Several times in the past month I have had conversations with Corpath members where the topic was their need to hire a leader to run operations so that they can free up more time to work on strategy, business development and tasks that only they can do. In light of these discussions, it is timely to send out a message from Steve Shrout of Metro News who shared today’s message on his blog a few years ago.

Whatever your position of leadership within the organization, whether a shift supervisor or CEO, it is important to know when it’s time to be working ON the business and when it’s necessary to inject yourself IN the business. Although it sounds too much like common sense, I believe few people have ever stopped to consider this thought.

FIRST, let’s discuss what it means to be “Working ON…”

Working ON the business can be summed up as those activities that requires us to engage in intellectual processing as we develop and position our business for growth. These activities can involve, but not be limited to, strategic planning, discussions for the purpose of exploration and partnership, contemplating staff reviews and organizational structure or even reviewing competitive positions and our potential responses to them.

Typically, working ON the business requires us to find some “think-time” to review our objectives and devise steps that will help us accomplish them.

I can recall launching a few newspapers from “scratch” over the years and know that taking time to make plans before starting something new can save pains later. Taking time to think will help us perform better when it’s time to act. Aggressive thinking can help us remain on the path to proactive growth and keep us away from being reactive in times of crisis.

Sadly, many leaders and executives fail to see the value and importance in taking time to break away from their operational duties to spend critical time thinking of strategies, positions and next steps for themselves and their staff or the business in general. They sometimes have a false sense of self-importance that won’t allow them to let their staff control the business long enough to allow the leader to engage in important think-time.

When tough times hit, or when economic challenges require us to do more with fewer people, leaders can sometimes become so operationally involved in the business that they lose sight in how important it is to remain thoughtful about the direction of the business. Working ON the business becomes all the more important.

In my opinion, any leader that fails to spend time contemplating and planning for the parts of the operation that fall under their purview is only a manager. Not a true leader.

Working ON the business seems to get little time as compared to working IN the business.

SECOND, let’s unpack what it means to be “Working IN…”

Working IN the business can be summed up as those activities that have a direct correlation to the organization’s reason for existence and productivity. Basically, any activity that can be tracked and monitored in any way would be included here; hiring and firing, ordering product, selling, delivering, administering and managing directly, etc. These tasks generally have specific descriptions and require some level of training so the task can be repeated over and over. The tasks are functional and utilitarian in nature.

While working ON the business has great value, being able to implement the plan effectively and successfully with staffs as they work IN the business is also critical.

Any good leader can create the best strategies for their business but the concepts remain as just “good ideas” if they are not implemented in a way that brings them from concept to reality. It’s at these times that the leader rolls up his/her sleeves and injects themselves (and their ideas) into the operation. They model the behaviors and activities that they envisioned and developed while working ON the business.

Last thought…

The best leaders continually migrate between working ON and IN their business. They understand when it’s time to break away and develop new ideas and strategies and they also know when it’s time to come back and get involved as they bring those ideas to the teams they lead.

Whether in board meetings or ad-hoc management discussions it’s easy to spot those leaders who have spent time working ON the business as well as IN the business. Their thoughts and considerations are clear. They have a realistic view of what needs to be done. They have ideas rather than excuses. I love working with these people. Don’t you?


  • Have you scheduled time to work ON your business? If not, why not?

Steve Shrout – used by permission.