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Working On the Business

Strategy concept

There’s a common phrase among organizations to distinguish and delineate the division of effort from leaders: Leaders work “in” and “on” the business.

Although a form of binary thinking, the intention behind the phrase can be helpful when approached as two pieces of the whole of a leader. The two compartments of effort simplify a way to think about and perhaps reality-check leaders’ work. Understanding them can also contribute to a leader’s effectiveness.

Let’s look at each compartment:

Working in the business most often includes the type of work that produces direct business results. The leader working in the business becomes an “individual contributor,” providing business results similar to their direct reports and other employees of the organization. The work may be more technician- or production-based, not necessarily requiring a higher level of strategic effort. Working in the business is normally associated with the products or services the business provides.

Working on the business includes strategic planning, organizational meaning, people-development (direct reports and self), and possibly community and enterprise networking and public relations and involvement. Of course, working on the business can include very specific activities depending on the organization, such as purpose, values and mission work, and strategic foundation work.

Most executive leaders understand and work in these two areas with a keen focus on the latter. They know that the value they bring to the organization is developing strategic direction, building and maintaining a culture that will support achieving the strategy, and setting the planning and implementation for others to execute.

Many “working managers” are aware of the two categories as well and may be working in both to some degree. However, most leaders, VPs and down the org-chart report that they are challenged to provide enough effort and resources to work on the business as much as they would like or as is expected of them.

The most effective leaders develop more leaders, not more followers. They know that to do this, they must “get out of the way” of their people so they can do the work they are asked to do. Leaders equip their people and then move aside, remaining ever-available and never neglectful. It’s a curious balance of being detached but highly involved – of knowing when to work in and on the business, and when to let others do the same … much like the relationship between coaches and their clients.

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