Ah, summer ... That wonderful time of year when everything slows down – including your business. Your clients, employees, and vendors are on a seemingly constant rotation of vacation time. No one's ever in when you need them. The easiest thing to do, then, is just accept this state of affairs. After all, there is a gentlemen's agreement in the business world that operations are supposed to slow down a little in the summer, and since your competition has slowed down, it's fine if you put on the brakes for a while, too. Right?
Wrong, says business strategy expert Tom Hall. In fact, summer is the best possible time to really get focused on what makes your company tick – in large part precisely because your competition is taking it easy during these lazy, hazy, crazy days.
"It makes perfect sense," says Hall, coauthor along with Wally Bock of Ruthless Focus: How to Use Key Core Strategies to Grow Your Business (Soft cover: Dog Ear Publishing, 2010, ISBN: 978-1-60844-543-1, $19.95; Hard cover: Dog Ear Publishing, 2010, ISBN: 978-1-60844-638-4, $32.95). "If everyone else is slowing down and losing their focus during the summer months and you do the opposite, then you will be way ahead of the competition when fall rolls around. Plus, losing your collective grip on what you're supposed to be doing – and why – for three months is just bad for business."
The ability to focus – ruthlessly – is what separates the companies that grow steadily and successfully from the ones that get distracted, trot down the wrong side path, and find themselves lost in the forest, says Hall.
In fact, that's the central lesson of Ruthless Focus. In the book – which is based on the authors' experience running companies, working with companies, and studying what makes companies succeed and fail – Hall and Bock teach readers how to identify and then ruthlessly focus on the core strategy driving their business. The book is chock-full of excellent case studies that take a look at companies, such as Staples and Walmart, that have maintained success for years by maintaining a ruthless focus on a single, simple, core strategy.
"Focus requires complete concentration, which can be difficult to achieve when the joys of summer are distracting you and your employees at every turn," says Hall. "It's difficult but not impossible. Take the right steps and you can end the summer in a much better position than when it began."
Read on for great advice that will not only help you and your team ruthlessly focus this summer, but maybe even have some fun doing it.
Vow to make this the Summer of Strategy. This summer, strive to make your core strategy (the main strategy that drives your business) the focus of everything: meetings, new projects, old projects, communications with clients and prospects – everything. You should be able to describe your core strategy in a couple of crisp sentences. And it should answer two key questions: 1) How are we going to beat the competition? and 2) How are we going to make money?
"You must maintain a ruthless focus on your core strategy where every action, every day, moves you and the business forward, especially in the summer," says Hall. "A clear strategy will help you stay focused and help you stay on track. If you get off track, use that same clear strategy to help you identify what happened and what needs to change. Keep the two key questions in the forefront of everything you do.
"A great way to make sure you are ruthlessly focusing on your core strategy during the summer and beyond is by creating a stick-to-the-strategy group," he suggests. "The group should include people from every department. Their main objective should be to make sure the organization as a whole isn't losing sight of the core strategy. They'll bring you and the rest of your employees suggestions on how to push forward and get back on track whenever necessary."
Plan the work and work the plan. Sometimes the best way to stay focused during the summer is to put everything you have to do right there in front of you. Create a to-do work list and encourage your employees to do so as well. Carefully manage the master list so that you are regularly updating it with new tasks and crossing off those that you have already completed. Make sure your employees do the same with their individual lists. The constant focus (there's that word again!) on these work lists will keep people from slacking off just because it's summertime.
"You'll be surprised how gratifying it can feel to check a task off of your to-do list," says Hall. "When you do, it provides you with the encouragement you need to move on to the next task. Making a to-do list might seem like a simple idea, but, trust me, it will have a big payoff. The list will help you see the big picture, and having everything in front of you will be a great way to continuously remind yourself that there is a lot to accomplish this summer."
Don't let people use their vacation as a get-out-of-work-free card. Speaking of to-do lists, anyone getting ready to go on vacation should be paying close attention to his or hers. A pending vacation should not be an excuse for not getting work done. Rather, it should be a red flag that urges you to be mindful of deadlines, rearrange more flexible projects, and ask for help if you need it. This is the message leaders should be sending to employees: If you are going to be on vacation, know what your deliverables are – and then deliver!
"Have a meeting with employees a couple of weeks in advance of their vacations in order to go over their lists," suggests Hall. "Point out those tasks that absolutely must get done before they go. Obviously, it's important for everyone to get a break during the summer, but no one – not your employees, not you – should take three months off just because it's summer. Not only will getting your work done make for a more enjoyable vacation for you, but it will make things a lot easier on your coworkers and/or employees while you are out. And it will make your return a lot easier as well."
Update clients once a week. During the summer, you and your employees aren't the only ones who are traveling or just MIA; your clients likely will be too. Knowing they aren't as available as usual, you might allow yourself to slip into less frequent communication with them. Don't.
"Make yourself provide your clients with an update on what's going on with their accounts at least once a week," says Hall. "Doing so is a great way to stay ruthlessly focused on providing them the best service and making sure you are on track to meet your clients' goals. Providing updates will push you to pay close attention to each of your clients. It forces you to keep the ball moving, constantly thinking about what step should come next, what goal should be reached next, and what you can do to improve your overall service."
Leverage the freedom of summer to generate fresh ideas. Summertime is just more fun than any other time of the year. It brings out people's "inner child" and sparks creative ideas. That's why summer is a great time to focus on developing fresh ideas at your organization. One way to get people's creative juices flowing is to hold an organization-wide contest.
"Ask everyone to submit their bright idea for the company and a plan for implementation," suggests Hall. "To motivate them to give you their best effort, offer the winner an extra day of vacation or a Friday off. Another way to inspire people is to hold a brainstorming lunch with your staff once a month or so. Ask them to each bring at least one idea, whether it be a way to help a client, a way to save money, or a way to improve the business as a whole.
"Finally, get outdoors from time to time," he adds. "Take everyone to the local park one day. Encourage them to use the time outside the office to brainstorm ways to improve the business or tackle a problem that has been giving them trouble. Not only will people get to spend some fun time together enjoying the summer weather, they'll have a chance to clear their heads and do some great brainstorming."
Look for ways to keep people refreshed. Staying focused shouldn't be about drudgery. People need a bit of fun and levity to prevent boredom and burnout. That's why Hall suggests you look for ways to infuse the spirit of summer into your organization. Let your employees enjoy the things that make summer great without ever leaving the office. Provide fresh flowers for everyone's desks. Serve up a pitcher of ice-cold lemonade. Relax the dress code (at least one day a week). Pipe beach music throughout the office. The possibilities are endless.
"Do whatever you can to make work more summer-y," says Hall. "It will create a nice escape from the status quo that will refresh you and your employees and help everyone refocus on the work at hand while still getting to enjoy the spirit of summer."
"It may sound like a great idea to check out for the summer and just pick things back up in September," says Hall. "But in doing so, you leave a lot of great opportunities on the table. You don't have to be at the office 24/7. You can still enjoy the season, and you should. The key is to maintain a ruthless focus when you are working to keep pushing your business forward and to encourage your employees to do the same. Then, at the end of the summer, you and your employees can all celebrate a job well done."
About the authors:
Tom Hall has spent most of his career advising clients on growth as well as growing companies himself. He founded and built the largest advertising education organization in the country and sold it; he built and sold an advertising firm to a national company; he developed a system for public service advertising now used throughout the U.S.; he has built a multi-million-dollar property investment firm; and he chairs a communication firm based in Florida. Tom has worked with many successful growth companies since his earliest days in business and has learned from clients and fellow business owners how to make strategy work. Over the years he has served as marketing and growth counsel to numerous national organizations including Sears, General Foods, Wendy's International, Fox Television Network, U.S. Healthcare, Federated Stores, Tishman Speyer Properties, National Sea Products, Citibank, and Johnson & Johnson among others. He has also worked with many regional fast-growth and start-up companies. He began researching fast-growth organization strategies in 1998 and sought to uncover why some companies are able to use strategy for both short- and long-term success and others seem to lose steam and plateau – never reaching their full potential. Tom has been a guest lecturer at the University of Florida, the University of Central Florida, Florida Southern College, the University of Tampa, and the University of South Florida, in addition to speaking to various business groups including the American Advertising Association. He served on the National Committee on Improving Advertising of the American Association of Advertising Agencies and on the National Advertising Review Board.
Wally Bock is a writer, speaker, and consultant who specializes in learning and sharing how leadership and strategy combine to create successful companies. He is the author or coauthor of several books and writes the award-winning Three Star Leadership Blog. Wally is based in Charlotte, N.C.
About the book:
Ruthless Focus: How to Use Key Core Strategies to Grow Your Business (Soft cover: Dog Ear Publishing, 2010, ISBN: 978-1-60844-543-1, $19.95; Hard cover: Dog Ear Publishing, 2010, ISBN: 978-1-60844-638-4, $32.95) is available in bookstores nationwide and from major online booksellers. For more information, visit www.ruthlessfocus.com.