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“To see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle.” —George Orwell

I took a required course in college on organizational behavior. I thought it afternoon, drive-time psychobabble and didn’t give it much thought. It was only after graduation and in a series of jobs in my 20s that I realized its efficacy. My squandered youth meant many (so-called) happy hours devoted mainly to coworker complaints about the company, its direction and, of course, other employees. No matter the company, the complaints were always the same. It didn’t take long to realize it was a cost of doing business in modern corporate America.

Charles Ellis dedicated his latest book, “What It Takes: Seven Secrets of Success from the World’s Greatest Professional Firms,” to the Herculean task of getting disparate personalities, skill sets and world views excited and moving in the same direction. Ellis, founder of Greenwich Associates and author of the widely-read “Winning the Loser’s Game” (now in its sixth edition), pretty much built a business model centered on the above quote from the always sunny and lighthearted George Orwell. Nothing in his latest tome is particularly groundbreaking, which is one reason for its heavy reliance on anecdotes. But a word of caution for those tempted to dismiss it: Not only is it highly entertaining and engaging, but valuable for asking why so many companies fail at what should be so obvious.

Sure, we all know strong leadership, smart recruiting and an almost myopic focus on innovation and reinvention are necessary to succeed in today’s hyper-connected economy. Yet it’s so rarely seen and is the main reason for the high levels of post-work self-medication.

Ellis’ focus is on large, successful (and not so successful) organizations, but he emphasized that the lessons are scalable, and correspond directly to one- or two-person RIAs. Part of his genius is realizing humans are humans; rarely will we learn from history, so we’re doomed to repeat it, which will keep him in business and selling books. Not that he likes the prospect, and he has dedicated his professional life to overcoming it, but it is what it is. With robust resources like “What It Takes” explaining where so many others went wrong, failure is no longer an option—or even necessary.

Ellis, along with Harold Evensky and long-time IA columnist Olivia Mellan, is a keynote speaker at our sixth annual Think Retirement Income conference in Boston on October 10 and 11. For more information, visit


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