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CSNEWS EXCLUSIVE: Recession Will Refocus Business on New Principles, Says Malcolm Gladwell

By Don Longo

NEW YORK -- The current worldwide recession provides businesses with an opportunity to restore some balance to current attitudes about management. "It’s an unprecedented moment to reflect on how we do business," said best-selling author Malcolm Gladwell, whose most recent book, Outliers, which attempts to explain how highly successful people are more often the result of the contributions of lots of different people and lots of different circumstances than their own personal intellect and drive.

Using examples of people as disparate as Mozart, the Beatles and Bill Gates, Gladwell’s book illustrates how individual success is largely dependent on culture, circumstance, timing, birth and luck. Talent is important—but many talented people are often held back due to historical legacies and other disadvantages.

Gladwell, who will be a special guest speaker at this year’s Nielsen Consumer 360 conference, was interviewed Friday by Convenience Store News’ Editor-in-Chief Don Longo, who is also editorial director of Nielsen Business Media’s Retail Food Group.

Longo: In Outliers, your basic message appears to be that people succeed based on some specific environmental advantages that other people who might be equally smart and driven, don’t have. How can that learning be applied by business executives today to be more successful?

Gladwell: That observation ought to make us a little more respectful of how limited individual actions are when it comes to success. It should make us less willing to trust "successful" people as heroes and make us more generous toward failures. As the current economic downturn shows us, maybe we’ve gone too far in blaming managers when things go sour, and went too far in celebrating their success when things went right.

The Hall of Fame NFL quarterback Johnny Unitas had a great quote. He said, "The quarterback always gets too much credit when the team wins and too much blame when the team loses."

That’s an important lesson now as times get tough. Maybe we shouldn’t take out our frustrations on people running companies. They are all players in a much broader drama and we probably need to be more forgiving of business failures in the next couple of years.

Longo: Based on the current economic downturn, would you change any of your thoughts about how and why people succeed?

Gladwell: No. In many ways, the book is very well-timed. If Outliers had come out in 2007, it wouldn’t be as successful. I think it’s a reaction against the kind of craziness we went through during the last few years. Maybe now we won’t be so willing to lionize people so quickly. The book really is about how lions really aren’t lions.

Longo: I know these people aren’t mentioned in your book, but they seem to be great and timely examples of Outliers. Care to comment on President Barack Obama and U.S. Airways hero pilot Chesley Sullenberger?

Gladwell: Well, Obama is a good example on so many different levels. I wrote about how a culture’s attitude about hard work contributes to an individual’s success. I read recently that Obama’s mom would wake him up at 4:30 in the morning to tutor him before he went to school. Then, look at the timing. It would have been impossible for him to become president before the advent of the Internet as a social networking tool. He was truly the first politician to exploit the Internet for fundraising and thus, get around the institutional obstacles that would have blocked his candidacy.

He was also lucky—he got his seat in the Senate largely because his Republican opponent had a sex scandal. And, he was a scholarship student—so he benefited from institutional efforts to advance him. So you could say that while Obama is talented and smart and hardworking—he is also the product of incredible luck, timing, culture and institutional support.

Sullenberger is the 10,000-hour rule. [Gladwell dedicates a whole chapter in his book to The 10,000 Hour Rule, explaining how dedication and hardwork, such as practicing a skill for 10,000 hours, leads to mastery.]

The only reason he could have accomplished that landing [Sullenberger is the hero pilot who successfully crash-landed a U.S. Airways passenger jet into the Hudson River earlier this year] is because of the hours of practice he put in both as a jet and glider pilot. After you put in your time, you pass a certain point. There is no such thing as a natural pilot.

Longo: How can companies, particularly consumer products goods manufacturers and retailers, use the ideas in Outliers to advance their own success or the success of their employees?

Gladwell: Hopefully, it will make companies value persistence and hardwork as opposed to just talent. For years, companies have made the mistake of hiring for talent. You don’t hire for ability, you hire for attitude.

Secondly, the 10,000 Hour Rule teaches us how long it takes to be really good at something. Companies have to learn to be patient with their employees.

The third lesson pertains to environment. Companies ought to refocus on creating and supporting a healthy culture within the company.

The recession gives us the opportunity to think through how to build an organization and culture that is strong and supportive. It’s an unprecedented moment to reflect on how we do business today and what we find important.


Nielsen’s Consumer 360, being held May 12-14, in Orlando, is the No. 1 marketing information conference for the consumer packaged goods (CPG) industry. Reaching more than 1,000 industry professionals, the conference is jam-packed with timely case studies, as well as practical and innovative consumer solutions.

In addition to Gladwell, other speakers include:

-- Tom Davenport, author of Competing On Analytics and Babson College Professor;
-- Ken Romanzi, Chief Operating Officer, Ocean Spray Cranberries Inc.;
-- Joe Uva, CEO, Univision;
-- Tim Snelling, vice president, North American Consumer Sales, Kimberly-Clark;
-- Derrick Penick, senior vice president of merchandising and distribution, Food Lion;
-- Dr. Pradeep, CEO, NeuroFocus;
-- Katie J. Bayne, Chief Marketing Officer, Coca-Cola North America;
-- Dave Calhoun, chairman and CEO, The Nielsen Co.;
-- John Lewis, president and CEO, Nielsen Consumer North America;
-- Pete Blackshaw, executive vice president, Nielsen Online Digital Strategic Services;
-- Todd Hale, senior vice president, Consumer & Shopper Insights, The Nielsen Co.;
-- James Russo, vice president, Marketing, The Nielsen Co.

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