Lessons on Being (and Staying) No. 1

Lessons on Being (and Staying) No. 1

Lessons on Being (and Staying) Number OneAt Marshall Strategy we’re fortunate to work with many clients who are ranked No. 1 in their fields. These range from Caltech (No. 1 on the Times Higher Education World University Rankings  for the last three years) to Google (No. 1 in search) to the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago (the No. 1 rehabilitation hospital in the U.S. for 23 straight years).

Many of these companies enjoy status as household names. What unites them, and what lessons can others learn from them?

Congrats on Being No. 1: Now, How Do You Stay There?
In some respects, you might expect our client roster to be made up of companies that are struggling. After all, aren’t they the ones who need the most help?

But I’ve noticed one striking feature about our clients who are leaders in their field or industry: These companies are No. 1 because they continuously want to improve. In other words, they recognize that what got them to the top won’t keep them there.

Our No. 1 clients come to us for help in clarifying their identity for a number of reasons:

  • They want to exploit new or different opportunities
  • Their industry is changing, and the company needs to change
  • Acquisitions or divestitures have complicated their organization
  • The company is becoming fragmented by subsidiaries, divisions or silos
  • Employees have different visions for the company and are pulling the company in different directions
  • The company has become misperceived by critical audiences
  • Some of the company’s advantages are eroding
  • New competitors have entered the industry
  • New technology is disrupting their business
  • Profitability is declining or growth has slowed

Apply this list of reasons to the business news, and you can easily see where many former No. 1s have failed to adapt.

How Not to Stay on Top
The annals of business are filled with stories of once-dominant companies that disappeared because they didn’t change with the times. In the article “How Not to Stay on Top,” New York Times business writer Joe Nocera writes about BlackBerry and Wang Laboratories before it, diagnosing them as companies that “stubbornly clung to what they thought they were instead of what they needed to be.”

He’s just described a fundamental mistake organizations make about their identity, and one that’s often fatal. Our clients who are successful at staying on top know they can’t cling to an identity that worked in the past. Instead, they’re focused on figuring out what they need to be.

Read more about our work in identity and brand strategy.

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