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.

What Does It Mean to Work On Your Business Not In It?

So, what’s the difference between working on your business versus in your business?

  • Employees work in the business. Most have specific duties or tasks to accomplish on a regular basis. Most know what to do. They know what is expected of them.
  • The “boss” however, doesn’t have such a clear path. 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 owners work in the business sometimes, and on the business 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 some owners have trained their employees to bring all problems that need immediate attention back to them. This, of course, takes the responsibility away from the staff. It puts responsibility 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.

The Problem With Working IN Your Business

You might wonder, “what’s the problem with that?”  After all, things are still running.

The problem is, there is also no leverage.

There is no long term planning.  No one is looking at what could happen (or should happen) next year or three years from now.

The owner has no continuing education. The owner is getting little input other than from staff members. And most of that is negative.  Soon the owner’s skills and outlook get stale. We all need to sharpen our saws occasionally.

No one is focusing on the big picture. Everyone including the owner is down in the weeds.  All the focus is inside the four walls. No one is visiting with customers and using that feedback  to improve and evolve. No one is tracking the competition to see what has to change.

Spending all your time working IN your business can harm it.  Why? Because it’s not about what you’re doing. It’s about what you’re not doing.

How to Work ON Your Business

Okay, so what would change if the owner started working on the business?

First, the owner would not be the first one in and the last one out. He or she wouldn’t necessarily come to the store or office every day.

The owner 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 industry associations, or local 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. The owner would be finding ways 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. They say they are working longer hours than ever. They say  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.

Why? 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.

Benefits You Get

Only you can change you.  Your quality of life has to be a high priority. You have to let go of some things.

When you do, you may see your business take off.

Some owners have discovered that once they give their subordinates more latitude to make critical decisions those staff members rise to the occasion. Staff members 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.

Next Steps

As an owner it is your responsibility to mentor and coach your managers.  Give constructive feedback. 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. Just as importantly, your managers need the training and tools to measure and manage those who report to them.

Computers and phones have evolved, freeing you up to be out of the office more. Software gives us reports and data that just five years ago we might only have dreamed of getting.

Now your business must evolve. You have the hardware. You have the software. Now, as the owner you must learn what those digital reports mean. You must learn what you need to do to implement and monitor them.

On the people side, you 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.

This is what it means to work on your business not in it.

Leader image via Shutterstock


Anita Campbell Anita Campbell is the Founder, CEO and Publisher of Small Business Trends and has been following trends in small businesses since 2003. She is the owner of BizSugar, a social media site for small businesses.