Working On (not in) the Business

A slowdown in business can be a good thing. It can free up time for creative and strategic thinking that builds a stronger foundation for the future.

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There’s a scene in the movie “Million Dollar Baby” where the fight trainer played by Clint Eastwood, watching the young woman boxer hit the heavy bag, observes, “The bag is working you.”

So it is often in work life, public sector or private. We’re not running our business. It’s running us. That’s an easy pattern to fall into and a tough one to bust out of. When business gets a little slow, we could step back, take a deep breath, and use the respite for a little reflection. Instead, we go into a panic because things are slow and we’re at risk of missing our financial projections.

Taking time out

Beaufort-Jasper Water & Sewer Authority, profiled in this issue of Water System Operator, stepped out of the rat race for a while and took time to think strategically. It happened during a downturn in demand that, for a while, lessened the demands of day-to-day life. Management saw not a threat but an opportunity.

Instead of shifting into an emergency mode and looking everywhere to slash expenses to offset revenue losses, the leadership and staff pulled together and looked to the future. The business planning process that resulted helped the authority keep its assets in great shape, protect an enviable bond rating, and keep valued employees on board. Now the utility is well-positioned to grow and thrive.

Fighting fires

Following the Beaufort-Jasper model isn’t easy. Few of us can say we’re underworked. In fact, it’s persistent overwork that puts us in a break-fix, management-by-crisis, survival mode. When every day on the job feels like you have a 4-inch fire hose aimed at your face, it’s hard even to think about planning.

And yet, plan we must. One of the first lessons pushed at people with startup companies is to spend less time working in the business and more time working on the business. That is, someone who has just started a plumbing company should be in the office building a team, dealing with finances, planning equipment acquisitions — not out in the field turning a pipe wrench.

Working in the business gets jobs done, true. But for a visionary leader, building an organization has far greater power and value.

Why they succeed

Why is it that thriving businesses have time to send people to trade shows and conferences? To conduct in-house training? To hold annual or quarterly planning meetings somewhere outside the workplace where the phones don’t ring and the emails don’t get through?

Can they afford to strategize, plan and train because they’re thriving? Or do they thrive because they strategize, plan and train? My money is on the latter.

Take time, make time

Stepping into a planning mode takes courage; it takes will. Beaufort-Jasper went through a business lull that freed up time to think bigger and farther. Many utilities don’t have that luxury — especially utilities serving fast-growing markets.

Yet for those utilities, planning is all the more important. It’s not so much a question of having time. It’s a question of making time. Strategic planning is one of those things that is too important to be left undone. Organizations don’t struggle because they took time out to plan. They are much more likely to struggle because they didn’t.

Planning and strategizing amount to nothing less than envisioning the future, and then going out and creating it. In the training gym of business life, we should be working the bag. The bag should not be working us.


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