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What does “working on your business” actually mean?

I’m sure you’ve all heard the phrase “don’t work in your business, work on your business.”

But what does that actually mean? For most of us it probably conjures up the difference between working hard at making or selling your product, or keeping the books, or labouring over the store – physical or online, versus a picture of being a relaxed leader working out “strategies” and “innovation” to grow your business.

For those of us who have tried to apply it practically, that picture simply doesn’t work! While you try to take time out to work out strategies or develop new techniques in your business, things just don’t happen in it. While we try to work on our business by developing better marketing plans or improving customer service, all it means is that later we have to catch up on working in the business. Am I right? Running a small business is a busy task!

When I started my first business I was busier than busy. I left my big international financial services firm to start a medium sized consulting practice with a couple of partners. True, while I spent a lot of my working hours (or let’s be honest, most of my waking hours) working in the business by dealing with client affairs and consulting directly with clients, I was able to work “on my business” during Partner-meetings where we discussed marketing, new products and hires and fires. To me then, that was working on the business and it wasn’t too difficult because we had borrowed and used the excellent internal administration systems from our previous firm.

But that was it wasn’t it – I wasn’t really working on my business, I was working in the administration of my business.

I found the real truth of working on the business when I left that partnership to start my own boutique consultancy where I hired from scratch and had to set up from scratch. There was no way I could have continued to work in the client advisory side of the new business as well as in the administration of the business – I would have killed myself.

So what did I do?

When I started my boutique consultancy I realised that I needed to stretch my one true resource – time – so that I could leverage my knowledge and experience in working for clients and running a business. I had a certain number of hours in a day. Unless I leveraged those hours, the business would have hit a ceiling, the maximum number of hours I had to do things personally. I needed to stretch my resource of limited time to train staff so that they could do quality work – for clients or for the business –  independently rather than watch over them all the time.

I realised then that the only way to do this was to work on the business up-front. I needed to build a business model that sold the business – and then allow the products to sell themselves.

The only way to do this was to develop systems within the business and make sure those systems ran the business.

These systems had to run the administration of the business, the sales and marketing of the business, the way different products were provided to clients, the way innovation and continuous improvement was developed, and the way new people learned the ropes and went up the succession path – all with very little intervention from me when they were running. My job then would be to make sure quality was maintained and that everything hummed. My role was to equip my people for their roles and let them do it.

The first thing I did was to draw up a comprehensive organisational chart of the business.

Now hear me, “an organisational chart of the business,” not of the people working in it.

By this I mean that I thought through what every theoretical position was required to make that business a quality business, from CEO to cleaner. I included a CFO, an Accountant, a Payables and a Receivables clerk. I included a Marketing team. I included a Training Manager. I included a Financial Accounting Services Manager, an Audit Manager, a Tax Manager, and a Management Consulting Manager, and the teams they ran. I included archivists, support staff and…cleaners.

At this time my boutique consulting firm had 6 people including myself!

I drew up this detailed organisation chart so that I could detail the work required in every function of the business, even if that meant some of us (myself in particular at the beginning) wore multiple hats. This allowed three things to happen.

First, it was clear what had to be done to make the business successful – in every functional area – so that you don’t leave things out and then discover that somebody forgot to place the Yellow Pages ad. Which leads to the second thing which is that everyone had a series of set responsibilities – so that someone doesn’t forget to take the rubbish out because you shared that task and you thought someone else was doing it that night. That leads to the third thing, which is that as the business grew and you hired more staff, their Job Descriptions were clear and the incumbent merely hands over one of their hats, along with some experience and guidance.

Having drawn out the full organisation chart, I then drew up each position’s Job Description statement and a series of step by step procedures on how their different responsibilities were to be done on a day to day basis. This went down to the detail of a “script” on how to answer the telephone, or the steps required in procedures manuals on the preparation of a client’s financial statements. This process standardised operations so that anyone, at any stage of a particular task, could see where someone had got to and rake over if necessary. It also ensured that every task had a consistent approach, and more importantly, a consistent outcome. In this way, clients were assured that the products they received would look and have the same quality, every single time. It also meant that our marketing efforts looked and felt consistent in every new initiative.

Having provided the “skeleton” or tools of the business model, I then proceeded to put on the flesh.

I had always had a clear picture of the vision of the business. I needed to make this vision its “brand” so that, like consistent products and consistent outcomes, the way any staff behaved to each other and the outside world was also consistent.

I began a long (and continuous) task of training my team on what the brand meant. We talked about each consistent interpretation of the vision, what it meant when we were working, what it meant when we interacted with clients, and what it meant to be part of that brand. At each opportunity we discussed what had happened that week or that day, and why it was, or was not, consistent with the vision. At the same time, our mantra was “if what you do, if the procedures were followed, if the decisions you make, are consistent with the vision, then I could not blame you for the result.” If the result turned out to be detrimental, we treated it not as a mistake but as a learning opportunity so that we could correct the detail of what was done to more accurately follow the brand. If the result, through this independent thinking of alignment with the brand, was beneficial – we celebrated!

In this way we built in the “right” way of thinking about the way we would conduct business, we trained everyone in their tasks in a consistent manner, and we built an internal model that new team members could pick up and understand straight away.

Working on your business isn’t about being relaxed. Small business owners have to work hard – all the time – don’t let the online ads for “better business” fool you! However working on your business model does provide the blueprint for your business to grow as seamlessly as that is ever possible to do!

So now comes the best part – tell me what you think…..

Get over to teikoh.com and let’s start the conversation!

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