What It Takes: A book review by Bob Morris

Posted on: November 20th, 2013 by bobmorris

What It TakesWhat It Takes: Seven Secrets of Success from the World’s Greatest Professional Firms
Charles D. Ellis
John S. Wiley & Sons (2013)

What sets the world’s greatest professional service firms apart from all the others

Although Charles Ellis’ focus is on professional service firms, the “seven secrets of success” to which his book’s subtitle refers are by no means unique to exemplars that include Capital Group Companies, Cravath, Swaine & Moore, Goldman Sachs, McKinsey & Company, and the Mayo Clinic. Indeed, these are no longer “secrets.” Moreover, none of the exemplars has perfected all or even most of the seven criteria (i.e. mission, culture, recruitment, developing people, client focus, innovation/MACRO innovation, and leadership) and never will because all human enterprises are — as are those who comprise them — inevitably works in progress. Of greatest interest and value to me is what Ellis reveals when discussing each of the five-exemplar firms especially when comparing and contrasting them in correlation with competitor firms.

For example, McKinsey with Booz, Bain, and BCG; Cravath with Debevoise Plimpton, Davis Polk, and Skadden Arps; and Mayo with Cleveland Clinic, Johns Hopkins, and Mass General. Ellis observes, “the characteristics of the truly great professional firms are stunning in their consistent repetition. Every great firm is clearly strong on every one of the vital strengths — each in its own way — and superb on several. That’s why they excel. Individual and organizational excellence is always deliberate.”

Great organizations are established and then sustained by great leaders such as Jon Lovelace (Capital), Bruce Bromley (Cravath), Marvin Bower (McKinsey), Sidney Weinberg and Gus Levy (Goldman), and William J. Mayo and Charles H. Mayo (Mayo). However, as Ellis correctly suggests, effective leadership was carefully and rigorously developed at all levels and in all areas of each firm.

Also, as Ellis notes, each firm encountered problems, sometimes serious problems, when individuals within the firm compromised one or more of the “vital strengths.” Although there are valuable lessons to be learned from the successes of the five, there are even more valuable lessons to be learned from their internal problems, their self-inflicted wounds.

This is what Ellis clearly has in mind when observing, “One of the most valuable properties of a great firm is a superior capacity to see itself objectively and to learn and change on multiple levels and thus to continue to improve. Most firms resist this; that is why organizational learning is so rare. What separates the great firms from their good competitors is not so much learning about external factors as internal learning — how individuals can be more effective at communicating and working with other members of their organization.” And, indeed, with their firm’s clients as well.

These are among the dozens of business subjects and issues of special interest and value to me, also listed to indicate the scope of Ellis’ coverage.

o Mission (Pages 3-24)
o Culture (25-45)
o Recruitment (47-64)
o McKinsey Training, and, Business Development (53-58 and 88-94)
o People Development (65-96)
o Cravath, Swaine & Moore: Training (66-75)
o Mayo Clinic: Onboarding, and, Innovation (75-76 and 124-126)
o Capital Group Companies: Talent Centrism (76-82)
o Client Relationship (97-110)
o Innovation, and, Macro Innovation (111-131 and 133-150)
o Leadership (151-171)
o Goldman Sachs: Gus Levy (161-171)

When concluding his brilliant book, Charles Ellis observes, “The pleasure of exploring the great firms and learning their seven secrets must, of course, be balanced by the sadness of knowing how few aspiring firms will truly excel. Still, all can strive to be their best.” One key to organizational greatness is to be found in those whom he characterizes as “the most talented and driven people” for whom “being part of a great firm is so important, fulfilling, and rewarding that they could not accept any less any more than a great musician could always be flat or a great dancer out of step. They want to excel more than they can explain or others can understand. They need to excel. That’s who they are.” As the information and insights in this book clearly indicate, that was and remains true of most of the people who have been associated with Capital Group Companies, Cravath, Swaine & Moore, Goldman Sachs, McKinsey & Company, and the Mayo Clinic.

“For the superbly capable professional, something special comes with being part of the very best: the satisfaction of knowing you belong there as a member of a championship team and that you are meeting the high internal standards that keep you striving to excel — and the quiet confidence that nobody does it better.”

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