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Business Intelligence

Shifting Stars

A Harvard study suggests female executives outperform males when taking a new job

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Robert Weisman
Globe Staff / March 30, 2008

Second acts often fail. And in business, when ambitious executives leap from one perch to another for money or glory, the maxim might as well be: The bigger they come, the harder they fall.

Yet there is one group of job-hopping business leaders that is more likely to succeed. New research from Harvard Business School suggests that high-ranking women develop "portable skills" that enable them to better make a transition. In contrast to male stars, star women tend to perform just as well at a new company as their original one.

What are these portable skills? One is a talent for building external networks - of clients, associates, and other professionals outside their organizations - that remain intact when they depart. Another is a capacity to size up a company's management culture and values, and determine whether they fit, before signing on.

"Women, because they are often marginalized and have to fight institutional barriers, are much pickier," Harvard assistant professor Boris Groysberg, who outlined his findings in last month's Harvard Business Review, said in an interview. "They ask questions about culture, they ask questions about flexibility. They seek objective performance measures so they're not depending on politics."

Groysberg, who specializes in organizational behavior, has previously chronicled how star analysts lured away from investment firms by competitors usually disappoint at their new firms. Flaming out is just as common in other captains of commerce and in sectors beyond finance, judging by the ever-shrinking tenures of transplanted chief executives and the sagging market value of their companies.

In poring over his database, Groysberg was struck by the exceptions: those who had jumped, landed on their feet, and even thrived with a new employer. They included "lift outs," high-performing teams who'd migrated together from one company to another and thus were able to retain the context in which they'd previously flourished.

When it came to individuals, star women outperformed male stars. Groysberg based his study on Wall Street analysts because their industry niche is considered a meritocracy where results can be quantified by measures such as stock-picking performance.

His research, drawn from data on nearly 1,000 analysts, offers encouragement to those who have pushed against the "glass ceiling" that limits women from advancing in corporations and other organizations. Presented last Wednesday to more than a dozen businesswomen and academics at Boston's Simmons School of Management, the findings sparked discussion on the value of portable skills and external networking at a time when communication and collaboration are becoming core competencies for businesses.

"It's very empowering to hear this because so often when women want to succeed in business they're told they have to do it the way the men do it," said Joyce K. Fletcher, distinguished scholar at the Simmons management school's Center for Gender in Organizations.

Fletcher said many of the trends and scenarios Groysberg described can be applied to women in a range of industries. "I've heard similar stories in manufacturing," she said, "where women succeeded by focusing on customer relationships and by realizing they had to build relationships down and across, not just up, in their own organizations."

Whitney L. Johnson, president and cofounder of the Boston hedge fund Rose Park Advisors, said she recognized the strategies observed by Groysberg from her own experience as a Wall Street analyst who successfully made the leap from Salomon Smith Barney to Merrill Lynch in 2000. "It resonated for me so strongly," she said. "This was the game plan that I constructed for myself."

Johnson said women executives put a premium on external relations partly because the quality of mentorship is poor at so many male-dominated businesses. "It's not something that's always intentional," she said. "But the guys will go, 'Hey, there's a football game, let's go to a bar and watch it.' By definition, there's some exclusion involved."

Powerful men tend to attribute their success to personal skill, smarts, and savvy, and assume it can be transferred easily, according to Groysberg. But when removed from the familiar environment in which they succeeded, they will often flop in spectacular fashion.

High-profile examples abound. Marketing whiz John Sculley created the Pepsi Challenge, a boffo advertising campaign for PepsiCo, but fizzled when he was tapped to run Apple Computer. Downsizing ace "Chainsaw Al" Dunlap lifted the profits at Crown Zellerbach and Scott Paper by axing thousands of workers and shutting plants, only to be fired himself when his tactics failed at Sunbeam-Oster. And, Robert Nardelli, recruited from General Electric, was unable to replicate the GE culture and financial results at Home Depot.

Even in the sports world, transplanting success is difficult. Basketball coach Rick Pitino, a crackerjack on the college level when dealing with amateur athletes, stumbled when he attempted to bring his magic to the Boston Celtics in the vastly different culture of the National Basketball Association with its often unmanageable millionaires.

"In most organizations, internal relationships are important to getting things done," Groysberg said. "But when executives leave, all the good will and trust in those internal relationships are left behind. External networks represent a higher proportion of human capital for women than for men, and that's one of the things that makes executives portable."

This can be seen on Wall Street, where wunderkind Sallie Krawcheck capitalized on outside contacts cultivated at Sanford C. Bernstein & Co. to climb the corporate ladder at Citigroup, and where super-analyst and investment strategist Abby Joseph Cohen drew on her external network from her days at Drexel Burnham Lambert to catapult her to prominence when she jumped to Goldman Sachs.

But the same dynamic comes into play in fields like retail, where Andrea Jung carried her portable skills from Neiman Marcus to Avon Products, and in television journalism, where Barbara Walters brought her skills and network of contacts from NBC to rival ABC.

Women stars also have demonstrated a superior ability to sniff out telltale signs of the culture at a prospective employer - how managers interact in the hallways or whether top executives display photos of daughters on their desks. "While men tend to concentrate on compensation, women are more likely to weigh multiple considerations in making a move," Groysberg wrote in his Harvard Business Review article, titled "How Star Women Build Portable Skills."

The portable skills of star women can be learned by their male counterparts and can benefit all executives, Groysberg said. And by rewarding flexibility and cross-boundary collaboration, he insisted, companies also can use those skills to their advantage by retaining well-connected executives who might otherwise jump ship.

Johnson, the Boston hedge fund boss, employs the metaphor of a giant sandbox to describe Wall Street. Within that sandbox are the many smaller boxes of individual financial firms.

During her career, Johnson said, she observed that star male executives tended to band together in their employer's sandbox while star women were more likely to move from one box to another.

"It helps to play in a bigger sandbox," she said.

Robert Weisman can be reached at weisman@globe.com.

Andrea Jung

CEO at Avon Products

Jung was snatched up by Avon from Neiman Marcus.

She quickly rose through the ranks to become one of the leading executives in the beauty products industry.

Rick Pitino

Head basketball coach, University of Louisville

Pitino is one of the leading coaches of college basketball.

But he couldn't replicate his success on the professional level for the Boston Celtics.

Robert Nardelli

CEO of Chrysler

While he was one of the top four executives at General Electric,

Nardelli failed to revive Home Depot after being hired as chief of the home improvement retailer.

Barbara Walters

television journalist and personality, ABC

After moving to the ABC Evening News from rival network NBC,

Walters became the first US female evening news anchor.

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