Working Hard or Hardly Working?

August 27, 2018

The difference between working IN the business and working ON the business

A big part of being a successful manager or business owner is appreciating the difference between working in the business and on it — and knowing which is most important when. The distinction is much more than just a shift in words. They are separate concepts, that lead to different types of activities and outcomes. And you’re expected to spend different amounts of time on each, depending on your responsibilities.

So, what does working in the business mean? We do it every day: calling key clients, designing, developing, copywriting, researching, emailing, paying invoices, etc. Essentially, any work or time that is put toward the completion of projects or initiatives the company will be paid for is considered “in.” And no matter your title or where you work, everyone spends at least some amount of their time on these “in” tasks.

And what about working on the business? This is where you think about how the business works and where it is going, instead of what the business is doing today. It’s making critical growth decisions and putting time into building the organization, examining processes, evaluating staff and recruiting new talent, or shaping the company culture. These tasks are rarely “billable,” but they’re critical for the health and productivity of your company’s future wellbeing.

How to Effectively Spend Your Time


Junior working

Junior: 0-3 Years

As a junior employee, your days are mostly spent in the business, getting billable client work done. It’s not about paying your dues, it’s about learning the ropes—and why we use those knots for that task. You’re already a valued team member, but go ahead and start watching what management is working on and consider other ways to contribute, because you won’t be junior forever.


Senior workingSenior: 3-8 Years

As a more senior employee, you’ll still be engaged in the day-to-day of “in” work, but you should set aside time each week to think about (and potentially execute on) how you can contribute to the company’s growth and culture in bigger ways. This period is a great time in your career — it’s when you find out whether you want to grow with the company, or if you’re fine just working for it.


Manager workingManager: 8+ Years

At this point, you’re a leader. Newer employees take their cues from you, and you can no longer afford to spend your days “in the day-to-day.” You’re now contributing to the organization in strategic ways.
This means thinking about processes, staff, efficiencies, effectiveness, and ways to evolve your organization and your role. At this stage, at
the right company, you should be defining your day-to-day to help
others move along their professional path in alignment with the company’s larger goals.



You’re the boss. And the boss is pretty much exempt (or should be) from the “in” work on a regular basis. If you’ve worked really hard to get where you are, you’re likely more hands-on than 10%. But this is the goal if you are committed to growing the organization and enhancing your processes and culture. It’s tough to let go, but at this point in your career, it is in the hands of the capable manager you have hired.


What Working on the Business Looks Like

Junior for Internal processes/internal branding/social media
Junior — Internal processes/internal branding/social media

Senior for networking events and organizations, internship programs, blog posts
Senior — Networking events and organizations/internship programs/blog posts

Managers for thought leadership
Managers — Thought leadership/initiative planning/employee evaluations/new talent searches/blog posts/financials

CEO for vision and leadership
CEO — Vision/mission/financial planning/speaking engagements/recruiting/community leadership

Transitioning from doer to manager can be tough…very rarely can one consistently and cleanly partition their time between “in” vs. “on”. But, continuing to strive for that right balance at each stage is critical to creating an efficient, scalable organization.

So…working hard or hardly working? Hopefully you’re in the former camp—but just working hard isn’t enough if you’re not working on the right things.