Secrets of the Long-Lasting Organization: I’m Gonna Be (500 Years)

By Jennifer Eng

The Centennial, or a company that has lasted for over 100 years, is a rarity these days. The average lifespan of a U.S. S&P 500 company has decreased from 67 to 15 years over the past 80 years, and it seems like organizations are shutting down on a regular basis. However, there are businesses that have reached the 100-year mark and are still going strong, even without seven Horcruxes or the Philosopher’s Stone. What’s their secret?

A study detailed by the Harvard Business Review examined seven Centennials in different industries, observing how they operate and speaking with their people. Leaders from successful organizations including GE, McKinsey, Google, Apple, and 3M then reviewed the findings to learn how Centennials “sustain success.”

From Here to Eternity: How Centennials Do It

Instead of following the customary model most businesses deem successful—”serving customers, owning resources, being efficient and growing”—Centennials are passionate about shaping society, learning from experts, and “focus on getting better not bigger.” They also employ a mindset of being “radically traditional”: stable at the core with a disruptive edge.

Centennials build their strategy around how they can impact society as it continues to evolve, and how they can draw the talent needed to achieve their purpose. And instead of waiting for talent to come to them, each of the seven Centennials works with children to help them develop valuable skills for the future by creating or sponsoring programs in schools.

Leaders Who Last: Breaking the Spinal Tap Curse

Rather than changing their leaders every five years—or their Defense Against the Dark Arts professor every year—Centennials keep their leaders at every level around for over 10 years. When anticipating a change in leadership, they appoint successors more than four years in advance, and the handover period lasts for at least one year.

When it comes to talent, Centennials harness their disruptive edge by deliberately employing up to 70 percent of staff part-time in order to have access to a larger talent pool and “create a continuous flow of new ideas.” Most of these employees are also employed elsewhere, and are often asked to return after specific projects to share new experiences and knowledge. 

A Lifetime of Learning

In addition to pulling in ideas from their part-time employees, Centennials also have a heavy focus on continuous learning, both externally and cross-functionally. Employees on different teams are encouraged to “continually question each other, and share problems, ideas, and opportunities.”

So what can other organizations learn from Centennials? Some questions to consider:

  • What beliefs or behaviors can you change? How can you shape society?

  • Who has critical influence and knowledge (who are your critical leaders)?

  • How can you bring outside expertise in (to help your people continue growing and learning)?

  • How can you get better every day?


We can learn plenty of good habits from Centennials: they are always learning, they strive to make an impact, they encourage their people to learn and grow, and they focus on continuous improvement.


For more on continuous learning, check out our ebook, “Culture of Learning.”

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