IN Your Business or ON Your Business?

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By DJ Nelson, Creative Director & Staff Writer

During my time in New York City with WE Empower, I had the opportunity to attend an intimate breakfast roundtable with Raegan Moya-Jones, the co-founder and President of Saint Luna, a premium moonshine company, and the founder and former CEO of Aden + Anais. Her claim to fame was that she googled her way to a million-dollar company, having started Aden + Anais while working sales for The Economist.

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While she discussed starting her business and the moves she made along the way, I couldn’t help but think of my courses and what I have learned at Thunderbird. Raegan spoke about several topics, including the importance of establishing a brand to protect your business from market competitors and copycats, how a business can start looking to go global even if they have not yet saturated the local market, and rapid product line decisions for lower costs and higher volumes. “Growth for the sake of growth is the wrong approach,” she said, “whether it is distribution, brand marketing, or strategy.” Some other advice was “to hire slow and fire fast” and “to never make a decision based on money.”

There I was at a table with six women entrepreneurs, but my mind was back in room 730 learning marketing, finance, and strategy with Professors Ettenson, Moffett, and Ramaswamy, respectively. What I have learned at Thunderbird allowed me to be engaged in the conversation, even without having the same career experience as these women.

One subject that stood out and seemed to be an issue with all the businesswomen in the room was knowing when to work on your business and not in your business. What does it mean to work on vs in the business? I thought, “ah, yes, at some point you might have to leave behind the day-to-day in the business and start doing other things.” 

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Since hearing this in versus on framework, the idea continued to percolate in my mind: Can you choose which type of leader you are? Do leaders get pushed out of the daily operations or is it something they look forward to letting go of? How do you know the right time to make the transition? 

First, what’s the difference between in and on? One definition is that working in the business is directly impacting revenue through the sales, production, operations side, whereas on is indirectly impacting revenue through strategizing, planning, and relationship-building on the outside. If you are an entrepreneur you are probably doing it all, but more than likely with a heavier focus on getting the operations up and running. Someone early in their career working for an established company will do the heavy lifting in the day-to-day stuff until they work up the ranks to senior management positions.

Whether you are looking to start your own business or you plan to work your way up, you are likely to face the challenge of transitioning from in to on the business. There are others in the workplace who are perfectly content with their position and status and are never going to go from in to on. For those seeking to grow in their careers, such change is probably necessary. Entrepreneurs are going to have a tougher time with this professional transition, as many see their successful business as if it were a child that they have raised. At a certain point, though, you made the decision to hire more people to run the day to day and eventually they are going to want to become a manager with some decision-making autonomy. Thus, you gracefully step aside or get pushed out. It’s best to have this realization early on, decide if you are going to stay in control early on, and have an exit strategy if you intend to let go. 

Dr. Craig Barrett was on campus as the guest for the Ruebling Roundtable series, and because he started his career as an engineer and worked his way to become a CEO, I asked him if he found it difficult to make the transition. Even as CEO, what Barrett was really passionate about was engineering, so he found a way as a leader of the company to keep up with the people in those positions to satisfy his interests. 

Much of it ends up just being a balancing act, but managing your role with the company as it grows or as you move up will take some planning and early decision making.


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