Do You Know What Your “Real” Business Is?

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A couple of nights ago I made sauteed chicken breasts for dinner, with a white wine pan sauce to make it a little more interesting. Briefly, here’s how you make a pan sauce (and yes, I promise this is going somewhere): you add a quarter cup of wine and a quarter cup of chicken broth to the pan, perhaps with a bit of mustard, and then boil it until the half-cup of liquid is reduced down to a total of a quarter cup. Then swirl in a bit of butter, and voila! But the magic happens in the reduction. That’s because during the reduction, the flavors get condensed down to their essence. The taste becomes rich, concentrated, and pure. So here’s my question for you today:

As a leader, can you boil your business down to its essence? Put another way, can you define the real business you’re in?

I was just reading an article in Success Magazine about Grammy winning pop singer Alicia Keys. The article begins with a story about a fan who told Alicia that when she (the fan) was going through chemotherapy, she played Keys’ hit song “Unbreakable” every day, and that she was now two years cancer-free. At that moment, Alicia Keys realized that her real business wasn’t the music business, although that was the literal business she was in. No, her real business was the inspiration business. That—inspiration—is the essence of what Alicia Keys does; music is just the channel.

Success Magazine put it best: The literal business you’re in isn’t necessarily the real business you’re in.

I worked in television for a long time, producing a sketch comedy show in Seattle. The literal business I was in was the entertainment business. But my real business was delivering audiences to advertisers. Entertainment was simply the medium, the channel. A friend of mine, Nia, makes custom furniture for homeowners on a budget. Her literal business is furniture. Her real business is selling dreams. (And for those of you keeping score—yes, you’re right. Alicia’s and Nia’s real businesses are altruistic and uplifting; mine was commercial and crass. This, I believe, is because girls are made of sugar and spice, whereas we guys are composed of such things as snails and puppy dog’s tails. So, really, we’re fighting an uphill battle from the word go.)

Ray Kroc, the founder of McDonald’s, once famously said that he wasn’t in the hamburger business; he was in the real estate business. (At that time, McDonald’s corporate owned the land on which the franchises were built.) Like Alicia Keys, the Beatles’ literal business was performing music, either live or in the recording studio. Their real business—the business that placed them ahead of the crowd and ensured their legacy for decades to come—was innovation through songwriting.

So why is this important? It’s important because understanding your real business enables you to, paradoxically, both focus and broaden your reach. By knowing that her real business is inspiration, Alicia Keys can focus on the kind of music that truly suits her purpose, while broadening her impact to areas beyond music.

In short, by concentrating only on your literal business, you may be limiting your potential. So I encourage you to spend a little time thinking about what your real business is. (It might help to ask yourself, “What experience do my customers get when they use my product or service?”)

I also encourage you to try a nice pan sauce. Yummy!


About the Author:

29-time Emmy Award winner and Hall of Fame keynote speaker Bill Stainton, CSP is an expert on Innovation, Creativity, and Breakthrough Thinking. He helps leaders and their teams come up with innovative solutions — on demand — to their most challenging problems.
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