What Every Small Business Owner Ought To Know About Their Job

Dec 23, 2020 | Growth, Mindset & Identity

The way you think about your “job” can hold you back as a small business owner.

But you probably won’t notice the problem until you’re feeling frustrated that your business keeps bumping up against a ceiling. Your ceiling might be how much you work, the number of customers you can serve, or the revenue you generate. In fact, you might not even notice the problem then.

I’ll explain.

The vast majority of small businesses start accidentally—or, at the least, without a grander vision guiding their direction.

Instead of considering what the business will grow into, business owners often consider who they will grow into. They equate business growth to a career path. They envision taking steps up the career ladder without a vision for how your business will evolve to support that climb.

Maybe you can see your smart-looking home office. You imagine the high-powered clients you’ll serve. You can hear yourself on the phone calls that pay your bills. Aside from more expensive office supplies and higher paying clients, not much changes between where you are now and where you envision ending up. The work itself looks largely the same.

Yet, growing a business is not the same as promoting yourself to the corner office. It’s one thing to believe that your career with a company that’s not your own will incrementally ladder up to slightly better pay and more interesting responsibilities. It’s another to assume that your business will follow the same trajectory.

Your personal identity can stand between you and growing your business.

Business owners hold tightly to their original identities. Coaches, marketers, consultants, bookkeepers, educators, designers, artists—those labels feel comfortable and familiar. And, after all, aren’t you in the business of being a coach, a consultant, a bookkeeper, or a designer?

The truth is that you’re not in the business of being a coach, consultant, bookkeeper, or designer. You’re in the business of coaching, consulting, bookkeeping, or designing. It might be a subtle distinction but it means that your job, first and foremost, is “business owner”. Coach, consultant, bookkeeper, designer–they’re all secondary (or more likely tertiary) to your primary role as the owner. This shift sets the stage for all of the other mindset and operational shifts you’ll make as you build a stronger business. Without making this shift first, you’re stuck.

When your chief job is the same as what the business does, you can’t separate yourself from the business.

The reason is that a coach coaches, a consultant consults, a bookkeeper keeps the books, and a designer designs. These labels reinforce the idea that your greatest value to your business is as the person doing the work that your business sells. They put your focus on maximizing your limited capacity instead of finding ways to grow the capacity of your business.

Business owners are not on a career path. They might have professional skills from past careers. They might have had careers in a professional field and employ professionals. But their role in their companies—no matter how small—is to make intentional decisions on behalf of the business. They craft a vision, not only for themselves but for the business as a whole.

When you identify first as the person who does the work and creates the value, you can’t effectively make key decisions. You’ll always be thinking of yourself first and the business second. Your identity as the coach, consultant, bookkeeper, or designer robs you of the ability to see the steps that need to come next in helping you break through your ceiling because this identity ties you to the operations of the business in an unhelpful way.

When you set out to grow a stronger business, you might very well realize that what you’re building isn’t going to look the way you pictured it. Your assumptions about the work you’d be doing and the way you’d be spending your time were off.

You’re not crafting a career. You’re building a business.

As your small business grows, your role will evolve.

But it won’t happen automatically.

Alison Pidgeon, the founder of Move Forward Counseling in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, told me about how this transition went down in her business. After completing her masters in counseling psychology, she started her therapy practice, spending her time in session with clients. She soon realized that, if she wanted to grow her practice, she was going to need to pay closer attention to the business.

She said, “I came to the conclusion that I don’t have the time and the space to think about these big picture things—where is the practice going—because I’m seeing clients.”

Alison now focuses on how her business creates value, as opposed to how she creates value. Her business creates value by building and nurturing the space for counseling to happen in. Alison’s new role is continuing to expand this space so that more people can take advantage of counseling and therapy services at Move Forward.

It’s important to realize that this shift isn’t about cleaning up your personal calendar or raising your rates so that fewer people book time with you. Delegating the production of your products to someone else doesn’t count either. Hiring an admin so that you have to do less of the emailing, scheduling, or customer support won’t automatically throw you into your new role.

These actions might very well be part of the process of making this change in identity. But doing them on their own—without first integrating your identity as a business owner—won’t be enough to allow you to break through the ceiling you keep bumping up against. You’ll find yourself caught in similar traps, facing similar obstacles instead of moving forward. You’ll succumb to an unproductive attachment to your business instead of being able to detach from it.

Detaching “me” from “my business” is key to the longevity, sustainability, and growth of your small business.

I started to identify this subtle change as an inflection point for thriving business owners. So I began to ask everyone I talked to about their experiences. The stories are all remarkably similar to Alison’s. They all boil down to transitioning from a role where you are doing the work to the role of owning the business.

This doesn’t mean that everyone who has experienced this shift has stopped doing work they love—plenty of people still coach, consult, write, design, or educate. But it does mean that they see their chief role as owning the business and making decisions accordingly. Without this transition, you continue to make plans, set goals, and perform pivots that put you right back on the path to the ceiling.

Instead of building a stronger business, your decisions and actions undermine it on a regular basis. You control the revenue of the business with your time, talents, and reputation.

To build a stronger business, you have to purposefully reposition yourself as owner.

You might have tried to grow your business beyond yourself in the past but your old role has stymied you. You’ve still been plugging yourself into every value-creating activity. You still use access to you as a means for justifying higher price tags. Your team still thinks of you as the linchpin of the business because you do, too.

When you’ve transitioned to owning the business—really internalized it—you’ll see new opportunities and make different decisions. You will choose a different path. You’ll have a new role to learn and new responsibilities. It’ll be scary at first and you’ll almost certainly backpedal from time to time. Your job, as the owner, is to keep making decisions, regardless of how tempting it is to dive back into the work of the business.

When you lean into the work of building a stronger business and truly see it as your role, you’ll have an entirely new outlook on what needs to be done.

Consider:

  • What value does your business create that doesn’t require your input or attention?
  • In what ways is your business still dependent on you?
  • How would your day to day activities change if your role changed from “in it” to “owning it?”
  • What assumptions have you made about where you’re necessary in your business?

This post is an excerpt from The Stronger Business Playbook, a comprehensive tool kit for building a business that runs smoothly, causes fewer headaches, and makes you more money—and it’s only available to members of The What Works Network.

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Host of What Works

Tara is a podcaster, small business community leader, strategist, and speaker. She’s been helping small business owners build stronger businesses for over a decade.  

Tara McMullin, What Works Weekly Newsletter

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