Goering Center news: Work on your business, not in it

Practical tips for business leaders who want to stop reacting and prioritize deeper work

By Doug Meyer

As business leaders, we often hear the phrase, "you need to work on your business, not in your business.”

I firmly believe this to be true; the challenge is that it is hard to actually do. Although it is a simple concept many, including myself, struggle with implementing this into action. I've personally had to invest time and effort into implementing this in my own business. As a strategic business partner to my clients, this is a daily conversation. As a leader of your business, you will naturally have multiple things fall into your lap daily and you have to be diligent about not spending all of your time being reactive. Because this is such a common problem my clients and I have dealt with, I decided to pull together some practical steps to help you understand the problem with working in the business, how to work on your business, the benefits and what to do next.

Before we dive in, I want to share why it is vitally important that we focus on working on the business.  When we work in the business versus on the business, we are not setting up the organization for strategic growth. If we do not allocate the appropriate time to work on the business, it often leads to ambiguity and lack of clarity of the direction the business is heading in for our team members.  As hard as it is to hear, when we spend more time in versus on, we are not being an effective leader. 

Here are the ways you can start to prioritize working on your business:

Block the time

Our calendars fill up fast. We must strategically allocate time to work on the business, otherwise we often gravitate to the hot issue of the day. Treat this time as you would for your most important customer. Would you cancel on your most important customer? Would you regularly reschedule on your most important customer? No, we wouldn't.  So why do we often treat working on our business as less important?

There is a fantastic book I reference and visit often: Deep Work by Cal Newport. This book describes four quadrants:

  1. Important and urgent
  2. Important, but not urgent
  3. Not important, but urgent
  4. Not important and not urgent

The more time we can plan and allocate to “important, but not urgent” is key. If you are in the quadrant of “important and urgent,” most of the time this points to us being reactive and fighting fires. Strategically this is not the quadrant we want to spend our time in. When we are truly working on the business, we spend critical time in the “important, but not urgent” quadrant. By blocking out time on our schedule we can better manage our efforts and really drive the business forward. Treat this blocked out time as non-negotiable. For a quick but in-depth understanding, you can also check out Episode 114 on The Learning Leader Show. Ryan and Cal get into the details on why this quadrant can ultimately be your superpower!

Let it go

Beyond a hit Disney song, many tend to not "Let It Go" and properly allocate their work to others.  Speaking from experience, no one is going to do it the way you do it or exactly how you envision. However, trust your people. Diversity of thought is a huge value add for all businesses. Letting go is hard, but if we don’t, we never have the time to truly work on our business because we will continuously be stuck in the weeds. Long term, this will inhibit the growth potential for our team members and the autonomy they deserve. So, give your team the freedom to fail, with boundaries.

This was extremely hard for me. A few years ago, after tax season I asked the team to list five things we need to do better. When I walked into the room they looked very nervous. I turned around to see the first thing on the list was “Get Doug out of the way.” They explained how I was a bottleneck, and limiting their client contact was getting in the way of their growth and our firm profitability. Wow — what a message to hear, but they were absolutely right. By letting go, I have more time to work on the business and they are enjoying more rapid professional and personal growth.

Don’t allow the “boomerang effect”

How many times have you tried to transition a task or relationship and it ends up coming right back to you? What do you do when this happens? I made the mistake of catching the boomerang and getting back involved at a detail level. What I should have done is ask questions to my team members versus providing them answers. I was not empowering my team, and taking me out of the quadrant that is most important — big mistake! Sometimes we provide a crutch to them and don’t even realize it’s happening. Challenge your team to come to you with solutions versus problems.

If you focus on those three things:

  1. Blocking your time: Spend your blocked time in the “important, but not urgent” quadrant
  2. Let it go: Allocate work to others to give them autonomy and opportunity
  3. Don't allow the “boomerang effect:” Ask questions, empower your team and don't be a crutch

You will start to notice a shift in your business and quality of work-life for you and your team. Working on the business is hard work. It takes discipline, trust and willingness to allow things to not always go exactly like you envision. However, the leaders I have witnessed truly embrace this style are achieving unmatched growth and profitability. This is a game-changer that will give you the opportunity to better manage time away from work and lead a more balanced life.

Doug Meyer is a CPA and managing director for Brixey & Meyer. Reach Doug at doug.meyer@brixeyandmeyer.com

About the Goering Center for Family & Private Business

Established in 1989, the Goering Center serves more than 400 member companies, making it North America’s largest university based educational non-profit center for family and private businesses. The Center’s mission is to nurture and educate family and private businesses to drive a vibrant economy. Affiliation with the Carl H. Lindner College of Business at the University of Cincinnati provides access to a vast resource of business programing and expertise. Goering Center members receive real-world insights that enlighten, strengthen and prolong family and private business success. For more information on the Center, participation and membership visit goering.uc.edu.

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