Working ON the Business vs IN the Business & 5 Ways to Strike a Balance

You might have heard the phrase “Work On It, Not Just In It”, as this has been bandied around for the past 35 years, ever since Michael Gerber coined it in his bookThe E-Myth Revisited.

Its message was originally for entrepreneurs who couldn’t see any other way to do business than to build one around their own ability to get everything done – and do it all they certainly did! This ultimately lead to them creating a business that depended on them and them alone, left them burnt out, and stopped them from taking a step back and focusing on long term growth vision and strategy.

But thirty five years later this is the number one pain and challenge I see for both established entrepreneurs, and senior leaders within multinational corporations alike.

So what is the difference between IN and ON?

Working IN your business or function, is anything that’s a day to day job: execution and also management of the execution (“too hands-on” “sleeves rolled up” or “in the trenches” being the most common descriptions I hear of what this feels like)

Working ON your business, however, includes anything strategic: business strategy, marketing strategy, sales strategy, communication strategy, product or service development, research, and the vision and decisions that sit in the C-suite. As you start up or launch new products or services, it also includes creating the systems that make those run.

So working IN the business are the activities which make the business run; everything that creates and deploys your product or service as well as creating and retaining customers. It’s the execution of those daily tasks:

  • Making the product
  • Delivering the service
  • Administrative work
  • Hiring and onboarding
  • Team training
  • Marketing management and execution
  • Sales management and execution

 Working ON the business includes:

  • Strategic planning
  • Research and development
  • Creating systems
  • Alliances and partnerships
  • Brand/Corporate reputation
  • Thought Leadership
  • Scaling and Growth

So from these lists you can see WHY working on the business, as well as in, is so important.
As a leader, if you are NOT focusing on long term growth vision and strategy it’s not going to magically happen.

Not only that, but in micro-managing your team, you are disempowering and consequently demotivating them (another major leadership challenge I hear about on a daily basis).

To top it all off, you’re likely to be working longer hours than necessary, have poor work life balance, higher stress levels, be less fit and healthy (no time for rest or exercise), and when you do manage to take time off, be less present with friends and family because your mind is busy whirring with all the things that need to be done and dealt with.

So what’s stopping you from working ON the business?

The common (real) reasons are limiting beliefs and fears:

“No-one can do it as well as me”
“They can’t operate without me – they need me!”
“If I train them up I will become expendable”

I read recently that In the U.S. army leaders have to train up several people to do their job – in case they get killed in battle. As a leader you fortunately don’t have to consider something quite as dramatic happening… but it is your job to empower your team to do the day to day – so you can focus on the big picture and strategy.

What’s the link to Emotional Intelligence?

In terms of EQ, the focus here is on the first two cornerstones of our model: self-awareness and self-management.
To make the switch you need to become aware of your limiting beliefs – the ones that keep you stuck in this way of working.
Ask yourself:

What are MY fears?
How am I holding myself back?
What can’t I be with?

If I continue doing this where will I, my team, and the business be in five years time?
When you’ve asked yourself those tough questions, challenge and replace them with new, more effective beliefs (yes, you’ll need the time and space to do that as with any other strategy work).

Then it’s time to start working in a different way – a way that is more effective not only for the business and your team, but for you as an effective leader and the impact you want to have out there in the world.

Knowing that by doing so, in every interaction you have, you will also be developing the other two cornerstones of your own EQ: social-awareness and relationship management.

Here are some ways to practically make the shift, and strike a more effective balance:

1.1. Start the day as you mean to go on
If you want to be a strategic visionary leader start your day that way! The best thing you can do for yourself (and everyone you come into contact with as a leader), is to start a morning routine of strategic journaling, visualisation, meditation and exercise.

If you think this sounds ridiculous and something you couldn’t possible ‘waste time’ on, know that the likes of Steve Jobs, Barack Obama and Mark Zuckerberg attribute much of their success and achievement on theirs. A great book to get you started with this is Hal Elrod’s Miracle Morning

1.2. Block Out Time Every Week
This is a tough one I know, especially when working in the business feels like the most urgent or pressing thing to do. I once sat in a contracting session with a new client, a senior leader in the finance sector. His very wise (and very successful) CEO insisted, as one of his objectives, that he carve out a weekly two-hour session to spend solely on long term vision and strategy work.

The senior leaders was horrified, siting that he didn’t possibly have the time to do this. Long story short, doing so exponentially propelled his leadership success and that of his team’s. I highly recommend you do the same.

What will help your brain implement this as a new habit is doing it at the same time, in the same place, and giving yourself a dopamine (the feel-good hormone) inducing reward at the end of it.

Plus, treat this time as you would a meeting with your #1 client and protect it all costs!

1.3. Learn to delegate and TRUST
By far the most important shift you need to make if you want to spend more time ON the business, is to hold that everyone (not just you), is intrinsically OK. Everyone is naturally creative resourceful whole human beings. Your stretch will be to hold them more as such, and step into leading instead of managing them.

This crucially means learning to delegate well – making sure everyone has what they need to do the day to day work, and then trust that they can and will do it.

If by chance someone does ‘fail’ then this is another developmental learning point for you as a leader – what was your role in that? did you do everything to make sure they had what they needed ? Did you ask them what they needed? what skills gaps do they have? What’s needed next time?

1.4. Focus Your Planning Around Outcomes
Don’t plan with a “to-do list;” instead, make a plan using outcomes.

Plan 90-day periods, broken down into outcomes, and work for 90 minutes per day on activities that will generate those results without exception.
Planning that is outcome-focused helps you avoid getting distracted by the “busy work” that can take up so much of our time and is much more attractive (or addictive) because it gives those little dopamine hits or ‘highs’.

When you’ve reached your 90 minutes take a break and again, give yourself a reward.

1.5. Build Your Personal Resilience

As the old proverb says: You can’t pour from an empty cup!

To be able to lead others and achieve what you need and want to achieve in and for the business, you need to take care of yourself first.
If you keep on pushing through, working past your capacity (both brain and body), you will either burnout or make yourself physically and/or mentally ill, as well as experiencing a lot of stress and anxiety along the way.

You will be role-modelling, to everyone you come into contact with especially your team, that this is the way to operate. You will also have little patience or presence to give both to your team, and also your loved ones at home.

Developing a self-care routine is the best and most effective thing you can do for yourself as a leader.

Create a consistent one that focuses on your physical health (often starting with the basics of sleep, exercise, and rest/reflection), includes some form of mindfulness (this doesn’t have to mean you sitting cross-legged – it can include ‘active mindfulness’ such as gardening, golf or running), social connection and contact, and creates a regular check-in and reminder of your values and purpose as a leader.

Do all of these and you really will have the clarity, stamina, perspective and drive – to work not only in but also on the business.

Need help redesigning your life + career? There are a few ways I can do that
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