• “I feel like I’m fighting fires all the time and I don’t have time to think about things like this.”
  • “We don’t do this (have strategic discussions) often enough.”
  • “It seems like we go from one deadline to the next with no time in between to consider if we are doing the right things or heading in the right direction.”

These comments are representative of many we’ve heard from leaders and leadership teams this year as we have engaged with them in strategic planning conversations. Candidly, they are also representative of a few of our own discussions within our firm. We, like many of the leaders and leadership teams with whom we work, often find strategic topics squeezed out of executive team meetings in lieu of more tactical or urgent issues. It seems for all of us that the “busyness” of working ‘in’ the business can easily get in the way of working ‘on’ the business. To change this phenomenon, we must understand the difference, why it is important, and how to elevate our conversations.

When we talk to leaders and owners about working on the business versus in the business, we often are asked to explain what we mean. Consider these examples:


Working In the Business:
How am I developing my team? What team members are available for this project? What training do my team members need? How am I delivering on my personal goals?

Working On the Business:
What team do we need to achieve the vision for the organization? What should it look like 3-5 years out? What new or different capabilities will we need to compete? How do we ensure we have the right people in the right places at the right time?


Working In the Business:
How am I developing myself? How am I meeting my goals? What do I need to do to get my work done? How do I meet my deadlines? Am I telling people what to do?

Working On the Business:
How am I developing those around me to do their best work? What can we do to leverage the talents of the team in the best way? How can we continuously improve our communication and collaboration across the team and with others in the organization?

The distinction between working in the business and on the business lies in the perspective we take.  If we are considering only our own responsibilities, technical specialty, customers, or team, the focus is more working in the business and producing to achieve a stronger personal performance.  If we take a broader view, considering the longer-term vision, positioning the organization for success, and thinking about what might need to be done differently, the focus is on the business and achieving a stronger company performance.  The leadership lesson and importance of the distinction is this: if we aren’t spending enough time working on the business, we are short-changing organizational performance. 

We all have everyday demands that pull us into tactical thinking and execution.  However, as leaders, we must create the space to prioritize strategic thinking and intentional strategic activity to drive organizational performance.  Three key actions can help:

  1. Goals – As the old adage goes, if you don’t know where you want to go, any road will get you there. The first step in working on the business is to set goals for the business as a whole.  The vision and goals identify the desired destination and define why working on the business is important.
  2. Time – A second key element is dedicating time to work on what is important.  Working on the business often doesn’t carry the same sense of urgency as working on daily tasks; thus, we must be disciplined to create time to work at a strategic level.  We recommend using the Pareto Principle (i.e., the 80/20 rule) as a guide to screen your daily and weekly calendar.  Be sure you are investing 20% or more of your time to working on the business and the overarching business performance goals. 
  3. Team – Another key action is to build the right team around you to be able to delegate. As a leader, your highest and best use is to function at the strategic level as much as possible.  To shift tasks from your list to others, you must have a team you know is capable and that you trust to execute. If you don’t have the right team or something holds you back from delegating, it is doubtful you will be able to create the space needed to work on the business at the level needed.  

In addition to doing these personally, you will amplify results if every leader and the executive team takes these actions to enhance performance and results.  In a strategic planning retreat with an executive team this past summer, we explored these three areas. After a thorough discussion where the team members actively shared their thoughts and views, we asked how they felt.  One of the leaders shared that based on what he had learned from the conversation, he would be approaching his job and thought process differently going forward. The others shared similar reflections and noted the significant upside potential to the organization if they all achieved this shift.

How often are you working on the business versus in the business? Is the balance between the two sufficient to achieve the organizational performance desired? If not, define or re-commit to goals, evaluate your investment of time and ensure you have the right team to be able to delegate.  Then ask others to do the same. By taking these steps, you will elevate strategic thinking, conversations, and activity across the board, and the benefit will be stronger organizational performance.