Work ON Your Business, Not IN Your Business
“Work ON your business, not IN it”. This quote and insight came from a book I read over 20 years ago.
The E-Myth Revisited By Michael Gerber was a game-changer for me. It started me on a journey of supporting founders that has yet to stop.
His book showed entrepreneurs how to go from an impossible list of jobs you do to owning a business that gets those jobs done for you.
While this book was written for small business owners, it is 100% applicable to high-growth startup CEOs.
It is no surprise then that I bring this concept up regularly in my coaching calls.
Work on Your Business, Not in Your Business: A Strategic Shift for CEOs
The CEO role changes as your company grows.
In the beginning, you work IN the business.
You build product. You ship product. You take out the trash. You do anything and everything to get your company moving.
Over time, the role changes. As you grow the team, you change altitude. You elevate and start to work ON the business.
Instead of building product, you ensure product is getting built.
Instead of selling to customers, you ensure the sales function is on track.
You ensure you have the right people following the right systems.
It is only by changing altitude and going from working IN to ON, that you can scale all the way as a CEO.
Mark Zuckerberg from Meta. Tobi Lutke from Shopify. Marc Benioff from Salesforce are just a few examples of leaders who made this shift to work ON their businesses.
Mark and Tobi are both technical but no longer write software code.
Marc was an enterprise sales leader but he has a team to sell for him.
Any CEO that you see achieve a massive exit made this change in altitude. Without it, they would never have kept up with their company.
The E-Myth Revisited: Understanding Your Role as a CEO
“The E Myth Revisited” was a guide for small business owners to understand and overcome common pitfalls.
The core point of the book was the importance of systems.
Without systems, you have chaos. You have inconsistency. You have failure.
Gerber’s book showed entrepreneurs how to create repeatable systems in their businesses.
It is only when you have these systems in place, along with competent people to run them, that you can elevate and work ON your business.
Till then you have a job. Or many jobs. You are stuck IN the business. You can’t elevate and lead properly.
Effective Business Management: Beyond Day-to-Day Operations
At scale, the startup CEO role is three things:
Communicating – stating the vision, mission, values, etc over and over again.
Team – building the strongest team that your scale and resources allow for.
Funding – not running out of money.
While the CEO role is busy and demanding. It should not involve DOING. You should not be in the critical path of projects and deliverables. That is what your team is for.
At scale, your job as CEO is to:
Find the right leaders (Team)
Point them in the right direction (Communication)
Give them the resources they need to succeed (funding).
CEOs who have these elements in place are able to focus on the bigger picture. They can think about strategy. The future. They can anticipate issues.
The analogy I like to use here is ‘clearing the forest’. The CEO is out ahead clearing the forest so that the team can follow through as rapidly as possible.
In the startup world, speed is everything. The best CEOs remove friction so their teams can move rapidly.
Balancing Strategic Vision with Operational Excellence
Now, reading this you might be thinking that the CEO role is a luxurious one. You just sit around thinking.
No, this is not the case.
As a CEO of a high-growth company, you need to context switch all the time.
From one meeting to the next, you will go from long-term strategy to daily tactics.
No one has more context than the CEO. As such, you need to make decisions, small and large, daily.
It is only CEOs that operate at the right altitude (ON, not IN), that can make these decisions properly.
If you are working IN the business, you are likely overwhelmed. You are drowning in emails, slack messages, and other demands on your time.
You can’t think clearly in this state. Yet, clarity of thought is exactly what is needed.
In contrast, CEOs that operate at the right altitude have clarity. They bring their full presence and attention to help to make critical decisions.
Your leaders are your leverage
To quote another classic book: “Good is the enemy of great”. This is from Good to Great by Jim Collins.
A CEO is only as strong as the leaders underneath her.
In the beginning, you succeed through your own individual effort.
At scale, you succeed through others.
Don’t compromise here. You will harm yourself, your team, and your company.
Systems are your savior.
Great leaders are great, in part, because they bring systems. You create order out of chaos.
Without systems, you just have heroic individual effort. That works for a time but eventually breaks down.
And if that hero leaves the company, you are exposed. Their knowledge and capability leave with them.
Proven, documented playbooks or systems fix this.
They allow the work to be spread among many people vs kept by one hero.
They keep the knowledge and know-how in the company. These become an asset that you own.
Systems also create consistency. Every McDonald’s Big Mac tastes the same because they have systems. Same with every Latte at Starbucks.
Customers want consistency. That is when they trust you.
Your staff want the same. It creates safety, and trust.
Let’s Work on Your Business, Not in It… Together!
Every CEO you admire has made this transition. The inspiration you take from them came from them elevating to work ON their business.
This is the transition that you need to make.
You need to make sure you have only great leaders.
You need to make sure they are aligned. They share your vision. They are focused on the right goals.
You then task those leaders to develop proven, documented systems to scale each part of your business.
With these elements in place, you can settle in to build a massive company.
If you are struggling with making this transition in your company, contact me for CEO coaching. I can help you elevate and unlock growth in your business.