Working On Your Business Not In It

Working on your business not in it

How often have you heard a trainer or consultant say that as the owner of the business you should be “working on your business not in it?” I’ve said it often myself.

Fortunately, no one has ever asked me exactly what that meant. It appears to be a cliche or phrase that has become accepted although not clearly defined or understood.

So, what’s the difference between working on versus¬†in your business? Employees work in the business. Most have specific duties or tasks to accomplish on a regular basis. Most know what’s expected of them. The “boss” however, doesn’t have such a clear path and few were trained to be bosses. Their tasks are self appointed and, based on my observations, quite varied from owner to owner. The result is that many work in the business sometimes and on it at other times. It appears to be a matter of priorities and fires.

All too often the boss spends much of his or her time fighting fires. Rather than an owner working on the business they have become crisis managers. Many sit in their offices and wait for someone to come through the door with a problem that needs attention or resolution — now.

Most owners seem to be pretty good at handling crisis problems. Some even call them “opportunities.” The reality is that the owner has trained his employees to bring all problems that need immediate attention to them. This, of course, takes the responsibility away from the staff and puts it squarely on the owner’s shoulders. I see extreme examples when a store is being remodeled or expanded. The owner then becomes the construction foreman, the architect, the designer and the one who knows where all the materials can be found.

Through it all, the store keeps on running. Sales continue to be made, orders for inventory are placed; each department does its tasks. The employees know what to do on a day-to-day basis. So far there seems to be no reason to change the situation.

However, there is also no leverage, no long term planning, no continuing education and the owner is getting little input other than from staff members. And most of that is negative.

Okay, so what would change if the owner started working on the business? First, he or she would not be the first one in and the last one out. He wouldn’t necessarily come to the store every day. She would be circulating in the community making contacts with other owners of small businesses getting ideas. He would seek out organizations made up of like-minded business people in his community. She would be joining associations like the Chamber of Commerce, the Rotary Club, and the Lion’s Club. Once a member the owner would be attending regular meetings to become an integral part of the community.

The owner would be expanding his or her circle of associates and yes, even friends, outside the industry. He or she would be spending “think time,” that quiet time spent thinking about the future and how to use all that knowledge bottled up inside but not exercised because of day-to-day pressures.

As I travel and talk to owners I often hear them complain that they don’t get as much time to do the things they like anymore; that they are working longer hours than ever and they are beginning to suffer from burnout.

Well, Bunky, burnout is not uncommon. It’s not something only a few suffer. If you’ve been in the business for a decade or more you’ve probably suffered some level of burnout, distress, angst that seems to be almost impossible to resolve. You’ve been spending the majority of your time solving other people’s problems. You’ve come to accept it as just part of the business. It doesn’t have to be that way.

Only you can change you.

Your quality of life has to be a high priority. Some dealers have discovered that once they give their subordinates more latitude to make critical decisions those staff members rise to the occasion and become better managers themselves.

Will they make mistakes? Count on it. People don’t learn by doing repetitive work. They learn by making judgment calls that are not always right. They learn by being given the authority and responsibility to do a better job. As an owner it is your responsibility to mentor and coach your managers and have them do the same for those who report to them.

There is an adage that says: “If it can be measured it can be managed. If it is measured it can be improved.” Working on your business should mean that you have the tools to measure and manage and more importantly, your managers have the training to measure and manage those who report to them.

We are truly in the digital age. Computers, cameras, even phones have moved from analog to digital. Your business must do the same. You have the hardware. Now, as the owner must learn what those digital reports mean and what you need to do to implement and monitor them.

On the analog side you do need to hone your mentoring and coaching skills. Fact is, your staff is closer to an extended family than a working team. Like it or not you are the Daddy or the Mommy as well as the Chief of Police and coach. However, you shouldn’t be the sole fireman.

Leader image via Shutterstock



John Wyckoff

13 Reactions

  1. There was a blog by David Seah that reviewed the principle where the company owner (a.k.a. boss) should set up his business in such a way that it can work without him so he can focus on the things he wants or needs to do for the long-term. They were talking about the 4-Hour Workweek by Tim Ferriss. It’s due today but if you’re interested you can check it out at


  2. The bottom line is that the “entrepreneur” should be investing in the Ecosystem of the business. Small business owners should be very forward-looking and innovative. In my line of business, you are classified in two areas of expertise: 1. Commodities 2. Innovation. There is a BIG difference in the paychecks that an innovator receives over a commodity dealer. My advice is to invest in marketing, invest in people, invest in processes before the business is open. Here’s to success!

  3. Sometimes it’s difficult to work just “on” the business and not “in”.
    For many small busineses the owner is the front face of that business and clients often feel the need to be able to interact directly with them.

    In the early years I personally have found it very difficult to strike up a good work life balance. I have no options but to work continuosly in the business whilst at the same time working on it. And for many small business just setting up, they have to work a job as well to keep the young business funded (as I do)

    So there are now, four different balls in the juggling act. Working in,working on,lifestyle and a job.

    Love it all the same…

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