The greatest management lesson that I learnt was not taught in my MBA programme. It is something that I learnt the hard way - from my mistakes. And it is the power of focus. Once I realised and learnt it, this simple mantra has helped me deliver results through different jobs across diverse industries and geographies. Particularly in the 13 years since I became a business leader.
The power of focus is not a new idea. In an ever-changing world, it is one concept that has stood the test of time. It may not be taught in business schools, but it is fundamental to succeeding in the world of business.
All of us know that in business, it is easy to get caught up in lots of activities. When you step back and reflect on activities that have the maximum business impact in terms of driving growth and profit, you zero in on a few critical activities that matter most. And you realise that you have been spending a lot of time chasing things that have a negligible or minimal impact on driving performance.
Focus on Fewer to Grow Faster: In business and life, less is more. More is actually less. It may seem counter-intuitive to suggest that focussing on fewer things will help you grow faster, but that is what happens.
I learnt this lesson when I tried to drive a massive transformation in the sales organisation of an FMCG company. At the end of three years, I realised that I achieved about half of what I set out to accomplish. When I reflected on my performance, it was clear what went wrong - I tried to do too much in too short a span. In sales, a lot depends on driving behavioural change. It is not easy. If you bombard people with too many changes, you are bound to fail.
The most important resource in a company is management time. How this time is spent determines what gets done and what does not get done. That is the power of management focus and attention. It is really a no-brainer: If we give more management time and attention to an area, it will start improving. If we keep jumping from one thing to another, trying to do too much, we end up delivering very little.
I applied this lesson in my next assignment as the CEO of a company in East Africa. The company was just not performing - business had not grown and lost money for a decade. It had too many brands, too many SKUs and too many new initiatives to come out of the woods. I began my work by pruning the portfolio and focussing all efforts on a few brands. It worked. The business started growing by double digits, and we turned profitable.
The power of focus explains the meteoric rise of Apple after Steve Jobs was rehired in 1997 to turn around its flagging fortunes. He began a critical restructuring of the company's product line and eliminated 70 per cent of its product road map. The rest is history.
The power of focus also transcends business. It underpins the success stories of star athletes and sportspeople. That is why each sport has its own heroes and heroines. What would have happened if M.S. Dhoni and P.V. Sindhu chose to pursue more than one sport?
Killing a Brand Is Never Easy: In business, focussing on the few things that have the potential to pay back is not easy. People are attached to products and practices that become part of a company's psyche over the years. Employees who have put in decades of service may be hurt when a brand is killed. It is like amputating a limb so that the rest of the body can stay healthy and flourish. Certainly not easy!
As marketing consultant Bernadette Jiwa says, "We have to choose what we will be more of and less of to create a successful business."
It is not an easy choice as I learnt when I joined a confectionery company. The company had great brands, but the revenue was a fraction of the size of the brands in people's minds. And I was charged with the task of generating a steep change in sales. In my first year, I was looked upon as a terminator rather than a creator or an innovator. I killed several brands, halved the number of SKUs and drastically reduced the number of innovation projects. It paid off. Growth doubled. That is when I learnt that to grow, you have to focus on the head and prune the tail.
The power of focus also works in our personal lives. I cite this example when I talk to students. There is a logic why people prefer to have only two children, and not a dozen! You can focus on your two children - provide them with the best upbringing, care and education. You can do it for two or maybe three children, but certainly not 10!
Brands and Priorities: Diageo taking over United Spirits made big news in the Indian media. When I joined the company, one of the biggest management challenges before me was the huge number of brands we had after pulling together United Spirits and Diageo India. We had more than 150 brands on our hands. Imagine how thin we would have spread ourselves by chasing all of them.
We analysed the strengths and weaknesses of each brand and zeroed in on around a dozen brands. We crafted a power brand strategy and concentrated all our resources and energy to winning in each segment of the market, with the least number of brands per segment. It was supported by a clear task for each brand, such as gaining market share or growing the category.
Five strategic priorities drive Diageo India - strengthen power brands, evolve the route to consumer, drive costs and efficiency, enhance corporate citizenship and build a future-ready organisation. Everyone in the company knows them, and everything that we do is focussed on just these five priorities. And it helps execution and delivery as well. This focus and persistence are bearing fruit. We are now benchmarking our performance not just with the industry peers but also with the larger consumer space.
Modern science proves that multitasking does not help. Everything we see around us - your pen, mobile phone, watch, the zip of your pants - came into being from people who focussed their attention, intelligence and imagination to find a solution to a human need. Focus can help us test the frontiers of our capabilities and leave a legacy for the coming generations.
I am a great believer in the power of focus. India has the world's largest youth population. I want our youth to embrace the power of focus to bring out their best. For themselves and the country.