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What It Takes: Seven Secrets of Success from the World's Greatest Professional Firms [Hardcover]

Charles D. Ellis
5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)
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Book Description

22 Mar 2013
Expert insights on what sets the great professional firms apart from all the rest Having devoted a career that spans fifty years to consulting with and studying professional firms in the Americas, Asia, and Europe, author Charles Ellis learned firsthand how difficult it is for an organization to go beyond very good and attain, as well as sustain, excellence. Now, he shares his hard–won insights with you and reveals "what it takes" to be best–in–class in any industry. Enlightening and entertaining, What It Takes explores firms that are leaders in their particular field and the superior people who create and maintain them. Along the way, it identifies the secrets of their long–term success and reveals exactly how they can put your organization in a better position to excel when properly executed. Contains many stories of achieving excellence, and addresses the obstacles that top–ranking organizations face in sustaining it Includes insights on leaders in their particular field—from McKinsey & Company in consulting and Cravath, Swaine & Moore in law to the Mayo Clinic in healthcare Written by one of the most experienced and respected business consultants/advisors of our time What It Takes skillfully shows you how innovation and a commitment to excellence can drive success, while also revealing how easy it is to fall behind. With it, you′ll discover what separates the great firms from the good ones and learn how to attain, and maintain, organizational success throughout the years.

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Product details

  • Hardcover: 304 pages
  • Publisher: John Wiley & Sons; 1 edition (22 Mar 2013)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1118517725
  • ISBN-13: 978-1118517727
  • Product Dimensions: 23.1 x 16 x 3.3 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 159,842 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
  • See Complete Table of Contents

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Review

“This is the best book about corporate leadership that I′ve ever read.  Charley Ellis really knows what he′s talking about.”— John Whitehead , former Co–Chairman, Goldman Sachs & Co., former Deputy Secretary of State “Clear, crisp, and actionable insights on leadership, which can only come from a well experienced scholar and practitioner like Charley Ellis in his usual wise simple and riveting story–telling style. And yes, simple doesn′t mean easy.”— Abdullatif A. Al–Othman , Governor, Saudi Arabia General Investment Authority “ What It Takes is Ellis′ finest work on organizational excellence. He has distilled the essential principles of organizational excellence, illustrating them with potent examples and memorable anecdotes. His intimate knowledge of the organizations, deepened by 300 interviewers with insiders, imparts powerful insights and lessons for those aspiring to build and sustain great and enduring organizations.”— Ng Kok Song , Chief Investment Officer, Government of Singapore Investment Corporation “Charley Ellis has taken an incisive look under the hood of some of the world′s greatest professional organizations and has put his perceptive finger on not only what has made them succeed but has also led them to endure.”— D. Ronald Daniel , former Managing Partner, McKinsey & Company “Once, again, Charley Ellis has delved into the mysteries of leadership with clarity and insight.”— Jim Rothenberg , Chairman, Capital Research and Management Company  “Charley Ellis looks hard at how great firms succeed in fields as different as law, consulting and medicine . . . and finds what it takes that they have in common.”— Jeff Bewkes , CEO, Time Warner “Charley Ellis takes us through a series of master classes on corporate leadership.  This is an outstanding contribution to help us understand that which divides winners from losers.”— Lord Myners , former UK Treasury Minister “A very interesting study of the similarities and differences in the leadership of five very different professional firms.  Should be required reading for other firms in those professions.”— Samuel C. Butler , former Presiding Partner, Cravath, Swaine & Moore “ What It Takes is a clear–eyed view into the complexities of building and sustaining great organizations. Charley Ellis’ artful storytelling imparts insights that would benefit anyone aspiring to thoughtful, effective leadership throughout markets and histories.”— Lei Zhang , Founder and CEO, Hillhouse Capital Management Group “I cannot imagine anyone better qualified than Charley Ellis to analyze, identify and describe those characteristics which separate outstandingly successful professional firms from the merely very good ones.  This fascinating book should be recommended reading for anyone wishing to become a leader in any of the professions described and indeed for anyone with an ambition to succeed in business.”— Peter Stormonth Darling , former Chairman, Mercury Asset Management “Of course everyone knows of the five great institutions which are the subject of Charley Ellis′ latest book. But what is it that made them outstanding? Charley in this searching and unsentimental if admiring analysis provides answers: A good idea transformed into a novel business model, passion, commitment, good judgment particularly in the early years and great people. Another Charley Ellis book to treasure.”— Sir Winfried Bischoff , Chairman, Lloyds Banking Group

From the Inside Flap

W hat It Takes is the story of what sets the great professional firms, the acknowledged leaders in their industries, apart from all the rest. It is a blueprint for how to create, build, and maintain such a firm. Having devoted a career that spans fifty years to consulting with and studying professional firms in the Americas, Asia, and Europe, and developing Greenwich Associates from start-up to global leader, author Charles Ellis learned firsthand how difficult it is for an organization to go beyond very good and attain, as well as sustain, excellence. Now, he shares his hard-won insights with you and reveals "what it takes" to be best-in-class in any industry. Enlightening and entertaining, What It Takes explores firms that are leaders in their particular field—from McKinsey & Company in consulting, Cravath, Swaine & Moore in law, Capital Group in investment management, the Mayo Clinic in healthcare, and Goldman Sachs in investment banking—and the superior people who create and maintain them, in order to identify the secrets of their long-term success. While you might expect to find major differences, from industry to industry, in how the great firms set themselves apart, the principles they follow are few and nearly identical. What It Takes breaks them down and reveals exactly how they can put your organization in a better position to excel when properly executed. The stories of the people, their decisions, and their interactions found throughout these pages bring these seven keys to success to life: Defining an inspiring mission Recruiting the right people onto the team Developing people—from early accelerated training through career-long coaching Establishing a strong culture that unites all in teamwork to serve clients Assuring a strong client focus Innovation at all levels—from tactics to grand strategy Providing leadership that brings all six together and identifies problems and corrects them quickly And while What It Takes contains many stories of achieving excellence, this book also addresses the obstacles that top-ranking organizations face in sustaining excellence. It examines how several of these firms have handled—and mishandled—recent mishaps and are struggling to right themselves. It also includes an instructive tale featuring Arthur Andersen & Co., a leader that stumbled and never made it back. What It Takes skillfully shows you how innovation and a commitment to excellence can drive success, while also revealing how easy it is to fall behind. With it, you'll discover what separates the great firms from the good ones and learn how to attain, and maintain, organizational success throughout the years.

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Front Cover | Copyright | Table of Contents | Excerpt | Index
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Customer Reviews

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
By Robert Morris TOP 500 REVIEWER
Format:Hardcover
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.
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0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Awesome 12 Aug 2013
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
This book absolutely blew me away. The insights into the DNA makeup of the world's greatest and enduring professional firms is conveyed in a fashion that grapped my attention right away. It is very inspirational and kept at a practical level as well, so it is easy to pick up ideas for implementation and/or further consideration.

Well done.

/Rune
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0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Informative and insightful 5 July 2013
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
A thoughtful analysis of what it takes to build a great company and what is required to maintain that status.
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Amazon.com: 4.3 out of 5 stars  14 reviews
5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Peter Drucker Lives On 7 Jun 2013
By dbt - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
The world lost it's greatest management thinker and educator, when Peter Drucker passed away in 2005. But Charles Ellis has taken on Drucker's style and rigor and applied it to the professional services industry. Dr. Ellis extracts some salient, but shocking similarities between the world's best service firms, whether they be in law (Cravath), healthcare (Mayo Clinic), investment management (Capital Group), consulting (McKinsey). He even chronicles the demise of Arthur Andersen and what not do to. If you run a service business, this is a must-read. What I liked most about the book, was the use of stories where these companies faced key inflection points that ultimately determined whether they became "the best" or relegated to mediocrity.
6 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Great read, great insights 4 April 2013
By Brian Trelstad - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
This is a great business history of five professional service firms and the habits that made them great. Despite covering decades of history and shifting back and forth among the stories of the five firms and the seven keys to success, a clear thread pulls you through this well-written book that very clearly illustrates the practices and how you translate them into a reality. It is not as much a road map or a how to, but there is enough detail in here that anyone in a young and emerging professional services firm should read this and ask where his or her firm could be doing more.
3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Did not live up to my expectations. 2 Oct 2013
By Bill B - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
I have read other books by Charles Ellis and was expecting more. This book reviews several companies and what makes them so special. The book could have accomplished this in half the pages. It did not measure up to my expectations.
3.0 out of 5 stars The last chapter makes it worthwhile 23 Feb 2014
By Possumama - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
The book is interesting but not great. The last chapter--the rise and fall of Arthur Anderson--makes the book worthwhile. The chapter is a cautionary tale of how a great company that focused on doing great work for its clients transformed into a mediocre company that focused on generating great profits for its partners. It will scare the bejeebers out of you. Read it several times if you care about your company.
1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Edifying 22 Jan 2014
By Irfan A. Alvi - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
Let's focus on the methodology first. The author, Charles Ellis, asked many firm leaders which firm was the best in their field - the firm they'd like to work for, that clients seek out for their toughest challenges, and that has proven most durable through good and bad times. There was a consensus of one leading firm in each of five fields: McKinsey (consulting), Cravath, Swain, and Moore (law), Capital Group (investment management), Mayo Clinic (medicine), and Goldman Sachs (investment banking). Ellis then did over 300 interviews with leaders of these firms to see what made them so good, and concluded that they share 7 'secret' traits:

* Defining an inspiring mission (usually related to professionalism rather than commercialism)
* Recruiting the right people onto the team
* Developing people - from early accelerated training through career-long coaching
* Establishing a strong culture that unites all in teamwork to serve clients
* Assuring a strong client focus
* Innovation at all levels - from tactics to grand strategy
* Providing leadership that brings all six together and identifies problems and corrects them quickly

Now the methodological questions are:

* Is asking people's opinions a valid way to identify the 'best' firm in a field? Ellis presumes that it is. I'm tempted to disagree, and Ellis himself notes that Andersen had begun its downward slide well before its reputation was harmed, but I'll grant that reputation does count for a lot, so let's go with it.

* Are leaders of firms reliable reporters of their practices? There's much reason for doubt here too, but I'll assume that Ellis was sufficiently probing and skeptical in his questioning.

* Are these seven traits truly more prevalent in the leading firms, as compared to all other firms in the same field? Ellis seem to imply that the answer is Yes, but he doesn't offer much comparative analysis to back this up.

* Are there no other traits that are found with greater prevalence in only the leading firms? Ellis doesn't address this question directly but, again, seems to imply that the answer is Yes.

* Do these seven traits 'explain' the success of the leading firms, in the sense that other firms which adopt them can rise near or to the top? Not necessarily.

Because of these methodological issues, I could say that the whole book needs to be taken with a major grain of salt (see The Halo Effect: ... and the Eight Other Business Delusions That Deceive Managers for a general critique along these lines). But Ellis fortunately acknowledges these concerns in the Afterword of the book, where he says "But do all champions eat Wheaties? Are all those who eat Wheaties champions? No and No. There is no direct causal connection between eating Wheaties at breakfast and becoming a champion. Similarly, proving causation in professional fields - exactly why a few firms rise to and sustain professional excellence - is impossible." But defending his approach, he adds "However, 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." Since we can't generally do blinded randomized controlled trials in the business world, I think it comes down to judgment, and based on my decades of experience in professional services (engineering), I'm willing to trust Ellis' findings - they do ring true to me.

If we accept Ellis' findings, do the seven identified traits really constitute 'secrets'? I would say No, they're relatively standard fare, but it still helps to pick out seven specific traits from the crowd of many 'good' traits a firm might aspire to. And the book adds value by illustrating the application of these traits through many engaging stories and anecdotes describing the practices of the leading firms, including mistakes they made and how they rectified them, which is all accomplished through excellent writing (and the narration of the unabridged audiobook is also excellent). One case of a formerly leading firm, which gradually 'drifted into failure' rather than rectifying its mistakes, is Arthur Andersen, and Ellis devotes the last chapter to telling this sad but instructive story as well.

So despite the methodological concerns, my verdict is still 5 stars, and I highly recommended this book to anyone with an interest in business success, especially people with a management or leadership role in a professional service firm (I've purchased copies of this book for the senior management of my own firm).
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