's single-minded focus. "What he has is a sustainable solution," said Slavin.

* Is a keen judge of talent.

For years Belichick has worked with one of his key deputies, Scott Pioli, to select players.

"History and experience has taught us that chasing and pursuing high-profile names isn't necessarily the way to go," Pioli once told an interviewer. "We're going after players that fit our system and our overall philosphy. Some people term that second-tier or next-level. We don't see them as that type of player."

The Patriots have built a winning team with very few big-name players. Only two Patriots were originally selected as all-stars this year, a tiny number for a team with the best record in football.

"Under Belichick, the system is the star," said Michael Roberto, a Harvard Business School specialist in management and decision-making. Roberto says the Patriots avoid flashy players with big egos because they want people who will do what it takes for the team to win. "If you pulled some of these guys out and put them on another team it is not clear they would do as well," Roberto said.

Jack Welch begs to differ.

"I don't think anyone can take 6-footers and make them 6 feet 8," said Welch. He argued that the Patriots have much better talent than is generally appreciated.

* Isn't afraid to make tough calls.

In 2001 Belichick dumped a star quarterback, Drew Bledsoe, in favor of a complete unknown named Tom Brady. It helped that the decision ultimately worked out. Had it not, Belichick's future might have looked very different. Just ask Grady Little. At the time, however, Belichick's call was risky and unpopular.

"He isn't all that worried about other people's opinions," Hancock's D'Alessandro said. Time and time again Belichick has demonstrated a willingness to make a decision and let the chips fall where they may. He let Milloy walk away. During this past season he benched several players, including all-star Richard Seymour, for violating team rules.

"It works because Belichick runs an absolute meritocracy," said Roberto. Players recognize that Belichick isn't playing games or playing favorites. He is doing what it takes to win.

"I can't say that everyone here loves Bill," Patriots star Ty Law once said. "Some don't really know him that well. But he has the respect and the ear of every player."

* Learns from his mistakes.

New England represents Belichick's second stop as a head coach. In the 1990s he spent five years as coach of the Cleveland Browns. It was a marriage made in hell. The team stunk, and Belichick was loathed -- by his players and the media -- for his harsh style and his failure to communicate. By his own admission, Belichick has since made halftime adjustments in his game plan.

"It took me time to learn that some of the things could have been handled better," Belichick once said in his typical understated way. While no one would ever accuse him of being warm and fuzzy, the coach has learned to open himself up a bit to the media. Where he once tried to manage everything, he now delegates considerable authority to his two key deputies, Romeo Crennel and Charlie Weis.

He also gets along better with his players. Once a week he holds captain's meetings to keep the lines of communication open with the team.

"However he has done it he has found a way of leading the team," said Heidrick & Struggles's Sadick. "A lot of different styles can get you from here to there."

In most fields success begets success. Because Belichick is now regarded as one of the game's great coaches, talented players will want to play for him. The more talent he can attract at a reasonable price, the more successful he will be.

Said D'Alessandro: "Whether you are a corporate leader or a football coach, your currency is winning."

Charles Stein can be reached at stein@globe.com.

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