Longevity, and how to remain winners

I tweeted a few days ago that longevity at the top of business can be a rare event or concept. Businesses, organisations and sporting competitions rarely stay constant enough for such longevity to exist, and perhaps even more so in our modern highly paced world.

Everton Football Club are one of the oldest professional football clubs in the world. We are founders of both the Football League and the Premier League and remain to this day the 4th most successful club in England. Throughout most of our history we have been renowned as leading lights in the game, instrumental in the development of professional association football.

Soccer - League Division One - Everton Photocall - Goodison Park

However, what is often over-looked is the consistency in which we have remained in the top division, 116 out of 120 seasons, significantly higher than Liverpool (104), Arsenal (102), Manchester United (94), Manchester City (90), Chelsea & Spurs (84). Furthermore, and despite two scares in the 1990’s, we are second only to Arsenal (93) with currently 65 successive years in the top division.

The question is how has this been achieved? We have not always been the wealthiest, we’ve not necessarily had the best managers throughout our history (notable exceptions, of course) nor had the best players (again with notable exceptions) yet we’ve achieved success and consistency of tenure over our history unmatched by all but a handful of other clubs.

The Harvard Business Review recently published the results of extensive research (over more than 5 years) into the performance over 100 years of a small number of organisations (the Centennials) each in different fields and different locations. Each of the organisations are extensively admired, globally, and renowned for their excellence in their fields. The organisations included the Royal Academy of Music, the Royal College of Art, and the Royal Shakespeare Company from the Arts. Eton College from education, NASA from science and the New Zealand All Blacks and British Cycling from sports.

Their findings were shared with over 500 leaders from 84 companies such as Apple, BMW, Google, McKinsey, Microsoft, and Rolls-Royce Engineering.

They found that the Centennials focused very differently than other organisations, specifically trying to shape society, share expertise, create “accidents or bumps” (disruption) and most of all focus on getting better not bigger.

Now as any regular reader or listener will know, I’m usually critical of the way Everton has been run as a business over many years, but it is worth examining if there are any common threads between the Centennials and Everton, is there potential with what we have currently and perhaps more importantly, what can we learn from the study to help us break the current trophy drought, set to be the longest in our history.

The Centennials were found to be very similar to each other, each with a stable core, but a disruptive edge.

The study started with “The Stable Core: Purpose, stewardship, openness”. Purpose is about knowing what they stand for and remaining true to that.

It was found that the Centennials are incredibly strategic, looking 20 to 30 years ahead, to understand how society is evolving, how they can influence it, and how they get the future talent to do this.

So successful are they that for example, the Royal College of Art included in their alumni every single Head of Design in global car manufacturers bar BMW.

They produce talent and draw talent to them from the very earliest ages, from the All Blacks with Rippa Rugby to the RCA children’s competitions each year.

The second element was “Stable stewardship 10+ year tenure, 1 year+ handover”. The Centennials keep their leaders and most of the next 2 or 3 levels further down for over 10 years. Successors can be planned as far as 4 years out, and the handover take at least a year.  The RSC appoints its Executive and Artistic Directors for more than 10 years, with 18 months handover and the leaving pair sit on the Governing Board. Similarly, Eton with its Housemasters – there’s a seamless transition, no knowledge is lost, and there’s little or no disruption to their core activities. The All Blacks talk about legacy and “leaving the jersey in a better place”. This is stewardship at the highest level.

Finally, there is Stable openness; each of the Centennials perform in public, raising their profiles, encouraging the highest level of performance. They deliberately open themselves up to scrutiny and create pressure within the organisation to excel.

Whilst having their stable core, it was found that the Centennials “keep waves of disruption crashing at their edge – to stay fresh and get better”

This is achieved in a number of ways. Many employ experts part-time, keeping them fresh and open to new ideas, having 100’s of associates, allowing busy people “to do brilliant things, elsewhere”. They don’t track competition, they want new ideas, ie staying ahead not emulating. They work out who are the best in the world, so the All Blacks worked with the US Marines, ballet dancers and cage fighters “to lead, lift and grapple better”. British Cycling learned from the Royal Ballet on how to tour better and F1 for technology.

Next came “disruptive nervousness, better not bigger”. The Centennials grow nervous with growth and success. Growth makes it difficult to maintain standards, and they use success as a means of analysing what they’ve missed and how they could do it better. The RSC said “we get nervous if more than 20% of our new ideas succeed – it means they’re not really new”. The All Blacks discovered teams are more likely to lose after a big win, so they work harder after success. British Cycling sought marginal gains, “making a thousand 1% tweaks to get 1000% improvement.”

Then they moved onto “disruptive accidents, move and bump, live like a family”. The Centennials like people to move around, interact and question different disciplines. RAM asks its tutors to review programmes other than their own expertise.  They also see the benefit of working like a family, for example eating together for an hour (RCA) including a specific design and location for their staff restaurant, Google give 3 meals a day to their employees for a reason….

Many businesses will find these findings very interesting, but perhaps not know what to do about using the findings constructively within their businesses. The authors came up with a series of tests to “sustain success”.

What beliefs or behaviours can you change? Can you shape society (community)?

How can you engage kids, tomorrow’s employees (fans)

Who in the organisation has critical influence and knowledge?

How can you manage handovers?

Who should study you (Everton)?

How can you help others?

How can you bring outside expertise in?

In each discipline, who is the best in the world?

How can you get better every day?

How do you unpick success and failure?

How can you create bumps (new ideas/disruptions)?

How can you get people to live like a family?

What’s interesting from this series of tests, and perhaps this is one of the reasons for Everton’s longevity in the top division, even given the absence of recent success is that all but the harshest critic can see that some elements are currently applied by Everton.

So, for example, beliefs and behaviours, looking at shaping society (community) Everton already score very highly even if perhaps we don’t exploit this as well as the Centennials exploit their beliefs.

Our engagement levels with youngsters on match days clearly works, although it can be argued that much more could be done especially with the use of technology to interact, develop and teach about Everton away from the ground.

Similarly, it would appear that the family ethos of the club is very strong, another characteristic of the Centennials.

However, there are many areas covered in the tests where it is very obvious that Everton would score extremely badly, and perhaps much of the under-performance at board level and executive level below can be explained by this. In particular our lack of strategic thinking for many years, our lack of openness, poor stewardship and unwillingness to look for external expertise.

For me, the clearest point about the Centennials, organisations chosen for their excellence and their outperformance relative to their peers is their clarity of purpose driven by a stable core, but also by being highly disruptive, frequently defying conventional wisdom.

For Everton, versed in history, a constant when perhaps we shouldn’t have been, we too have a stable core if we follow our club motto, Nil Satis Nisi Optimum. However, we need the people (Brands for example?) with the skills and knowledge to be disruptive, defy conventional wisdom, learn from the best elsewhere and get us back winning trophies, after all that is the primary purpose of a professional sports club!

More details on the study by The Harvard Business Review can be found here

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