The 10 characteristics of elite organisations

Ok, I’ll admit a slight boyhood obsession with elite organisations. I am fascinated by what makes them great, and having observed a number of them over time (through meeting leaders from these organisations, extensive research/reading) and my own experiences, some common threads start to emerge. In my experience, the following 10 things are common to all of them whether they are public/military (for example The Royal Marines, Special Forces or the Red Arrows) or in the private sector (the top flight Consulting firms like McKinsey & Company or a leading fund manager like Bridgewater Associates)*

1. It is hard to get in

By their very nature, elite organisations need to attract the very best. However, this doesn’t necessarily mean that these organisations are looking to hire the finished product i.e. those already operating at an elite level or with a specific set of skills. In many cases, the elite are looking for a certain set of characteristics, often in terms of personal traits rather than skills. Skills can be trained but finding people with the right mindset (see my earlier post on Growth Mindset firms) to become elite is a more difficult thing. To find these people, you want as many people as possible trying to be selected for the organisation to give a bigger pool in which to find those with the right traits.

I remember a time from my own experience when we were looking to grow a technical practice area. We found that those in market with the right technical skills were not always the kind of people that we were looking for. As a result, we ran assessment centres to test the traits we wanted and then trained those successful in the technical skills. This resulted in us hiring some exceptionally able people who have gone on to achieve some great things.

The selection process itself will be very carefully controlled, with years of experience of finding the right people going into the process (think Special Forces selection). I recall, the leader of a top flight firm telling me once that the tipping point for their organisation as they grew, was moving from having to go and sell to people, to a scenario where people were battling to get in. In one case, he told me about someone in tears at the fact they hadn’t made it in – thus was the demand to work for that company.

2. It is hard to get in but harder to stay in

Whilst those who make it through the selection process will have demonstrated the traits that the elite organisation needs, they will not be able to rest on their laurels. Staying in and progressing within the elite organisation will be much harder. Expectations and standards will always be high. Where the selection process has been effective and resulted in hiring those with the right mindset, these people should thrive in the organisation. Those who don’t will quickly be encouraged to exit. The famed ‘up or out’ policies of some of the top consulting firms provide a good example.

3. The best idea wins

For the elite, hierarchy is often less important than finding the best idea/solution. A culture that encourages the best ideas to emerge no matter where they come from is critical to life at the very top. People are encouraged to leave ego at the door and select the best idea from wherever it comes. Finding the best idea as quickly as possible is the goal, not ensuring that it comes from you. The elite also often encourage broad engagement in activities linked to the future direction of the organisation. Again, broad engagement seen as the best way to get the best solution.

4. They have focus

An elite organisation cannot be ‘all things to all men’. They are very focused in what they do and every component part of the organisation is designed to support excellence in that thing. Specialisation is critical here.

5. The principles are very clear

The elite are very good at having a clear set of principles which they expect everyone to uphold and live up to. These usually indicate the standards and values of the organisation. For example, Bridgewater Associates have developed a long list of principles which are constantly stress tested and form the very heart of their organisation, help them deal with different situations and has become their shared approach of working together.

6. Development never stops

Being the best means that you have to constantly improve. This, in turn, means a never-ending focus on skills development at both individual and organisational levels.

Individuals will receive constant training to stay at the top of the game and continuous learning will be a major focus within the organisation. These organisations will also look to people who are mature and self aware enough to take charge of their own self-development and be motivated to do so.

The organisations themselves are also restless and looking to continually improve in every aspect. An example might be the constant investment in the knowledge base of the organisation. This could manifest itself in continuous refinement of standard operating procedures or a knowledge management system that points people to the very best examples of work that an organisation has done. All of this designed to meet a specific standard.

7. They are always learning lessons

The elite organisations are habitual learners of lessons. Quite simply, they have to be to stay at the cutting edge of what they do. I was once fortunate enough to receive training from some former members of the Red Arrows (the elite fast jet display team of the UK’s Royal Air Force). For them, lessons learned is a fundamental process that takes place after every training and display session (…after all a mistake in this game could cost lives). They start with the team leader who evaluates their own performance to encourage everyone else to do the same in an open and frank discussion.

In a professional service firm context, the elite will be very focused on reviewing performance of their projects/delivery as well as continually refining their standard operating procedures based on the lessons. In the Bridgwater Associates example above, many of the principles are based on the lessons they have learnt over many years.

8. It’s about the team

Another key observation of elite organisations is the focus on teams (and high performance ones at that). The organisations focus heavily on creating the right environment for teams to thrive, with factors already described such as culture & values, selection and development processes all designed to encourage this approach.

9. New starts here

The very nature of having highly motivated and skilled people at the forefront of a specific area will inevitably mean that cutting edge developments will come out of the organisation. This, in turn, means that the elite are often the thought leaders of their field. It has become ‘institutionally inevitable’ that they will push the boundaries and innovation is encouraged. People are not there to follow orders but think for themselves.

10. The ‘ex X’ factor

When people have left an elite firm, the fact that they spent time there has value. The comment ‘he or she is ex ‘X’’ really means something. It signifies the level of training that they have had and indicates the quality of individual that they are. Of course, there will be an expected tenure for this additional value to be perceived – someone who only spent a few months in one of these organisations is unlikely to carry the same market kudos.

It is also typical that these organisations have a strong alumni community, where people are bound by a common set of principles, experiences or pride in where they have come from.

In Summary

Being amongst the elite is not going to be for everybody. Indeed, there are many great firms and organisations that the principles above will not apply to in the same way. However, for those looking to position themselves as the elite in a niche area, the principles above are worth thinking through…


*I am deviating here from Professional Service Firms per se, but for me, the principles remain the same.