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Insight 04 January 2024

In 2024 Work on the Business, Not in the Business

Peter Drucker, co-founder of modern management theory, said, “When you see a successful business, someone once made a courageous decision.” That’s certainly been a guiding principle for me as Insights has grown into a global leader in people development.

In the early days of our business I was spending three out of every four weeks facilitating our flagship Insights Discovery Accreditation training programmes, as well as facilitating sessions with executive teams. I loved that world and was good at it. I was in high demand from customers. However, I quickly came to realise it simply wasn’t scalable. If I hoped to grow Insights, I had to step back and work on the business, not in the business. I decided I would simply not run the Accreditation programmes myself. I would grow others to do that. It was one of the hardest – but most impactful – decisions I’ve made.

So, in 2024, consider that the most courageous decision you might need to make as a leader is stepping back from the day-to-day delivery and getting out of your own way.

Of course, stepping away can extremely challenging – especially when you are an expert in an area you are passionate about. I’ve identified three key factors that need to be in place, in order for you to be able to do that:

Clear purpose

Without a clear purpose it is incredibly difficult to step back from the business and take a broader strategic view as you effectively “can’t see the wood for the trees.”

Business leadership expert Simon Sinek said, “people don’t buy what you do. They buy why you do what you do.” That’s been a real North Star for us at Insights over the years.

Purpose helps clarify goals. Through defining purpose, you will see more clearly which actions further your purpose and which are distractions. You’ll find it easier to adapt your approach and plans, decision-making will become simpler, and your organisation will become more agile and responsive.

The Japanese idea of Ikigai translates as “a reason for being.” The reason we get up in the morning. At Insights, we’ve found that the Ikigai concept has helped us explore:

  • that which we love to do
  • that which we are good at
  • that which we can be paid for
  • and that which the world needs that we can provide.

Ikigai lies where these four overlapping ideas intersect. It’s a powerful idea to help define purpose. Whatever activities you plan, whoever you hire, whatever goals you set, whatever industry you set out to disrupt, you can always seek to hold true to this purpose, your very own Ikigai.

Trust in your people

You may think that, as a leader, you have to have all the answers – but you don’t. If you are to work on the business rather than in it, you must “get the right people on the bus, in the right seats” as Jim Collins once wisely said. You need to trust in people who are as good as you, if not better than you, in your respective field.

In order to place trust in those people you need to make the right hiring decisions and be confident that your people can make often tough decisions without being micro-managed. This means following your gut during the recruitment process as well as hiring for skills. Are they aligned with where you want to go as an organsation? Do they get it in their heart as well as their mind?

By starting with purpose and building a proposition that is compelling for employees, people whose purpose and values align with yours will naturally be attracted to your business.

In my experience purpose-driven people will commit in the long term and become your community which will guide you through both the good and bad times, allowing you the time to step away to focus on the bigger picture. This certainly rang true for the Insights Community, as we came out of the 2008 recession and the global coronavirus pandemic stronger than before thanks to the brilliance and ingenuity of our people.

Invest in awareness

Investing in becoming highly self-aware as a leader is key to knowing when you need to step away. Awareness will help you discover what you are great at, where you fit into teams, when to challenge and when to sit back. It will help you be certain of where you can be of most use within your organisation, and how to turn your ideas into new realities.

I urge you to make that investment for yourself and every single person in your organisation. At Insights we help organisations develop self-awareness through the use of colour – a non-judgmental language for teams to talk about interpersonal preferences. Our model, Insights Discovery is a way to cut through the complexity of why we behave the way we do.

Developing awareness is a meaningful long-term investment. UK Government social research shows that human skills are the foundation for more specialised and advanced skills including, visioning, strategising, problem solving, planning, and collaborative working, as well as increasing understanding of diversity, equality, and inclusion.

Working on the business, not in the business is not for everyone. The question as a business leader is – do you want to be the person growing an organisation and managing strategy, or do you want to be a world expert in your space? If you don’t love the entrepreneurial journey but you love the work, there is an opportunity to build a team around you to support the commercialization.

However, at some point every leader faces a choice. Don’t be the leader who stifles business. Be the leader who makes the courageous decision and you’ll never look back.

Andy Lothian

Andy Lothian, CEO of Insights Group

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