For five years at the end of the last century, my grandfather delighted in being the oldest living All Black. The All Blacks are New Zealand’s national rugby union team, often regarded as the most successful sports team in history.
As it happened, my grandpa only played one match for them before injury put paid to his rugby career. That was in 1921, but he wore this affiliation like a badge of honor right up until his death at the age of 99.
The All Blacks were revered a hundred years ago, and they still are. This makes them a perfect case study for Professor Alex Hill, co-founder and director of the Centre for High Performance, a collaboration between Kingston University London, Duke University, London Business School, and the University of Oxford.
For more than a decade, he’s researched organizations that have outperformed their peers for over 100 years. In addition to the New Zealand All Blacks, he’s studied NASA, Eton College and the Royal Shakespeare Company, among other household names.
Hill has identified 12 habits they share, looking at how they analyze success and failure, recruit great talent, and create new products and ideas. He lays these out in his new book, “Centennials,” and offers advice for others who aspire to such longevity today.
Hill acknowledges that not all organizations are in it for the long haul. Some don’t want to last 100 years, so for them, a focus on short-term returns is appropriate.
“A lot of management thinking comes from business, and actually those principles and ideas are great if you want to burn bright, but then disappear,” he says. “But if you don’t want to do that and you want to build something that’s going to last, then you have to think in a very different way.”
And this is a worthy goal, he believes, as “centennial” organizations deliver benefits for communities and society as a whole, as well as for themselves.
“They help us solve bigger, more complex questions, things like climate change or poverty or health or education, where actually you’re building a collective knowledge in an institution that is growing over time. And you’re solving a problem which can’t just be solved quickly, where actually it might take many decades or many generations to actually work out how to fix it,” he explains.
The 12 habits in Hill’s book provide a framework for organizations with such ambitions. The first six help to build a stable core, identifying a strong purpose for the work, developing stewardship, and fostering an open attitude toward the world. The last six focus on what he calls the “disruptive edge.” These habits encourage new ideas that propel organizations forward.
I was particularly struck by habit five, “perform in public,” about harnessing the power of strangers. Within an organization, it’s hard to see what you’re doing well – or not so well. Whereas, if you perform to a trusted stranger, you can learn a lot from their feedback, which may include fresh ideas from the outside, too. And of course, when we’re being watched, we almost always raise our game.
“They’ve done lots of different studies around this, [and] they found that if you have a stranger present in a group, the group feels that they need to perform better,” says Hill. “So they will often be more rigorous in their discussion or their debates, they will explain things more clearly, they make [fewer] mistakes, and they often perform at a higher level because of that.”
As a freelance producer, I’ve seen this firsthand. Often, I’m the stranger, going into organizations to record a podcast or interview employees. In these situations, I’ve noticed that people do tend to make an effort to act as professionally as they can.
A few years ago, I produced a series of educational podcasts for a U.K.-based university. Each episode consisted of a roundtable discussion between academics teaching on a particular degree course. As soon as the microphones were set up, all the participants switched into “performance” mode.
They listened attentively to one another, articulated their views with clarity and verve, and sometimes asked to redo something if they felt it could have been expressed better. If I hadn’t been there, the discussion may have been a bit more relaxed. But it might not have been as useful for the audience of students.
Hill says he’s seen performance work in all sorts of situations.
“You start to realize that every high-performing organization has a performance, and sometimes it happens very naturally, like an Olympic Games or a World Cup or a moon landing – this moment where they have to really perform,” he says.
“But other organizations where it doesn’t happen naturally will artificially create it. So, like the Royal College of Art has open studios, where strangers can walk through, or they’ll get students to do shows where people can come.”
It’s an effective way for organizations to practice the mindset they need to last for 100 years.
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