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Working IN the business vs. working ON the business

The difference may mean growing faster & more consciously. Less stress and less busywork. Big picture thinking and staying out of the weeds.

Chase Damiano
6 min read
Working IN the business vs. working ON the business

The difference may mean growing faster and more consciously. Less stress and less busywork. Big picture thinking and staying out of the weeds. And, placing a higher value on your time.

Working in the business means actively existing a part of the system that delivers the product or service and achieves the vision.
Working on the business means creating the means by which the product or service is delivered and the vision is achieved.

Working in the business is active. It is tactical, linear, and focused on the present. It says, “I do the work.” It has no room for future planning. It’s about executing at peak performance, in this moment.

Working on the business is passive. It is strategic, big picture, and focused on the future. It says, “The work is being done.” It has no room for present performance. It’s about deploying resources so goals are achieved.

Imagine a simple restaurant with three employees: Cook, responsible for food preparation and food safety; Server, responsible for customer service; and Manager, responsible for payroll, inventory, and other administrative work. All have been hired by Owner to serve the needs of the restaurant’s customers.

Our restaurant Owner is quite passionate; they put their soul into building their dream. It’s their name, their reputation. Their masterpiece. The Owner went through mental and emotional hurdles to open their business – including real estate, build-out, licensing, and fundraising. They are committed to making their concept extremely successful, and they are thus more likely to exert control over everything.

Problems arise when Owner’s sense of control bleeds into the jobs of their employees. Employees are hired for a reason – to take work off Owner’s plate, and ideally, to do a job better than Owner can. However, today, Owner can’t help but notice the Cook not prepping dishes the right way, or Server not attending the tables fast enough, or the Manager allowing things to run out of stock. What to do?

The Owner wants to be helpful – so they get their hands dirty and help. Owner will rearrange Cook’s dishes for better presentation. Owner visits tables and takes orders. Owner commits to a new supplier on behalf of Manager. Owner takes away work from their employees, using language like:

  • at best, “I’m just trying to help. I’m trying to make it easier for everyone.”
  • at worst, “They aren’t doing things right. I could do this better myself.”

Either way, it’s detrimental to employees. Although the Owner gets positive reinforcement for their actions – customers are happier, better presentation, better service, more items in stock – the employees receive negative reinforcement – they learn that, if they don’t do it, the Owner will. They learn that work can always escalate to the Owner. Employees use language like:

  • at best, “Owner is trying to help me. I’ll follow their lead and learn from them. They know better than I do.”
  • at worst, “Owner wants things done their way. It’s their way or the highway. I better fall in line.”

The next time, employees may be hesitant to do a new task. So, they ask questions. They request training. They get Owner to double-check their work. Therefore, work escalates to the Owner. On employees’ minds is:

  • at best, “I want to make sure this is done right. I’m not confident here. Show me the right way to do it.”
  • at worst, “I don’t want to step out of line. I might get chewed out. They might fire me.”

Either way, are employees confident and encouraged to attempt new things and innovating without the Owner’s involvement? Not in the slightest.

To top it off, the Owner is burdened with an increasing plate of operational decisions in running the restaurant. The Owner hired this team to handle these aspects – but Owner suffers by working in the business, borrowing time away from strategic thinking and getting this restaurant to the next level.

Why does this happen? This occurs because there is a trust issue between the Owner and the employees. Owner isn’t trusting employees to do the job. Employees are not confident they are doing things right.

Owners may attempt to create standard operating procedures, explicitly listing how to do each task. They’ll prepare handbooks, videos, and other media to communicate what to do. The problem arises when exceptions to the procedures occur. What is an employee to do in the moment? They certainly don’t want to do things “wrong!”

Working in the business means muddling with operational affairs instead of letting your team work. It’s impossible to play the quarterback, the wide receiver, the linebacker, and still be the head coach. You need a team to play the game.

Instead, work on the business. This means giving your team a strong vision and a sense of purpose. A reason why we’re all here. It means developing value statements to communicate how the work should be done, without telling them how to do their jobs. It means setting transparency goals and metrics for everyone to see if they are on or off track.

Working on the business means giving your employees a platform to perform. And it is like a performance. Imagine being the director of a Broadway play. You decide what performance (product or service) will engage your creative vision and serve the audience and critics (customers) best. You choose the set, how the scenes flow, and the roles to be played. You find talented actors to fill the roles, and you give them coaching and guidance for how best to portray the role.

But, when it comes to showtime, you’re off the stage, watching. You’ve given room for your team to perform. You’re not the one performing.

The Owner is the only person responsible for setting the vision. To articulate and explain why we’re all here, the purpose of our business, and where we’re heading.

In our restaurant, the Owner can establish, “Our vision is for the world to recognize Chiang Mai, Thailand as a cultural center for high-quality, unique cuisines. Our restaurant serves exclusively dishes from Northern Thailand to showcase the region’s culinary diversity.” Strong leaders ask their team, “What are the things we need to do here to help realize that vision?”

  • The Server may say, “Northern Thailand is a paragon for friendly, quick service. I think we should have extremely fast service to support the vision.”
  • The Cook may say, “Our food should be satisfying, unique, and beautifully-prepared to stand out. I think we should have these to support the vision.”
  • The Manager may say, “We cannot serve the best dishes without amazing ingredients, always fresh and available. I think we should have connections to local markets for the best ingredients.”

Now, Owner is engaging their employees to achieve the vision. Owner works on the business in this way to inspire their employees toward better collective performance. Employees have a reason to excel. They feel, “we’re all in this, together.”

Rapidly growing a business fundamentally means you must hand the ball off to your team members. You cannot do it all. The first time Owners use this methodology, they may find their employees continuing to “underperform” relative to their standards, thinking, “I should have just done this myself.” Perhaps your team delivers on 70% of what you want. What now?

Provide feedback. You hold the vision (read: your standards) in your head. Show them what to do without doing it for them. Reinforce the purpose of this standard – to achieve a higher-order goal. Don’t get distracted by the 30% that was “wrong.” Focus on the 70% that was “right.” Point them toward what to do, not what not to do.

If underperformance continues, hard decisions may be in order. If your starting wide receiver is constantly missing catches, late to practice, neglects training, and doesn’t receive advice, make a decision on this person’s future. Keeping players with bad attitudes sends a message to everyone on your team that bad attitudes are tolerated and acceptable.

When working on the business

  • You give opportunities to your employees to get it right.
  • You help employees exceed their own expectations.
  • You reward taking more responsibility and teach the next generation of leaders.
  • You spend more time on strategic thinking, less on operational challenges.
  • You permanently delegate work off of your plate.
  • You are less busy.

So, do you think you spend more time working on your business, or working in your business?

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