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  • Writer's pictureJeff Behrens

Work On the Business - Not Just in the Business

In a growing business it can be hard for any CEO to pull away from day to day operational details and refocus on more strategic, long-term issues and goals that move the business forward. Scientific CEOs can face an even more challenging situation as they easily dive deeply into daily scientific efforts where their training and strengths are clear. But there are critical tasks only the CEO can - and must - do. So time has to be found for these essential tasks!

As a scientifically trained CEO, working "in the business" can take on a dual meaning:

  • Scientific Progress: The problem here is that this aspect of your job that aligns closely with your hard-earned expertise—delving into the design of experiments and analysis of data. Your role here may in fact be pivotal in ensuring that the scientific work remains rigorous, innovative, and on the cutting edge. But scientific leadership takes time and redirects focus inward.

  • Operational Tasks: The second aspect is what typically comes to mind when we think of working "in the business"—the operational hassles. This includes the nitty-gritty details of running a company including finances, people management and dealing with the myriad other day-to-day operations. While these tasks are essential for the smooth running of your business they can be a major distraction from more strategic and impactful efforts.

Working "On the Business": The Strategic View

In contrast, working "on the business" is about stepping back from these two facets of in-business work to focus on broader, strategic initiatives that often only the CEO can do. These include:

  • Strategy Development: Crafting the long-term vision and strategy for your company requires looking beyond daily operations and scientific developments to see where you want your business to be in the future and plotting a course to get there. External conversations and the education provided by a steady stream of external input plays an essential role here.

  • Continued Education: You climbed a steep learning curve to finish your scientific studies and now, in a sense, you are starting over and learning a dramatically new and different skill set running a company. External meetings with experts, new friends, potential advisors, possible business partners, and investors all offer the chance to deepen your knowledge base.

  • Fundraising: Securing the necessary funding to fuel your growth is of course a critical priority - particularly when many scientific-focused business are product-development oriented and do not generate revenue during the early years. This involves pitching to investors, applying for grants, building relationships with potential partners/customers and aggressively and continuously exploring other funding avenues. Your scientific credibility can be a significant asset in these efforts, helping you to articulate the value and potential of your business. Bottom line - you should always be fundraising as a CEO (this will be the topic of a full article soon.)

  • Building External Relationships: It is critical to establish and nurture relationships with existing and new potential partners, stakeholders, and the broader scientific and business communities. This external focus is about positioning your company within the ecosystem, building your knowledge base about customer needs & emerging trends, unearthing potential consultants/advisors/employees, finding collaborators, and building a reputation that attracts talent, investors, and customers. This can be one of the toughest functions for new scientific CEOs to do as it requires either being an extrovert or learning to fake it. But it is a critical role!

Balancing these areas requires a shift from the hands-on, detail-oriented mindset of a scientist to the broad, strategic perspective of a CEO. It's a transition that demands new skills and a new way of thinking but leveraging your scientific background can give you a unique edge.

Adapting to this role means recognizing when to dive into details and when to delegate, ensuring the operational and scientific aspects of your business are in capable hands. This frees you up to concentrate on strategic growth, fundraising, and relationship-building—elements that are crucial for your business's long-term success and impact.

Here are four basic strategies to enable regular work “on the business”:

  • Use scheduling discipline - block time for “in the business” work - and work hard to keep this time focused and productive so you feel comfortable clearing time for “on the business” time. Put these blocks on your calendar at the beginning of the week.

  • Implement meeting rhythms - setup meetings, both 1-1s and teams, on a strict weekly basis, bunched into a few blocks of time and keep to these religiously. Consider implementing 15 minute daily huddles early in the day to ensure rapid communication and no surprises. When staff want additional time beyond this, they can now be patient because there will be pre-scheduled time tomorrow to continue discussions.

  • Set outward goals - set goals that force external focus: i.e. set 3 meetings per week with outsiders and advisors, commit to building lists of target companies and people to meet with and expanding it weekly. Find time off-site weekly to do mid-term review and planning.

  • Leverage advisors/coaches/boards - use your external advisory resources to help keep you on track. Promise - and deliver - regular strategic reviews and discussions and ask for help to keep these front and center.

Remember, being a scientifically trained CEO is about more than just managing a business; it's about leading with vision, leveraging your scientific insight to navigate the business landscape, and steering your company toward a bright future.

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