I've been advised by various people whom I hold in high esteem that I should work more 'on the business' and less 'in the business'. I'm sure these people have my best interest at heart, and to cut them some slack, they may have offered that comment after seeing me emerge unshaven and frumpled from an all night coding session. But I don't really buy it. Or at least, it may be good advice for me, but I just don't see it as good advice for many of the staffing execs I get to know.

In staffing, nothing can replace the passion or profits that come from working 'in the business' - discussing service problems with customers, negotiating a pay rate with a temp, making sure orders get filled. It's too easy to get carried away working 'on the business', which can quickly become an excuse for passive activities like reviewing financial statements for the umpteenth time or browsing the internet.

At a recent staffing conference, an extremely articulate CEO of a public staffing company gave a great presentation on his company. He walked through his financials with ease, talked about the latest issue of Harvard Business Review, quoted Peter Drucker and had the audience chuckling over his anecdotes about management.

What was missing from this masterful performance? Profits! This company has been mired in red ink for four plus years, and each new year brings yet another bold, good-to-great management philosophy that will magically transform them from staffing dinosaur into a strategic HR powerhouse that partners with its client. Cough.

My advice to him (if he were to ask)- ditch the Armani suit and your HBR magazines, change into some jeans and go work the staffing desk at one of your onsites for a week. At worst, your staff will take notice that you're serious about understanding customers and will get behind you more as a leader. At best, you'll gain a compelling grip on how your company affects your customers and your temps. You'll gain a better appreciation for the fact that the profits you seek are really a measure of how much value your company brings to the world.

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