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Leadership: Are you working in your business or on it?

We all have an image of ‘the CEO’ in our mind. Typically, we think of CEOs (and business leaders in general) as a sort of Steve Jobs caricature: a charismatic and clever leader with a tireless work ethic.


There’s some truth inside that impression of a business leader, but working hard and speaking well are not enough to grow a business.


If a business leader truly wants to expand their company, they need to stop working in their business and start working on their business.


What’s the difference between working in your business and working on your business?


Working in your business means handling internal operations, the day-to-day activities like completing client deliverables or booking conference rooms.

At the broadest level, working in your business is what employees are meant to do, and working on your business is what business leaders are supposed to do.


Working in your business means handling internal operations, the day-to-day activities like completing client deliverables or booking conference rooms. When you find yourself focused on routine projects or handling administrative duties, stop and reflect. You are most likely working in your business, not on it.


Working on your business means focusing on the big picture. Rather than spending time on small projects, you are taking steps to strengthen your team, expand your network or build relationships with your clients.


In order for a business to grow over time, it is vital that business leaders avoid the temptation to work in their business and focus on long-term concerns like team building, client acquisition and product innovation.


Why do leaders choose to work in their business?


Other leaders work in their business because they believe they can do a better job completing assignments than their employees.

Some leaders are tempted to work in their business because they have a need to feel productive, and working in your business can be an alluring way to meet that need.


Completing a client deliverable is a tangible activity; it’s something you can check off your to-do list and feel proud of at the end of the day. The same is true for dealing with a crisis or handling administrative tasks. As a result, working in your business can be an easy habit to form, because on the surface, it seems like a great investment of your time.


Other leaders work in their business because they believe they can do a better job completing assignments than their employees. This mindset leads to a fear of delegation, and as a result, some leaders spend a huge portion of their time on projects that could be handled by others -- or that they’re already paying employees to complete.


What’s the problem with working in your business?


Imagine how unnatural it would be if a football coach responded to his team’s losing streak by stepping onto the field and playing the game himself. This coach has made the decision to work in his business rather than on it.


In the context of a football team, it’s simple to see why working in your business is often a bad idea. Building a strong football team takes years of strategic thinking. A coach needs to identify their team’s weaknesses, develop a plan to address those weaknesses and execute that plan over the course of several years. If a coach spends their whole day doing their players’ job, they will never have enough time to lead their team to victory. In many ways, a business is no different.


It is not a business leader’s responsibility to handle their team’s work. It is their responsibility to build a team that is prepared to work independently. When the head of a company is handling daily operations, there’s no one left to be the company’s visionary, to think five years ahead and lead their team to the next level.


On the other hand, when leaders choose to work on their business, companies can thrive. By proactively addressing a company’s high-level needs, leaders who work on their business are able to acquire new clients and expand their brand recognition. While their employees deal with the daily functions, business leaders can provide their company with the support it needs to flourish.


How do I get from ‘in’ to ‘on’?


Stop doing the work that you can delegate to your team. That decision sounds simple, but relinquishing control can be exceedingly difficult, especially if you are accustomed to personally handling most of your team’s.


Start by incrementally giving your employees increased accountability. As they take on new responsibilities, connect them to the information/resources they need to succeed in their new roles. Keep track of your team and invest in the employees that demonstrate the best abilities to adapt/learn over time.


If you find yourself unable to rely on your team, the best remedy is to hire (or rehire) the right people. Seek out dependable, coachable employees who fit your company culture. Be responsive to feedback from your team, and do your best to delegate in an organized and precise fashion so that work is never forgotten or duplicated.

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