Five Characteristics of Successful Companies

A business that I follow on Twitter has just announced that they’re one of the ‘100 fastest growing companies in the San Francisco Bay area.’ Well, speaking as one of the fastest growing companies in the Bramble Cottage area…

No. I shouldn’t be cynical. Any company that’s growing at the moment deserves our congratulations.

And perhaps surprisingly – given the general doom and gloom – there are plenty of companies in North Yorkshire growing and succeeding. Which particular sector is doing well? I’ve no idea: I don’t think you can pick out particular sections of the local economy – but you can certainly pick out individual companies.

So as I waited patiently at yet more roadworks, I started ticking them off in my head. Of companies that I deal with, or know well, I’d say that there were about a dozen doing really well: and giving every indication that they’ll continue to do well in the future.

They’re all shapes and sizes; they’re in several different towns and they’re all different businesses. But they do have common characteristics – so maybe we could do a bit of ‘Corporate NLP’ and model some of their successful behaviour…

That night I jotted down the common characteristics that the companies share: I came up with five.

1. Good people. First of all, they hire the right people – and only the right people. As one of the business owners said to me, “I’d rather struggle on and not hire anyone than hire someone who’s not 100% right. I’m looking for someone who’ll share our values and our vision – and I know I’ll find them eventually.” Once they’ve hired good people, the companies spend time, effort and money developing them. Do the companies I have in mind spend more than the average on training? That would be an emphatic ‘yes.’

2. Good plans. Well, you’d have been upset if I hadn’t included this one – especially as we’re coming up to New Year. Successful and profitable companies spend the necessary time to make good plans; they consult them regularly and they’re not afraid to change direction if they’re going off course. Another key point is that everyone’s involved in making the plans and setting the targets – after all, if you’ve been responsible for setting a goal, you’re going to be far more motivated towards achieving it.

3. They’re good at listening. And that doesn’t just mean listening to their clients or customers. It means good at listening to advice and new ideas – and good at listening to each other. In really successful companies there’s a definite air of cooperation: work, information, ideas and inspiration circulate round the building. Everyone talks to everyone. No-one’s idea is dismissed because they’ve just joined or because they’re too junior.

4. Good at reacting. This works two ways – yes, successful companies are good at reacting to what’s going on in the outside world; to changes in the economy, in technology and so on. But they’re good at reacting to themselves as well. If they’ve made a mistake, they’re not afraid to admit it, and they’re quick to change direction.

5. And finally? They never stop learning. One of the key characteristics of a successful company is an open mind. They always want to learn more. So turn up at a workshop or seminar and who’s there? Someone from one of these companies – because they know that picking up just one new idea can make a crucial difference. The other thing they’re prepared to do is learn from other businesses. I’m delighted to say that the majority of the companies I’m thinking of are members of TAB: what I’ve noticed about the owners of these businesses is that they bring very specific questions to meetings and really work hard to learn from other members round the table.

So those are the five characteristics I’ve identified. There will undoubtedly be companies that you admire. What do they do that’s out of the ordinary? What’s the key trait that makes them outstanding? As always, it’ll be fascinating to hear your views. But for now, it’s time to sit down with my two boys – and see the fastest-disappearing pizza in the South Milford area…



  1. Michael Harrison · November 18, 2011

    Ed, I like your five characteristics but wonder whether they are all crucial to the success of a business. I wonder to what extent Alan Sugar and Steve Jobs followed all these desiderata? The most successful company I have been involved with is characterised mainly by the singlemindedness of the owner/MD whose drive is phenomenal. I am not sure that there is much “listening”.

    But at the end of the day I agree with your characteristics if success is measured not just in terms of profit but includes also the achievement of a pleasant and fulfilling place to work.

  2. Simon Hudson · November 21, 2011

    All valuable attributes, amongst others.
    Listening, of course, is not the same as heeding. We regularly take time to listen to our clients, But give them what they need, not hat they say. The listening bit is so we can engage them, understand their stated and tacit needs and convince them to trust us.
    The same is true internally and everywhere else.

    All the rest rings true, added to eyes-wide-open self belief and grounded optimism.

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