Effective Leaders Work On, Not In, Their Teams

Michael Gerber’s The E-Myth Revisited, from way back in 1955, talks about the concept that an entrepreneur who starts and grows a company can’t just work “in” the business (e.g. doing the work that generates revenue), but they have to work “on” the business too, defining processes, hiring, empowering and growing leaders, etc.

This concept is also incredibly important for all leaders (not just entrepreneurs) — if you’re just working “in” your team, you’re not a leader, you’re the senior individual contributor on the team. To work “on” your team(s), you must see yourself as a leader (how your identify yourself is a surprisingly important aspect of this, think about yourself as a Leader, not a Victim (see Self-discrepancy Theory)), with ownership over success (not just a passive victim who does the best you can).

This working “on” your team(s) can mean a lot of things, including:

  • Set, and hold people accountable, to the culture of your team (to align with the culture of your organization) — what are your values? Do you multi-task in meetings? What’s your level of attention to detail vs. speed? What types of people do you recruit and promote in your team?
  • Define, publish, and continuously improve processes/checklists/procedures (See this quick story about how 1-800-GOT-JUNK rapidly scaled by nailing down repeatable processes)
  • Intentionally design/refine how your team identifies, prioritizes, plans, and tracks works (think about methodologies like Agile Scrum, even if you do nothing related to software engineering)
  • Identifying risks, issues, and problems — don’t ignore them, you’re a leader: Talk openly about them. When you see something not working, don’t complain about it or ignore it — figure out how to improve it. Or how to recommend to your boss how it could be improved. Or add it to the backlog of things your team will work on later.

As Gerber discusses in his book, don’t abdicate responsibility, hiring people and just assuming/hoping they’ll do well. Delegate to them, where you still own of their results (Trust but verify!), and then encourage them to be leaders and feel ownership of what they do and how they do it as well.

This is similar to Jim Collins’ great concept of Be a Clock-Builder, Not a Time-Teller — don’t be, as he says, a leader who acts like a genius with a lot of helpers, instead scale your leadership by teaching your leaders how to lead.

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