Posts Taged on-the-business

The One Year, Thirty Minute Challenge :: Week 45 :: Governance :: On the Business vs In the Business

Working ON the business instead of IN the business. I’m not sure he was the first one to introduce the phrase, but I’m pretty sure no one was more responsible for making it a permanent part of our business lexicon than Michael Gerber in his 1986 book, The E Mtyh. He told us something we all know deep down. Entrepreneurs aren’t superheroes. They’re not imbued with specials power that let them build a business from scratch and become successful and wealthy while the rest of us work for someone else. He did, however, teach us that those entrepreneurs who reach the tipping point and build a real business (as opposed to those who just created a job for themselves) learned how to work ON their business and not just IN it.

However, working IN the business isn’t just the affliction of novice entrepreneurs who haven’t made the leap. All of us fall can fall prey to the tyranny of daily, transactional work that isn’t in the best long-term interest of the organization. So, in this week’s One Year, Thirty Minute Challenge, we want to create a framework that you and your team can use to keep your focus on long-term organizational health and do it in a way that fits each person’s responsibilities in the organization.

There’s no “right” percentage of your work week you should be devoting to working ON the business instead of IN it. But the farther you are up the food chain, the higher the percentage should be. If you’re the big boss, the overwhelming majority of your work should be devoted to organizational health, staff development, and business growth. For those farther down the food chain, the mix can and should change to allow for more operational responsibilities (working IN the business).

Let’s jump in. I want you to do a couple of things during your 30 minute exercise this week – identify the best “ON the business” activities you can prioritize during your week AND add some tools to your toolbox that will help you protect your ON the business time.

I can’t tell you all the activities that best constitute working ON the business for you and your organization, but I want to give you a starter list. Jot the ones that resonate with you into Evernote or on a notepad. At the end of the exercise, we’re going to use them.

  • Spend time on personal growth – Read a book, listen to a podcast, take a class, go to a conference. Your organization will most likely never grow beyond you. Learn from people who don’t agree with you philosophically, who work in other industries, and who have already walked this road before you. Synthesize the new things you learn – How do they fit with what you know already? How do they conflict with what you know already? How should what you have learned impact the organization?
  • Devote time to staff development – How can you prepare your direct reports for more responsibilities, including assuming your job? What parts of their performance are deficient? Do they have sufficient cross-discipline understanding? How well are they developing their team so that their eventual replacement is ready? Are they creating sufficient margin in their operational responsibilities, so they have time to devote to working ON the business? Is there talent missing in the organization?
  • Examine meaningful metrics – Have you identified the metrics that are truly indicative of organizational health? If so, are you tracking them faithfully and making course corrections based on the data? Are you pushing them down through the organization so that everyone knows whether or not the organization is “winning”?
  • Evaluate your value creation activities – Are you solving your customer’s problems more effectively than others in your industry? If not, why not? What changes can you make to your value creation activities so that you are creating value better than your competitors? Can you improve delivery of your product or service so that customers are less likely to defect?
  • Survey the industry landscape – Are there new, capable competitors in the industry? How does their offering or delivery differ from yours? Where are your products in the product life cycle? Are any successor products on the horizon? If so, what is the right response right now? Are there any regulatory changes that could alter the dynamic in your industry? Are there any shifts in the macroenvironment that that could impact your industry or business – financial (cost of money, availability of credit), technology, cultural norms, environmental norms?
  • Spend time with several stakeholder groups – Get out of the office for meaningful dialog with team members, customers, vendors, shareholders and more. Ask good questions. Probe for understanding when it comes to things that are hindering them in value creation activities. Synthesize all the information you receive to get to the “truth”. Recognize that the information you receive from each stakeholder group is colored by their experience and interests. Remember, “we don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are.”
  • Guard the culture – Nothing is more important than modeling the culture and communicating the culture. Every stakeholder group needs to see you exhibit and explain the “____ Company Way” to treat each other, customers, vendors, and shareholders and how to approach work.


If those are ways to work ON the business, what do you do when the daily press of work tries to drag you back to working IN the business? These tools will help.

  • Reframe the task – When an urgent operational problem lands on your desk, identify the process that failed (a flaw in the order process, an untrained employee, tech that failed, a vendor that didn’t deliver) and fix both the immediate problem and the root cause. If you traceback every time, you’re stopping the problem from happening again by improving organizational health.
  • Say no – Some urgent matters don’t deserve your attention. Someone else can worry about the malfunctioning garage door in the warehouse. Ego would like you to jump up from your desk and save the day, but working on the business requires you to say, “Have Mary in the warehouse call the company we used last time. And next time we have a problem with garage doors, you can go straight to Mary. She can take care of it.”
  • Put employees first – Every urgent problem screams to be solved now. It’s almost always faster for you to solve the problem yourself. Resist the temptation. Instead, use it as a training opportunity. Grab the one, two, or six people that could solve this problem (if they knew what you knew) and walk them through the resolution – patiently answering every question. The next time this surfaces, hand it off to one of them and go back to working ON the business.
  • Go from the outside in – Keep problem-solving customer centric. Challenge team members to, instead of consulting you, do what’s best for the customer. Only if they’re unsure of what that is, can they interrupt you.
  • Be accountable – None of us are immune from being pulled under by the current of urgent problems. Consequently, we need to give others in the organization permission to call us out when we’re spending too much time working IN the business instead of ON it.


Lots of time management techniques fail miserably because they’re built around open slots on a calendar. Here’s an observation. I always have enough “IN the business” tasks to fill my entire week. Take the tasks from the “ON the business” list and put them on the calendar. Then, let nothing displace them. If the building is on fire, put it out, then return to your “ON the business” task for that day and finish it. If something has to push, let it be one of the “IN the business” tasks – don’t worry, it will be there tomorrow.

If you want a healthy organization with engaged employs and increasing revenue, this is the only way. You can never work IN the business enough to make it happen.