3 Attributes of Excellent Organizations – Learn, Lead, Last

Excellent organizations have three primary attributes according to our field research. First, they are learning organizations. Individuals in the organization should be like members of an Olympic team, where the best keep learning how to get better.

Second, excellent organizations have clearly defined areas in which they have chosen to be leaders, and they are relentless in their pursuit of those areas.

Third, the ultimate mark of business excellence is the ability to sustain success – to handle the difficult times well and to continue to grow stronger and better.


Because the standards for excellence we pursue in business continue to change, the ability to learn is an essential capability. Learning is the pathway to continually increasing levels of mastery. Even more basic than that, however, is the intrinsic motivation and satisfaction that comes from learning.

In The Fifth Discipline, Peter Senge says it this way:

Real learning gets to the heart of what it means to be human. Through learning, we re-create ourselves. Through learning, we become able to do something we never were able to do. . . . This, then, is the basic meaning of a “learning organization” – an organization that is continually expanding its capacity to create its future.

The leaders of a learning organization must help its members do the difficult work of choosing what the purpose and strategy of the organization are, and recognizing how they individually and collectively can contribute to that purpose. In a sense, organizations and individuals are both on a life-long quest to learn what they want to become and to figure out how to pursue that vision. The best leaders have a knack for fostering, by their own example, the kind of open environment where people have gained the courage to continually learn and be changed by what they learn.

For learning organizations to reach and expand their potential, they must help individuals do the same. Such organizations, essentially, are dedicated to helping their people learn how to work together as a team, how to contribute as individuals, and how to achieve their full potential.


One of the most difficult parts of being a “leading” organization is making choices between one path of leadership and another. Most of us are reluctant to make such choices because it eliminates options and it holds us responsible to succeed in that one chosen area.

The reality of life is that we can’t “have it all,” and if we try to get it all, we end up getting very little. Oh, how hard it is to say “yes” to the areas we want to lead in, and to say “no” to the others. The courage and wisdom to do so is one of the major factors that separate leading organizations from the rest of the pack.

We, as business leaders, do great damage when we stir up the passions people have for pursuing excellence if we haven’t yet figured out what our business strategy is – what dimensions of leadership the organization is going to pursue. General conversation about excellence without focused directions for action just gives people a spark of hope that’s quickly dashed, because passion that’s not applied to a purpose doesn’t lead to excellence.

Committing to excellence means committing the organization to being a leader in some area that’s important to customers, and then pursuing that leadership relentlessly. With the proper focus and clarity, the potential of the organization will be unleashed and expanded for the benefit and reward of both the customers and everyone in the organization.


There’s a big difference between an “excellent book” and an “excellent author.” The evaluation of a single book is self-contained; it stands on its own. We would normally think, however, of an excellent author as one who wrote over a long period of time and demonstrated the ability to produce excellent books on a repeatable basis. We’ve all witnessed or participated in moments of excellence: a great round of golf, a superb musical performance, or a terrific sales quarter. However, a great round of golf isn’t the same as a great season of golf, nor is it the same as a great career in golf.

If the ultimate measure of business excellence is learning and leading for a long time, then how long is “enough?” Is success for ten years enough? Twenty years? Fifty years? In their best-selling book, Built to Last, authors Jim Collins and Jerry Porras studied businesses that survived at least 100 years, in order to learn more about enduring companies. In the end, this question of “how long” is one only you can answer.

When it comes to improvement methodologies, whether for businesses or individuals, experience teaches us to be skeptical. During the last few years that I was leading the Solomon organization, I co-facilitated Stephen Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People for the whole company in about twenty-five small-group sessions.

This three-day training got rave reviews from our team members. We had requests from employees’ spouses to attend. The book by the same name has been on the best-seller list for years. The bottom line is that Seven Habits is filled with good principles and practices that help make individuals more effective, both personally and professionally.

However, I’ve made it a practice to ask people who were in one of my sessions if they’re still following the prescribed approach. Some lasted a year, some two, but no one I’ve spoken to lasted three years.

Application Is the Key

Some years ago, I was a guest speaker at a business improvement conference being held at the Grouse Mountain Lodge in Whitefish, Montana. During the frequent outdoor breaks, I asked people what they were learning and whether the conference was useful to them.

Thinking about my questions, Eric, a conference attendee, looked beyond me to the mountains in the backdrop of the lodge. He repeated what I’d heard from several other business leaders: “This material is outstanding . . . but I probably won’t be doing anything about it two years from now.”

This fellow isn’t alone. We’ve all undertaken programs we didn’t stick with – whether a quality program at work or a fitness regimen at home. He was simply expressing the largely unspoken and unresolved sentiment – or is it a dilemma? – of millions.

Originally published here.

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