JJ Astor on Business
Winning in the future, with a nod to the past.

“On” vs “In” – an important distinction for businesses and careers

One of the things I love most about working with a lot of new ventures is the emergence of patterns – patterns which are productive, and patterns which are destructive. Near the top of the destructive list is the failure to find a balance between dealing with day-to-day operational issues and higher level managerial issues of a business. Often when problems occur, which they inevitably do in a start-up, entrepreneurs immediately rush to put out those fires. And as soon as they do, other fires start and require the same level of attention. For company management, it’s a losing proposition.

Because of this, when I work with entrepreneurs, I help them understand the value in dedicating time to work “on the business”, and spend less time working “in the business”. I’ve heard these terms from many intelligent people over the years, but recently a colleague, for whom I have a lot of respect, made me recognize the importance of this in the context of a business in which I am currently working. For a business to be prosperous, at least someone at the managerial level needs to ensure that the right people are on the team, monitor industry trends and competitive environments, refine market positioning, work on short & long term planning – some of the “on the business” topics. But it’s tough, and takes discipline.

As I’ve visited and spoken with college students preparing to enter the “real world”, I’ve recognized an “on” vs “in” parallel between launching and managing a business, and launching and managing a career. Similar to the underlying pattern of success of a business manager who understands the balance, I’ve also noticed that people who have great careers understand the importance of taking time to work “on their careers”. What do I mean by “on their careers”? Simple things such as building transferable skill sets, ensuring that at least 1/3 of your professional contacts are outside your current company, finding and developing relationships with mentors both inside and outside your company, learning about and studying trends in the industry in which you want to work, learning about the types of work environments in which you thrive most, discovering your preferred learning styles, emotional discipline/emotional intelligence, self-honesty, decision making & decision making refinement – in fact, this is a summary of what I present to and teach business students when I’m invited to speak at their classes.

“Life long learning” and “Working ‘on’ your career” are probably two of the most important things I’ve ever learned, and they warrant additional posts – which is why over the next month, I’ll be writing a series of posts on these topics.

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