Working On (vs. In) The Business

I distinctly recall the scene.

It was at a board meeting and the directors were discussing the leadership team that was in place and the pace of recruiting senior talent. The feedback was that the CEO (let’s call him Roger) should be more aggressively hiring VPs than he was.

I want you thinking about the business 24/7; how to build it, how to grow it; not in the bowels of operating it. That’s what your leadership team is there for. I want you working on the business, not working in the business.

One investor then commented: “Roger, if I come in here one day and see your feet up on that couch in your office daydreaming about the business, I’m going to give you a raise!”

I think I did a double take. A raise!?!?

The investor went on to explain.

“I want you thinking about the business 24/7; how to build it, how to grow it; not in the bowels of operating it. That’s what your leadership team is there for. I want you working on the business, not working in the business.”

Those words stuck with me.

The gravitational pull to work in the business is a normal one, particularly if you are a founding CEO. And with all of us hunkering down due to the coronavirus – pulling back on our non-core activities to protect the business organism – we can see how working in the business becomes the de facto way to operate.

You need to course correct if you find yourself in this behavior pattern.

The image that comes to my mind is that of a farmer. When you are working in the business, you are disproportionately focused on tending what you have already planted: improving the business operating system you have installed, checking in on the teams you have configured and monitoring company progress against key objectives.

When you prioritize working on the business, you are more focused on scouting new fields, clearing them, tilling the soil and planting new seeds. This comes in many forms: sourcing potential new talent by following the trail of profiles on LinkedIn; creating content for a podcast or blog post; signing up for products from emerging players in your space to see how they approach solving customer problems; or listening to recorded sales calls for themes around prospect pain points and the language they use that could inform future product marketing.

How do you know if your work in vs. on the business is out of balance? It quite simply comes down to how you allocate your most precious resource: time.

What does your calendar look like? Do you have blocks of ‘structured unstructured’ time on your calendar; time that you carve out of your day – and religiously protect – to get lost in exploring what is possible for your business?

To clarify this point, I would suggest you color coordinate all internal activities on your calendar – where you are working in the business – in red. And then color coordinate all company building activities where you work on the business – including ‘structured unstructured’ discovery time – in green.

How does your calendar look? Green with opportunity? Red with warning signals? Or a Christmas tree?

To be fair, resisting the call of the ‘urgent’ to work on the ‘important’ requires discipline, energy and saying ‘no’ a lot. But just like starting a new exercise regimen, begin slowly and try to maintain consistency to build the habit. Because if you don’t protect a finite part of your day to think about what is possible (and then take steps to make it happen), who in the company is?