Working on vs. in Your Business: What’s the Difference?

UPDATED: July 21, 2022
PUBLISHED: July 25, 2022
Working on vs. in Your Business: What’s the Difference?

It’s time to do away with the notion of working “on” your business rather than “in” it. Working on your business might seem like the best way to reach your goals, but I’ve found that this approach makes it easier for things to slip through the cracks and leads to much bigger issues.

I learned this lesson the hard way. I hired my operations manager (and first-ever employee) with every intention of working on my company. She seemed willing to learn, grow and accept any challenges; I felt confident she would be able to handle the day-to-day tasks while I focused on the big picture. She was a great first employee: She trained each new team member, took on additional work and supported the company’s goals at every turn.

Seemingly out of the blue, everything changed. She was no longer excited about fresh changes and additions within the company, and I could almost feel her contempt when I asked her to take on a new initiative. Within a few months, she had resigned.

I panicked. I had removed myself so much from the day-to-day operations of my company that I had no idea how I would train a replacement—or whether I even had the knowledge to take on her responsibilities.

Shifting perspectives

After she left, I had to focus on operations more than I had in the past. I worked longer hours, held shortened meetings and conducted business over the phone. I did anything I could to make my day more efficient, which allowed me to simultaneously work in and on the business.

During this process, I uncovered so many underlying problems that had been there all along. I saw that employees were disengaged, customer service had dropped and things were slipping through the cracks. While those truths hurt, I felt kind of happy about the way things turned out.

I realized if I hadn’t handed the reins over entirely, the company wouldn’t have been in this state. By finally working in the business, I was able to learn my employees’ roles, personalities and goals. With this day-to-day information in mind, I was able to map out the future of the company.

It was unpleasant at first, but this experience was the best thing that could’ve happened to me. I was more mindful than ever of how every single task contributed to the success of my company.

Here are three things every team member (even those at the top) should do “in” the company to make it thrive:

1. Always have a backup plan.

When only one person calls the shots, disaster ensues. Not only will the individual hold sway over office politics, processes and procedures, they will be the only person who knows how to fulfill the role.

When my operations manager resigned, I was in a tight spot—I had no idea how to run certain parts of the company. I had no strong relationships with the employees on my team, which left me with little insight into who could assume the responsibilities. Whether you’re at the top of the ladder or still climbing the rungs, it’s crucial to have a backup plan for your own role and the duties of any individuals you supervise.

I’ve asked every single member of my team to develop a succession plan outlining the steps needed for someone else to shoulder their responsibilities if they are out of the office for a few hours, days, weeks or permanently. Creating a backup plan means no team will scramble to fulfill its responsibilities when someone is unavailable.

2. Seek multiple sources of information.

Gathering information about the company from one person only tells you part of the story. It’s important to maintain communication with all employees regarding day-to-day operations. A failure to capture all sides of a situation will cause your decisions to become less informed—and the company culture could suffer as a result.

In the past, all my information flowed through one employee. Because I never questioned this person’s advice, vision or motives, I put the fate of my entire team in her hands. Every decision I made was based on what she chose to share with me. After she left, I learned to rely on multiple employees for information. This resulted in more informed decisions and improved company communication.

3. Know your role—and everyone else’s.

If you hadn’t guessed, I’m a strong advocate for understanding the responsibilities of everyone on your team. This ensures a smoother transition for everyone when you need to fill a position. Thankfully, it also means you won’t have to scramble like I did.

Learning each person’s role will give you a deeper understanding of the company and allow you to plan its immediate and long-term goals. You will have better insight into where improvement is needed if you know how the team works, making it that much easier to identify whether people can take on additional duties.

Ultimately, it is each employee’s responsibility to learn the ins and outs of the company. Doing so will make you a valuable asset while boosting the overall company culture to one of respect and collaboration. It will also help you avoid taking on extra responsibilities or scrambling to fill a role you know nothing about. It might be trendy to work “on” a company, but spending time “in” the business yields valuable insights into the everyday operations that contribute to its overall success.

This article was published in January 2020 and has been updated. Photo by Vane Nunes/Shutterstock

Shay Berman is the CEO and founder of Digital Resource, a full-service digital marketing agency located in South Florida. Shay’s clear-cut approach to internet marketing has driven his clients' businesses to new heights and allowed Digital Resource to land on the Inc. 500 list two years in a row; he also was named a "40 Under 40" entrepreneur by the South Florida Business Journal. Digital Resource provides exceptional service in social media marketing, organic search engine optimization, responsive design, and more.