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Leadership & Culture Performance | 6.11.18

How Do the Best Sustain Their Success?

Professor Alex Hill, Director of The Centre for High Performance, runs us through his research into ‘Radically traditional’ organisations across the world of sport, arts, education and beyond.

Why do some teams sustain success, whilst others stumble and fall? What sets them apart? And how can we learn from them?


By Alex Hill

Well, our findings suggest it’s by becoming Radically Traditional. With a stable core – purpose, stewardship, openness. But disruptive edge – experts, nervousness, accidents.

Read on to find out how you can sustain success.

Our research

The idea for the Radically Traditional study came from some work we were doing with UK Sport, the funding body for the British Olympic teams, to understand how they’d improved their performance over the last 20 years.

They talked us through their transformation, but questioned its sustainability. We asked them who they thought they could learn from. They said, “The arts, they’ve been doing this for hundreds of years.” So, we contacted the Royal Academy of Music, the Royal College of Art and the Royal Shakespeare Company [RSC] – and the research began.

We spent five years trying to understand how seven Centennials have outperformed their peers for 100 years. From the arts, we looked at the Royal Academy of Music, Royal College of Art and Royal Shakespeare Company [originally the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre]. From education, Eton College, from science, NASA (initially part of the US Army), and from sport, the New Zealand All Blacks and British Cycling.

And we shared our findings with 537 leaders from 84 other organisations, to find out how the Centennials defy conventional wisdom and what they could learn from them.

Our findings

While most organisations focus on growth, cost, customers, competitors, and secrets — the Centennials don’t. Instead, they try to get better not bigger, are intentionally inefficient, shape society, learn from everyone, and share their stories with the world.

They’re Radically Traditional. With a stable core – purpose, stewardship, and openness. But disruptive edge – experts, nervousness, and accidents.

And that’s what keeps them ahead.

The Stable Core

The Centennials start by stabilising their core – to safeguard what they stand for and stay on track.

1. Stable Purpose

Shape Society – so people like you and talent wants to work with you;
Engage Future Talent – develop and attract future talent, to stay alive and relevant to the world.

2. Stable Stewardship

Stabilise Stewards – stabilise influence, knowledge, experience, and decision making;
Manage Handovers – so nothing gets lost along the way, and critical knowledge is passed on.

3. Stable Openness

Create Challenge – create scrutiny and pressure so everyone performs at their best;
Share Stories – share what you do and how you do it so others trust and learn from you.

The Disruptive Edge

Whilst stabilising their core, the Centennials keep waves of disruption crashing at their edge – to stay fresh and get better.

1. Disruptive Experts

Bring The Outside In – Stay fresh, and keep your critical experts at their cutting edge;
Use World’s Best Talent – Redefine practice, by bringing in the best ideas from everywhere

2. Disruptive Nervousness

Get Better Every Day – Focus on getting better, not bigger to not get distracted or lose control;
Unpick Success And Failure – Scientifically analyse performance, codify what works, tirelessly tweak.

3. Disruptive Accidents

Create Bumps – Continually question what you do to find new ideas and practices;
Live Like A Family – Share problems, ideas and opportunities in relaxed environment.


Read our HBR article, to find out more: How winning organisations last 100 years

We developed a 15-minute self-assessment to help others find ways to improve. And have found three common gaps in the sporting teams we’ve worked with.

  1. Stabilise stewardship

Many of the sports leaders we spoke to were worried their team “was a cult rather than a sustainable system, too dependent on one or two individuals for its success.” And talked about how “egos often get in the way, limiting their ability to learn from others. And happy see us lose after they leave, to show how important they were!” But this can’t happen, if you want to sustain success.

Instead, the Centennials we studied find and employ ‘humble stewards’ (as the All Blacks say, “No dickheads!”). Who are keen to learn from the past, and are more concerned about the organisation they’ll leave behind than how it looks whilst they’re there (“Leave the jersey in a better place”). And put them not just at the top of the organisation, but also two to three levels down too where key knowledge and influence often sits (20 to 30% of staff in the Centennials).

Also, rather than changing leaders every five years like most organisations, they keep them in place for more than 10. And usually bring a successor in four or more years before the step down and spend at least a year handing over, so nothing is lost along the way. For example, Eton keeps its House Masters are in role for 13 years, with a two-year handover between one master and the next. The RSC appoints its Artistic and Executive Directors for 10+ years, and has an 18-month handover between one pair and the next.

To stabilise stewardship in your organisation, ask yourself:

  • Who are our critical stewards, with the key knowledge and experience we need to keep?
  • How can we identify successors 4+ years beforehand, and spend 1+ years handing over?
  1. Unpick success and failure

Many teams talked about the difficulty of being both confident to perform at your best, and nervous to keep learning – at the same time! But, the Centennials we studied learnt how to do this, by unpicking success and failure (as the All Blacks said, “We don’t have to lose to learn”), and constantly striving for more (to become “the greatest sporting team in world sporting history, not just the best rugby team”).

But they took time to do this, spending at least an hour per day eating together and chewing the fat — to really understand what happened and codify what works. That’s why NASA spend up to two years debriefing a mission, so everyone really understands what they need to do and develops the habits and routines that create and sustain success. As the Royal College of Art explained, “We constantly debate what we do and how we do it. To make sure it’s still useful, and engrain the right beliefs and behaviours.”

To unpick success and failure in your organisation, ask yourself:

  • How do we codify what works, and continually improve what we do and how we do it?
  • Have 80% of our key practices significantly improved in the last 3 years?
  1. Shape society

Of all the organisations we studied, sporting teams were the best at ‘bringing the outside in’, learning from the military, arts and science. However, because of this, it’s even more important for them to attract ‘the world’s best experts’. And, key to this, is their ability to positively shape society.

The Centennials we studied all talked about their impact on society from the minute we met, and have tried to do this since they were first set up. The All Blacks have always aimed to raise New Zealand’s profile, NASA to help mankind, and the RSC to open up the arts to everyone.

That why, if sporting teams want to sustain success, then they need to improve the health, education and prosperity of the communities around them, not just win medals or trophies. If they don’t, then funds, support and talent will eventually go elsewhere. To organisations that better shape society.

To shape society in your organisation, ask yourself:

  • What beliefs and behaviours do we want to create in society?
  • How do we develop these beliefs and behaviours in the people who work with us?

How can you sustain success?

The best way to learn from the Centennials, and find ways to improve is to start with a one-day workshop to:

  1. Understand how the Centennials sustain success
  2. Work out how Radical or Traditional you are
  3. Identify areas for improvement
  4. Set up projects to build and safeguard your strengths

We’ve found these workshops have the most impact when you involve your critical:

  • Architects– who help you look 20 to 30 years ahead, to understand how society is evolving, how you can shape it and how you can attract the best talent to do this.
  • Stewards– who work with you for 10+ years to help you shape society.
  • Experts– who keep you at your cutting edge, constantly finding new things to do and new ways to do them.

As you try to become Radically Traditional, remember it’s about creating balance across all 12 areas, not a particular strength in one. You don’t want to become so traditional that you stop moving forwards, or so radical that you go off track. And when things go wrong, as they inevitably will, go back to your core first to make sure you’re stable and on track, before disrupting your edge to start moving forwards again.

Check out our website for tips and advice, or get in contact if you think we can help.