Lean in, back off, but don’t do nothing

Entrepreneur Jonathan Richards discusses how American author Seth Godin's business mantra applies to small company owners.

Entrepreneur Jonathan Richards discusses how American author Seth Godin’s mantra of ‘lean in, back off, but don’t do nothing’ applies to small businesses.

I was in a networking meeting last week where the discussion moved onto how to get more work. The room was roughly split into two camps, those determined to be proactive, try anything, give it a go, and others who were caught in the headlights, paralysed in case they made things worse.

If there’s one thing that I’ve learnt it’s that problems don’t get solved by doing nothing. Work rarely shows up on its own, customers don’t magically become happy and complaints never just go away (although unhappy customers do). There’s a great quote that I heard from American entrepreneur and author Seth Godin which goes something like – “lean in, back off but don’t do nothing”. This is a great mindset to get into when running your own business.

Think of body language – if someone is engaged with a meeting they will be sitting on the edge of their seat, taking an active part. Some may be sitting back but still listening (you can see it in their eyes) and engaged, just not speaking. Others might be staring out of the window, playing with their phone – anything but engaged. For most small business owners (and especially sole traders) the only option seems to be to ‘lean in’ – no one else is going to help. You are the driving force behind the business and nothing happens without you doing it!

Sometimes though it’s important to force yourself to ‘back off’, take stock and plan. It feels uncomfortable, like you are being lazy and neglecting the business. Giving yourself space to think is essential to make sure you’re taking the right action. Be careful though as it’s easy to get carried away – don’t use this as an excuse for not taking action. Think of it as a momentary pause – check, correct and resume.

For a small business owner ‘do nothing’ is never a good option. Now I’m not saying that you can’t ever relax or have time off. What I am referring to are the times when you’re at work, there are things to do but you can’t or won’t get started. We’re all human so will spend time doing all three – lean in, back off and do nothing. The key is to know which mode you are in.

To find out you almost always need to sit back and ask a few questions. If you decide you’re leaning, that’s great but ask yourself if you’re working to a plan. If not, then you have a great excuse for a coffee. Back off, use the break to agree a direction or goal then get back to it. If you are backing off then ask yourself what will trigger you to get going again. If you don’t know then you’re in danger of slipping into doing nothing.

Remember what made you sit back in the first place, decide what action to take and get on with it. You may need to do some research, clarify your thoughts or agree an objective. Don’t get caught in the trap of looking for a complete answer – that’s called analysis paralysis. If you are honest enough to admit that you are doing nothing then it’s time to do something, anything. Pick the easiest thing off your to-do list and tick it off. If you don’t have a to-do list then write one.

Whilst on the subject of to-do lists, most people hate them; some people like me have got into the habit of writing them but are really good at ignoring them. I would argue that everyone that runs their own business should have a to-do list – there are just too many things to remember. Put all your tasks into a list, refer to it regularly and prioritise it honestly. Pick off the important tasks before they become urgent and give yourself some time to do the fun stuff.

One of the most important roles of a to-do list is to enable you to switch off at the end of the working day safe in the knowledge that you won’t forget what needs to be done. As your business grows you will need to get the balance right between leaning in and sitting back. When you have a team working for you there is more need to sit back and take stock. This is what is meant when consultants tell you to ‘work on, not in your business’.

See also: What makes a successful entrepreneur? – Simon Middleton believes there is a specific pattern which highlights those entepreneurs most likely to succeed.

Jonathan Richards

Jonathan Richards

Jonathan Richards is an experienced non-exec director and CEO at HR software provider Breathe.

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