The Importance of Working ON and Not IN Your Business

The importance of working on and not in your businessWomen operated 34% of Australian businesses in 2015, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics. In many cases, these are one-person or perhaps two-person businesses. Not surprisingly, that means the entrepreneur is actually working hands-on in the business, due to the limited amount of employees and, of course, to save on employment costs.

However, as you grow your business and achieve more success, things will have to change. You’ll need help, and here’s where hiring new employees comes into play. You’ll then start to assume more of a leadership role. In order to grow the business further, however, you as the leader must gradually switch to working on rather than in the business. What does that mean? Read on!

In the Beginning…

Startups are quite often the brainchild of an individual with a vision or a great idea. In order to achieve that vision, the entrepreneur spends long hours performing the hands on tasks—ordering materials and supplies, driving to shows and stores to display the products, creating advertisements, bookkeeping, writing proposals, and, in some cases, actually creating the products themselves. What typically happens is that a little success results in the need to hire one or more employees. At that point, you must begin to work on, rather than in your business.

What this means is that you must avoid trying to do everything yourself if you have employees, just because you want to make sure everything is done according to your standards. This includes managing or doing your employees’ tasks, and not delegating some of yours to them. While your effort is commendable, this is nonetheless a negative for your business. This is what many call working in your business, and it can result in you getting exhausted and having less time devoted to the tasks that you, as the leader, need to do, which includes strategising, knowing your business’ weak points and addressing them, being the face of the business through networking, looking for business opportunities and therefore leading the business to success.

Meanwhile, working on your business basically means you’re working on the ways to improve your business overall, focusing on the things that you need to do as the leader (rather than the tasks your employees are tasked to do), identifying problems, delegating solutions, and improving your leadership skills for your company’s future. Therefore you’re looking at the bigger picture and being more strategic.

Leading is Different

In terms of working on your business, leadership is about problem solving, working on the long-term goals, delegating to others, and growing your company. Setting the organisation’s direction, marketing, finding new business opportunities, acting as the trouble-shooter, and being the visionary are just some of the tasks involved in leadership. If you try to manage all the details as well as the leadership functions, you will quickly become frustrated, overwhelmed, and exhausted. You must learn to be the executive rather than the “doer.”

Noelle Sunstrom, CEO of biotechnology company NeuClone, created a technology that decreased the manufacturing costs for biological drugs. According to Sunstrom, some basic strategies she used were “surround yourself with very smart people, delegate, (and) learn from setbacks.”

Find the Right People

An important task in getting to the point where you can work on, rather than in, your business is selecting the right team members. Hiring the right people is an art and it gets better with practice. You should have a clear mental picture of the kind of person you want in each job, a well-thought-out job description that ties into the company’s mission and standards, and an effective training and development program.

In the early stages of your business, you may want to do the training and development yourself to ensure that people fully understand the expectations and the job itself. Always be on the lookout for the right person to become the coach, for you and your team, —this is a key position to keep your business growing successfully.

Having the right people means less stress and more confidence that you can leave the tasks to your employees and focus on guiding your business in the right direction, making working on it even easier.

Keep the Right People

Don’t hesitate to terminate the wrong employees, respectfully. When you have employees you can trust to handle the day-to-day operations, you are free to do what only you can do. It’s best to end the employment of people who are clearly not performing, don’t care about customer service, don’t fit your culture, or who are dishonest. It’s harder with the more subtle issues, however. Sometimes good people simply don’t fit with the job or the mission or the team. Be honest and respectful and replace them with the right people especially if training and development doesn’t work anymore—you cannot be successful with the wrong people, and you will never feel comfortable delegating to someone who is not a good fit.

This is one of the harsh realities of being a leader. It can be really hard to let go of an employee who works hard, has good ethics, and has developed a good working relationship with you and the other members of your business. However, if that person is clearly not compatible with the job, you might have to move him/her to another position or let go entirely. This is why having a probationary period for employees is important—you have the time to analyse to see if a newcomer is a good fit and can perform in the role.

Delegate, Delegate, Delegate

Delegation is the key to allowing you to work on rather than in your business. It may be the biggest hurdle for an entrepreneur, however. Moving from “doing” to “leading” means letting go of your “baby” and entrusting important tasks to others. Your employees must be clear on their priorities and jobs, the limits of their authority, and how you measure their performance. Constant communication (as well as listening carefully to what people say and don’t say) is one of the most important keys to good delegation since it allows you to better understand if an employee can handle a job or if he or she might need more direction and supervision from you or the other employees.

Without proper delegation, there’s a good chance you’ll be stuck with tasks not done correctly by people who are not competent to do them. The end result is you having to fill the gaps yourself and clean up the mess afterwards, leading to frustration and exhaustion, as well as being discouraged because you feel you still have to do everything by yourself. This also leads to confusion among your team members—who really need to step up and learn from making mistakes and you understanding there are other options and methods to achieving desired outcomes.

Learn From Mistakes

At first, your employees may not do things as well as you can or do them exactly as you would. In the first case, that may mean more coaching or supervision is needed (although your goal should be to have employees who need little supervision once they are fully competent). In the second, a difference in style doesn’t matter as long as the goal is achieved. Of course, you and your employees will make mistakes—and each one is an opportunity to learn. Whenever something goes wrong, ask yourself and all concerned, what could we have done to avoid this? Or if it was unavoidable, what have we learned from it?

Doing so gives you and your employees a better idea of how to avoid similar problems in the future. It also gives them the impression that their insights are important, and that they are valued members of the business.

As you work through the transition from being a hands-on worker to a true leader, it’s always a wise move to seek professional advice and guidance. Behind Closed Doors offers resources, networking, and peer-to-peer or one-to-one mentorship to help you work on rather than in your business, giving you a better chance of developing yourself into a better businesswoman primed for long-term entrepreneurial success.


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  1. Pingback: Why Mentorship Shouldn't Be Underrated | Behind Closed Doors

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