I blame Michael Gerber. In his seminal book, The E-Myth Revisited, he embedded the idea “You need to work on your business, not in your business,” into the hearts and minds of millions of entrepreneurs. Since then it’s become a standard in speeches and articles from consultants and advisors of all shapes and sizes. It's become a mantra for many.
Before anyone goes off the rails, please know that I am not saying that executives need to stop working on their businesses (and, yes, the vast majority of executives need to spend more/better time working on the business).
The problem with the advice is the word “not.”
The reality for 98% of small and mid-market business executives is that while they do need to work on the business, they must work in it. If you’re a senior executive at GM, Microsoft, FedEx, P & G, etc., you have the resources and people to be able to work on the business. However, if you’re a senior executive at a $30 million print company, a $200 million logistics company or a $5 million professional services company (to name a few) you are also in a critical role that drives and supports the operation. If you stopped working in the business, the business would be irreparably harmed.
The mantra causes 3 problems for SME’s and executives:
- It creates a lot of guilt and reduces confidence. For years I’ve always felt like I was doing something wrong because I kept working in the business, and that guilt caused me to be less effective and productive.
- Entrepreneurs and owners step out of critical functions too early, often putting people in place that are not prepared to manage the function.
- The business tries to do too much and under-allocates to important initiatives, stunting their growth. If I feel like I need to stop working in my business, I’ve got a lot to do. So I try to do it all, and end up doing none of it well.
Working “on the business” means focusing on and building the systems and structure that allows each discipline to be performed repeatably, sustainably and predictably.
The advice needs to be: Entrepreneurs, owners and executives need to work on their business while working in it. Doing this successfully requires:
- Focus – don’t work on more than 1 – 3 initiatives at a time.
- Seek outside counsel – I realize this sounds self-serving, but it’s important nonetheless. When you’re working in your business, you’re too close and too involved in the system to see things clearly. Outsiders with deep expertise can get you where you want to be faster and easier.
- Prioritize leverage over productivity. Find ways to spend your time and resources on initiatives that create leverage, and reduce the focus on effort over time.