Every good CEO starts by working in the business; correcting problems, improving operations, building teams. Getting to know “the business”. Some years are great, others are tough. Occasionally you hit a breakthrough and the company booms for a period, expanding dramatically. Eventually, that growth spurt dissipates and it’s time to look for what’s next.
What’s next? That’s a question that can only be answered when you’re working on the business. The challenge for most leaders is knowing when and how to dial their time appropriately between working in the business and on it.
In 1993, Lou Gerstner took over top spot at IBM during the company’s darkest days. Lou jumped deep into the business. He had a lot to fix. Instead of getting stuck permanently in the business, he balanced his time by also working diligently on what IBM should become, keeping, in his words, “what we stand for” but changing “how we do things”. His successor, Sam Palmisano adopted the same approach, saying “it is about creating and nurturing a culture of long-term thinking”. With 31 consecutive quarters of earnings growth, Lou and Sam’s focus on the business has paid off in exponential returns.
Working in the business can be addictive though. Do it long enough and it becomes your comfort zone. That’s what makes it a tough habit to break. There are a few markers to look for that can help you determine when it’s time to turn the dial from in to on.
When you’re executing strategy:
Make sure strategy you approved is being executed and that you’re adding significant value only you can add. You want your finger on the pulse but not your hands wrapped around anyone’s neck. It literally chokes the ability of your management team to shine and everyone’s motivation to think about the future.
When you’re involved in day-to-day operations:
Why are you still involved in day-to-day operations? Didn’t you already fix the major systemic problems? When there is an issue that only you can address, put your brainpower and muscle into it in a way that empowers your team and inspires your employees, then get out of the way. This is what separates great leaders from people who just run companies.
When you’re making decisions:
Decisions demand a lot of time. You have to read information, listen to presentations, go to meetings. Think. The decisions you make should only be the ones that no one else in the company can make. If that still includes most of the decisions, you have the wrong team and wrong decision making processes. Leading a company does not mean being the “go-to person”.
It’s about balance. You should spend some time working in the business. It’s the only way to keep yourself grounded and tuned to the rhythm of your company. Habit #3 of Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Successful People states, “Put first things first”. What is urgent and what is important? If it’s urgent, it’s likely something that requires you to work in the business, but not at the complete expense of working on it. At least not for long. The important stuff, the things you should be focusing on, produce opportunities that will define your company’s success for years to come.
In a recent McKinsey Global Survey, 84 percent of executives said innovation is extremely or very important to their companies’ growth strategy. Innovation comes from exploring possibilities. Working on the business.
How do you find more time to work on the business? Ironically, you do it by working in the business, creating the conditions that give you time, energy and emotional freedom to think creatively about the future.
- Assemble a trusted senior team, giving them the authority and criteria to make good decisions.
- Organize your company around a culture of collaboration so nothing gets lost, everyone is inspired to think and ideas circulate to the highest levels.
- Establish a rock steady process for getting things done right.
- Conduct frequent situational analyses with your people to determine where you can add the most value working in the business, then spend the rest of your time working on the business.
- Finally, discipline yourself to turn the dial when needed, and only for as long as it makes a real difference.
As Jack Welch put it, “Shun the incremental, and look for the quantum leap." Get the right balance of working in the business with on it, and both you, and the company, will realize the greatest returns.