Building a Better Business Through Ruthless Focus

Published: Aug 08, 2019
Modified: Mar 24, 2020

By Thomas Hall

What does it take to successfully lead a business in today’s always changing, increasingly competitive marketplace? Ruthless focus: on strategy, people, culture, and what works, say the authors of a new book.

An old Caterpillar ad stated, “There are no easy answers. There are just intelligent choices.” That’s pretty much how Wally Bock and I approached our book Ruthless Focus: We can't tell you exactly what to do with your business, but hopefully we can help you point yourself down the right path.

To that end, we present some key lessons to consider as you manage your business. They’re the red threads that run through the stories of the companies profiled in our book—companies that have been profitable and competitive for a long time:

Lesson 1: You need a core strategy. Your strategy can take different forms. It can be a detailed plan or even a whole department, the way things were at General Electric just before Jack Welch took over. Or your strategy can be expressed in a few sentences. The form doesn't matter if the strategy guides all your actions.

Your core strategy is the strategy you cluster everything else around. It should:
1. Be simple and understandable
2. Fit your organization
3. Work in the competitive environment
4. Be profitable

Think of your core strategy as “the way we succeed.” Bottom line, for long-term competitive advantage and profitability, you need a single core strategy, and you need to focus ruthlessly on achieving it.

Lesson 2: You must ruthlessly focus on the core strategy. You can’t ride more than one horse to victory. The hard part of ruthless focus is passing up temptation. That temptation often creates a difference between the core strategy you say you have and the core strategy you actually have.

When you divide your attention among multiple strategies, bad things happen. The energy of key people is spread across several different kinds of business, and the different projects compete with each other for resources. It’s like multitasking for companies.

Ruthless focus on the core strategy gives you two benefits right off the bat. You devote resources to the most important activities. More important, you concentrate your brain power on making things better.

Lesson 3: Keep finding ways to do things better. When you’re not spending all your time thinking about the next new and magical strategy, you can spend your energy and creativity on making the business better.

At Ritz-Carlton, Toyota, and Nucor, workers are expected to contribute useful ideas.  Nucor knows half of those new ideas won’t work. That's okay. Those “failures” might turn into successes with a small modification or may inspire a different idea that works.

The idea behind a ruthless focus on a single core strategy is that you will be able to put your energy and resources into doing things better and better and better.

Lesson 4: Use it until it doesn’t work anymore. When you’ve got something that’s working well, it rarely gets better if you try to change it fundamentally. The successful companies we studied are ruthless about staying with their basic strategy until it doesn’t work for them anymore. One reason may be that they think of strategy differently than do most companies.

In 2009, Forbes Insights and SAP released a study called “Closing the Alignment Gap.” The gap was the gap between strategy and operations.

After surveying 200 top executives in large companies around the world and interviewing some of them in depth, Forbes and SAP came up with some startling findings. Ninety-three percent of the executives had “updated or revised their corporate strategy or priorities because of the recession.”

The companies we studied don’t seem to swing strategy around that way. Walmart, Toyota, Enterprise, and Publix, for example, have all been in business for more than 50 years with the same strategy. They’ve been through the ups and downs in the economy.

If you don’t have a working success strategy yet, don’t despair. John Ferolito and Don Vultaggio went from one key idea to another for 30 years before they hit on AriZona Iced Tea, but then they shifted to a ruthless focus on a strategy of producing “New Age” drinks. When you find something that works, stay with it.

Lesson 5: Focus ruthlessly on business basics. Business basics won’t make you a great company, but avoiding them can keep you from becoming a great company.

There’s no better example than It was great at marketing. But it was lousy at paying attention to profit and cash flow. The result was that it lost money on every sale and went out of business.

Lesson 6: Keep things simple. We’ve already said that your core strategy should be simple and understandable.  In addition, the successful companies we profiled in Ruthless Focus work hard to keep other things simple, too. Nucor has a radically simple structure compared to its competition. It’s got fewer levels of management, a streamlined headquarters staff, and starkly simple pay and personnel policies.
Successful companies don’t try to measure every little thing. Enterprise only looks at two or three simple measures of customer satisfaction that it turns into a single score.

Lesson 7: Systems People Culture = Profit. Lots of companies claim that people are their most valuable resource, yet many don’t act like it. The successful companies we studied act as if they value people. They support them and strive to make their place a great one to work.

These companies shy away from having talking head CEOs and instead keep the emphasis on making the business better. That starts with hiring. Successful companies hire smart because they know what to look for, and they’re patient.

Ritz-Carlton looks for people who delight in helping other people. Enterprise looks for people with an entrepreneurial attitude who can become great branch managers. Brown & Brown selects people who will thrive in their sales culture. Publix Supermarkets wants people working at its stores who live in the neighborhood.

These companies pay a great deal of attention to bringing people on board, training them, and orienting them to the company culture. They weed out the ones who don’t fit. That strong emphasis on fitting into a strong culture can make these companies seem cult-like. The fact is that employees who are a poor fit for the culture will hate it. Those who are a good fit will think it’s great.

Getting Started
Do some homework on your business and industry. What are the most successful companies? What do they do differently?

Analyze your company. Where are you on the growth cycle? Are there any predictable crises ahead?

Analyze strategies currently in use in your industry. What are your competitors using? What are you using?

Assess the strength of your key team. Are there holes in skills and experience that you need to fill? Does your strategy need to change to better reflect your team or vice versa?

Analyze your industry for big opportunities. Can you identify a new business model that would transform your market?

Analyze your company’s performance over the past three years. Where have you been most successful, most profitable, and most effective? Where have you failed? Do the same for your competitors.

Take a look at other companies in your business and similar businesses that are in the fast-growth category. What do they do differently?

Visit a different company every week for three months. Make notes on what they do that you can adapt.

© 2010 Thomas Hall. Adapted with permission from Ruthless Focus: How to Use Key Core Strategies to Grow Your Business (Dog Ear Publishing, 2010) by Thomas Hall and Wally Bock.

About the Author(s)

Thomas Hall has spent most of his career advising clients on growth. He founded the largest advertising education organization in the country and sold it and developed a system for public service advertising now used throughout the U.S. He chairs a communication firm and has served on the National Committee on Improving Advertising of the American Association of Advertising Agencies and on the National Advertising Review Board.