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

ISBN: 978-1-118-56049-5
304 pages
January 2013
What It Takes: Seven Secrets of Success from the World


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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Table of Contents

Foreword ix

Introduction xi

I. Achieving Excellence

Chapter 1: Mission 3

An Inspiring Long-Term Purpose

Chapter 2: Culture 25

How We Do Things around Here

Chapter 3: Recruiting 47

Getting the Right People

Chapter 4: Developing People 65

Training, Educating, and Organizing for Excellence

Chapter 5: Client Relationships 97

Developing Ties That Last

Chapter 6: Innovation 111

Changing How the Game Is Played

Chapter 7: Macro Innovation 133

Changing the Game

Chapter 8: Leadership 151

Bringing the Secrets Together

Chapter 9: . . . and Luck 173

Sometimes It Really Matters

II. Sustaining Excellence

Chapter 10: Trouble 181

Excellence Challenged

Chapter 11: Arthur Andersen 211

Excellence Lost

Afterword 245

Thanks 249

Notes 251

About the Author 285

Index 287

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Author Information

Charles D. Ellis was for three decades managing partner of Greenwich Associates, the international business strategy consulting firm. A popular teacher, he has taught advanced courses on investing at the business schools of both Harvard and Yale, is the author of fifteen books, including the bestselling Winning the Loser's Game, has served on the governing boards of Yale University, Harvard Business School, Exeter, NYU Stern, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and chairs the Whitehead Institute.

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“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

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