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Ruthless Execution: What Business Leaders Do When Their Companies Hit the Wall

Ruthless Execution: What Business Leaders Do When Their Companies Hit the Wall

by Amir Hartman

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Today's business leaders need a radically different skill from their recent predecessors: they must know how to know how to manage through adversity while preparing their companies for a new rebirth of success. In Ruthless Execution, Amir Hartman, author of the bestselling NETREADY, identifies the central ingredients that help certain companies to


Today's business leaders need a radically different skill from their recent predecessors: they must know how to know how to manage through adversity while preparing their companies for a new rebirth of success. In Ruthless Execution, Amir Hartman, author of the bestselling NETREADY, identifies the central ingredients that help certain companies to get beyond the wall and thrive--and show how to instill these ingredients in your organization. You will learn when and how to recalibrate the balance between performance and growth; how to define a coherent, tightly-drawn business philosophy that maps to specific actions; new ways to promote accountability and business alignment; and how to use performance metrics without burying people in meaningless trivia. Also discover how to promote real discipline: the ability to get the job done quickly, efficiently, and effortlessly--without bureaucracy. Next, you learn how to develop stronger "critical capabilities" for understanding and managing complexity. Along the way, the authors present case studies of world-class enterprises that have used these strategies to achieve breakthrough success. Watch John Chambers maneuver Cisco through the telecom collapse; Lou Gerstner impose powerful new discipline at IBM; Harry Kraemer realign Baxter with transformed markets; Dan Vasella transform Novartis through mergers; and many more...all unified by one central factor: ruthless execution.

Editorial Reviews

Soundview Executive Book Summaries
What to do When Your Company Hits the Wall
When an organization's growth strategies and business models are no longer working and the business seems to have "hit the wall," business expert Amir Hartman has a plan that can help companies move beyond adversity and prepare for a rebirth of success. To share the lessons of recharging growth and innovation he learned while working with companies like IBM, Novartis and Cisco, Hartman describes the ways leadership, values, governance, cost control, productivity and priorities can make a difference when planning a resurgence.

To help stalled companies choose the best strategy for renewal, and execute that strategy with clarity and tenacity, Hartman presents a plan of action that rebalances performance and growth, promotes accountability, optimizes metrics, and promotes discipline without creating bureaucracy.

Hartman begins his book by defining ruthless execution as the method and strategies that business leaders employ to break through performance walls. The tough times and business reversals that comprise these walls accompany the sad fact that, according to Hartman, "Companies no longer can assume a steadily upward pattern of growth." He explains that 257 public companies, with a total of $258 billion in assets, declared bankruptcy in 2001, which is far more than the 176 companies with $95 billion in assets that declared bankruptcy just one year before.

Recovering From Rude Awakenings
Hartman argues that there are controllable ways to cause reversals of unfortunate downturns. He explains that an inability to focus and execute is usually at the heart of stagnation, and there is a way to keep companies in dire straits from laying off thousands of people and canceling plans for future growth. Ruthless Execution provides instructive guidelines on how organizations can recover from rude awakenings by studying the actions of the business leaders who have pulled themselves through tough times.

Hartman explains that there are specific ways leaders have overcome their struggles with declines in fortune. After three years of research into uncovering these elements of successful turnarounds, he developed his theory of ruthless execution as a framework for guiding business leaders through the reversals that inevitably and frequently occur. By studying companies from a diverse set of industries, company documents, research reports, financial data, and interviewing key business leaders, Hartman developed case studies that advance his ruthless execution theory. He writes that he discovered that in times of uncertainty, "business leaders who have succeeded in breaking through various walls have outperformed their peer groups with respect to relative market share growth and stock price performance."

Hartman writes that engaging in ruthless execution means business leaders have the time and opportunity to investigate issues, and act on them. Business leaders who have broken through walls, he explains, have tended to be very fact-based and analytical in their approach to problem solving. This has required them to be patient when making decisions in tough times.

Strategic Recalibration
To describe the strategies that make up ruthless execution, Hartman has framed them in three distinct categories: leadership, governance, and critical capabilities. He explains that no single strategy will automatically help a leader break through a wall, but leaders can validate the direction and focus a company is going to take. Hartman helps them identify and focus on key places where resources can be realigned so the company can more effectively balance between performance-oriented and growth-oriented efforts. He writes that those who engage in this "strategic recalibration" must rearrange their portfolios of business initiatives and set a course for the direction their companies should take.

Hartman argues that leaders in stalled companies must devise a well defined business philosophy that captures employees and keeps the company on the right course. Devising a guiding business philosophy, like Jack Welch did as CEO of GE, can help a leader offer guidance on what a company is all about at a given moment.

To frame the rules for recalibrating a business, Hartman writes that leaders must operate within the governance framework, with accountability, performance management and discipline as the primary strategic drivers for determining how to make the recalibration process work. Once they have implemented the necessary strategies, he explains that leaders must put in place a number of critical capabilities, including productivity management, talent management, and focused corporate transactions.

Why We Like This Book
Throughout Ruthless Execution, Hartman describes not only the strategies that can help leaders cope with business slumps, but he also provides numerous case studies that show how a company used one or more ruthless execution strategies in a real-world setting. Helpful bulleted points and an easily accessible design make his book a helpful addition to any challenged organization's essential supply of ideas for rising above tough times. Copyright © 2004 Soundview Executive Book Summaries

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Pearson Education
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Read an Excerpt


Ruthless execution is the method and strategies that businessleaders employ to break through performance walls. My friend and formerpartner, John Sifonis, and I first employed this term in 1996 when wewere doing work for Hewlett-Packard (HP). Subsequently, the phraseappeared prominently in our book Net Ready (McGraw-Hill, 2000) as a wayto sum up the actions key to getting a company "Internet-ready." Duringthe research process for this book, and in searching for a way to"package" my findings, it became clear to me that the same term capturedthe essence of the strategies that business leaders execute to overcometough times.

Few books exist on tough times and how to deal with them. Books onAmerican corporate life have tended to proffer advice on how to steer abusiness to success and glory. For the past two or three decades, as thestock market drove skyward, as the economy went from strength tostrength, as business theorists argued that growth was good, businessleaders craved roadmaps that assured them of the same success thatothers were enjoying.

Authors of business books have focused on the strategies and thekinds of culture a business needs to do well. They have largely skippedover the topic of how to cope with business reversals. As long as theeconomy prospered, no one cared to write about—or read about—the morbidsubject of business reversals.

That has all changed now.

With the advent of a turbulent economy, with the increasingrealization that business resembles a roller coaster more than a rocketship, with more and more companies plummeting from their peaks, a new,painful fact of life in business has become clear: Companies no longercan assume a steadily upward pattern of growth. Invariably, companiesare going to get into trouble from time to time, enough trouble for theups and downs to become a consistent pattern. Accordingly, books onbusiness subjects must deal honestly and realistically with thesereversals and offer some practical ways to overcome these setbacks. Thatis precisely what Ruthless Execution: What Business Leaders Do WhenTheir Companies Hit the Wall does.

To be clear, this book is not about fixing companies in crisis.Crises such as fraud or bankruptcy often require a slash-and-burnapproach and intense media management. This book is about gettingstalled companies performing again. Companies are going to get intotrouble for all sorts of reasons, scandal being just one of them. Theplain truth is that most large corporations—over 90 percent of allpublic companies—suffer rude awakenings from time to time; indeed,setbacks happen to these large enterprises frequently. Large,established companies can become compla-cent; they may become toobureaucratic to innovate; innovative enterprises may favor hyper-growthat the expense of discipline and rigor. When companies find themselvesstagnating, it becomes time for their leaders to engage in ruthlessexecution.

What is meant by ruthless execution? It means the way leaders andtheir teams behave, or in other words, the strategies they must adopt tobreak through the wall.

The strategies of ruthless execution are framed in three distinctcategories that are already part and parcel of every executive's dailylife: leadership, governance, and critical capabilities. Within each ofthese categories, a number of practices will be elaborated on throughoutthe book. There is no suggestion that engaging successfully in any oneof these strategies automatically allows you to break through a wall.The idea is to point out the common ingredients (or practices) thatbusiness leaders who have figured out how to break through the wallshare.

Leadership frames the specific actions that drive strategicformulations, and to a degree, the characteristics that business leadersneed to overcome business reversals. The focus in the leadershipcategory is on strategic formulation.

Governance spells out the rules of the game; it deals with issuessuch as the way decisions get made and the discipline that leadersimpose on their teams.

Critical Capabilities are the specific actions that executives driveto break through the wall. Critical capabilities are veryaction-oriented. They are the critical skills and delivery capabilitieswith which business leaders need to be equipped.

Throughout this book, case studies will be used to illustrate aparticular ruthless execution strategy. The introduction of each casestudy is framed around a moment of time when the subject company hassuffered a reversal. These studies show how the company in question usedone or more of the strategies to cope. You can benefit by employing onestrategy or another in your own efforts to emerge successfully from areversal.

Lastly, in Chapter 12, I introduce a Ruthless Execution Index. Thisindex can serve as "sign posts" for business leaders who want tounderstand where they can improve their Ruthless Execution. I encourageyou to revisit these practices on a regular basis.

What People are Saying About This

Russ McMeekin
Hartman delivers no nonsense principles that hit at the essence of what it takes to break through the wall. The book offers a roadmap that business leaders would do well to follow.
CEO, Makohn
Steve Loranger
In today's tough business environment, a new leadership paradigm is emerging -- a call to action that compels today's leaders to take stock, face reality, act quickly and implement ruthlessly. Leaders today must be proactive, ambitious, focused and, above all, personally accountable. I applaud Hartman's book for tackling this issue head on. Ruthless Execution is a must read for leaders in all industries.
Executive Vice President & COO, Textron
Vernon Altman
The messages are clear and powerful. Smart business leaders need to focus on what matters and drive accountability. Hartman shows us how to do this.
Director, Bain & Company
Bruce Nelson
Having the opportunity to lead a company that "Hit the Wall", I have personally experienced the leadership challenges Hartman's latest book so clearly articulates. His examples and insights are real, his conclusions are accurate, and his roadmap and compelling arguments for "Ruthless Execution" work.
Chairman and CEO, Office Depot
Larry Kittleberger
Hartman does it again. Ruthless Execution is easy to read, easy to follow, and a must read for serious business leaders.
SVP Administration and CIO, Honeywell International
James I. Cash
Based on my experience with companies over the last few years Ruthless Execution is a very timely book. Amir Hartman provides business leaders with a concise and well-reasoned set of guidelines to get their companies through performance downturns and prepared to exploit an economic recovery.
Ph.D., James E. Robison Professor of Business Administration, Harvard Business School, Member of the Board-Chubb, GE, Microsoft, Scientific Atlanta
Jeff Stein
Pragmatic and a great read. Ruthless Execution gives business leaders insightful and to the point principles for overcoming performance plateaus.
Deputy Chairman & COO, KPMG

Meet the Author

A leading global authority on corporate and technologytransformations, Amir Hartman is also a bestselling author and SeniorFellow at the Harvard Business School Interactive and Berkeley's HaasSchool of Business, where he teaches in their Executive MBA programs. He is the Founder and Managing Director of Mainstay Partners in RedwoodCity, California, which provides strategic services to business leadersin such companies as HP, Honeywell, Oracle, and Office Depot. Asought-after speaker to forums of senior business leaders, Hartman is the author ofthe books Net Ready and Search for Digital Excellence.

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