Would you pay $500,000 for one piece of advice? Charles Schwab, the head of Bethlehem Steel did and he said it was the best advice he ever received.

It must have worked because by 1918 Schwab was one of the richest men in the world.


I first heard this story many years ago when I attended a workshop Verne Harnish was running on how to grow your business. This is the story as Verne tells it:

Management consultant Ivy Lee visited Bethlehem Steel Company decades ago, long before it became the world’s largest independent steel producer. “With our services, you’ll known how to manage better,” said Lee to CEO Charles Schwab. Schwab grew indignant. “What we need around here is not more knowing, but more doing! If you’ll pep us up to do the things we already know we ought to do, I’ll gladly pay you anything you ask.”

Lee took him up on the proposition. “In 20 minutes,” he told Schwab, “I’ll show you how to get your organisation doing at least 50 per cent more.” He started by having Schwab write down and prioritize his six most important tasks to complete the next business day.

Then he told Schwab, “Put the list in your pocket and take it out tomorrow and start working on number one. Look at that item every 15 minutes until it’s done. Then move on to the next, and the next. Don’t be concerned if you’ve only finished two or three, or even one, by quitting time. You’ll be working on the most important ones, and the others can wait.”

The consultant encouraged Schwab to share this approach with his executives, judge its value, and “send me a check for whatever you think its worth.” Two weeks later, Lee received a check for $25,000 – a king’s ransom in those days ($500,000 approximately in today’s dollars) and in an accompanying note, Schwab said it was the most profitable lesson he’d ever learned.


The lesson, of course, was the power of focus. The organisation that understands – and acts upon – its Top 6 and Top 1 of six is the organisation that progresses and prevails.



This lesson applies to all

Charles Schwab was right; this is the best management advice you’ll ever receive. In my experience, it applies equally well to building a business as it does to building a business unit or even to improving an individual’s contribution.


The thing which prevents most businesses and individuals from achieving their growth potential is usually one of two problems, either:

  1. They get too bogged down in the operational ‘muck’ and forget to focus on the activities that will make the biggest difference; or
  2. They have too many ideas and fail to properly execute any of them.

When I was a CEO, each day I would ask myself and my senior leadership team to share what was the one strategic action we needed to focus on that day, the one thing that would make the biggest difference?

My question was always, ‘Having regard to our strategic plan, what is the one thing I need to do today to ensure our plan comes to fruition?’  We’d meet each day and hold each other accountable for executing our ‘one big thing’. A daily conversation ensured our plans and our actions were aligned.

Peer group pressure works a treat. I never wanted to come to those meetings admitting I hadn’t completed my action and neither did anyone else.

It’s surprising how difficult many people find this exercise at first.  Mostly, people will nominate operational issues which might be urgent but they aren’t important in the context of executing on the overall strategic plan. Training leaders to think strategically and holding them accountable for executing strategic actions is the key to creating forward momentum in a business.

This method works just as well for growing an individual desk. If you’re trying to grow a business, having each producer/fee writer nominate each day, one thing they will do to grow their part of the business can have a powerful effect. It could be as simple as writing a blog or meeting a potential new client. The key is to make sure this is a ‘big picture’ action in their context. There will always be operational work to do, but what is the one action you could take today, to build your brand or to grow your client base?


Imagine the combined impact of every producer in your business having this focus on a daily basis?

Momentum and alignment are two of the most critical drivers behind success in business. The Ivy Lee method works beautifully for creating both. Try it for three months and notice what a difference it makes to your business.