How Working ON the Business is Different that Working IN the Business

Author: Bryan Ritchie

Great leaders pride themselves on their ability to work in the business. What I mean by this is that they have the skills, insight, and knowledge of how the organization operates. They often know better than most how to do the work that is at the core of the organization’s mission. It is this knowledge that is usually behind their rise in the organization to positions of influence. But while their knowledge of the business can be great, what is less common is a leader’s ability to work on the business.

Why is this an important distinction? Consider some numbers from an 11-year study conducted by John P. Kotter and James L. Heskett. They found significant, in fact stunning, differences between companies with strong corporate cultures and those without. As the table below shows, these differences over 11 years are not what you would call incidental.

Average Increase for Twelve Firms with Performance-Enhancing CulturesAverage Increase for Twenty Firms without Performance-Enhancing Cultures
Revenue Growth682% 166%
Employment Growth 282% 36%
Stock Price Growth 901% 74%
Net Income Growth 756% 1%

If we agree that Culture (with a capital C) is simply the amalgamation of all of the behaviors of the people in the organization, then the way we foster, organize, nurture, and direct those behaviors might be the most important thing we can do as leaders. These actions come not from our knowledge of the business, but the way we actually run the business. In short, we have to spend time working on the business.

Working on the business requires that leaders pay attention to the structural components of the organization. These are the processes, methodologies, frameworks (including mission, values, and vision), and strategy, which as we noted above ultimately builds the organization’s culture which in turn drives a differential performance level than that of the competition.

Assuming that leaders have visibility into how specific teams are performing relative to the above items, they can commit to weekly key performance activities to help strengthen these structural elements of the business. Such key activities might include:

  • Work with team leaders to implement a new methodology or process, such as SPORT, 4dx, Lean, Six Sigma, etc.
  • Meet with mid-level leaders and front-line employees specifically to communicate structural components and direction
  • Provide formal connection points for leader accountability to the front-line
  • Ensure that all team goals and activities are being visibly scored
  • Create formal sessions for practice, including role-playing and transferring best practices from the best team players to the rest of the team and across teams

The impacts of a regular, weekly leader focus on work that improves the business structure will have tremendous payoffs, as witnessed by the results shown in the table above. But in addition to hard results, these efforts will also

  • Improve the clarity and frequency of detailed communication
  • Provide validation for the high performers in your organization
  • Shine light on the areas that need improvement
  • Create opportunities for innovation and competitive distinction

To drive the results you want in your organization, focus first on the structure and culture of the organization. Learn to work on the organization in addition to working in the organization. This is akin to “sharpening the saw” in your work. Some effort has to go into building the organization rather than just running it. If done right, the culture of the organization will create and then reinforce these strong behaviors of performance excellence.

Bryan Ritchie and James Western are co-founders of GrowthSPORT, a successful consulting company whose mission is to improve SCORES (Stimulate Culture, Optimize Results and Engage Staff) for Teams, Divisions, Departments and Organizations through the SPORT model (Strategic Alignment, Personnel Performance, Operational Execution, Results Accountability and Team Strength), which are the Five Core Elements of Success.

GrowthSPORT provides resources, tools and experienced consultants to effectively implement the SPORT performance model from companies ranging from Startups to Fortune 500 companies.

Feel free to reach out to GrowthSPORT at (801) 676-2500 or at


Growth SPORT
12894 South Pony Express Road, Suite 100
Draper, UT 84020
(801) 676-2500