Fear is not a business transition strategy

The Transition Strategists worried business man
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I spoke recently with the owner of a successful business whose two sons had been active in the company for the 20 or so years since they graduated from college. She told me that it was time for her to start putting the company into their hands, but just thinking about the process made her anxious.

I had my suspicions about the causes of her anxiety because I work with owners every day who care deeply about their companies and their relationships. They are successful individuals, confident decision makers and visionaries, yet when it comes to envisioning the choices they’ll have to make while crafting the transition of their companies to successors, the picture is fuzzy.

I then asked the question I ask every owner (and when I have the opportunity, their successors): “What do you want your transition to be? What do you want it to accomplish?” Her response was immediate: She didn’t want her boys to be unhappy or to fight. She didn’t want to lose her relationship with them. And she didn’t want her business to fail. She asked me how to keep all these things from happening.

Reframing the transition vision

While it’s possible to create transition plans that mitigate risk, it’s practically impossible to create plans for outcomes we don’t want to happen. If we plan not to do something, some other choice or behavior will inevitably fill the void. Instead, effective plans are based on what we do want to happen, not on what we fear might happen.

I reframed the conversation with this client by asking whether she would agree that what she wanted was her family to remain whole and her business to go forward successfully. She did agree, yet noted that there were so many obstacles.

The obstacles this owner anticipated were really outcomes that she feared. The most effective way to deal with transition-related fears is to dive into them to test whether they’re true or not. Then if the feared outcomes occur, we tackle them one at a time.

Use outcomes you want rather than fear as the basis for your transition strategy

A successful business transition is one that meets an owner’s most important goals and puts relationships first (one of my company’s guiding principles). When owners can articulate what they truly want from the transition, they gain confidence, establish a solid foundation for their transition strategy and can invite others to join them on their transition journeys.

When we help owners define what they want, we also ask them to think about what they want the transition to accomplish for others — especially possible successors — because a transition affects many people. Running a business is a huge opportunity, but it’s also an enormous challenge that not everyone wants to take on.

Knowing what you want breeds confidence

I could appreciate that this owner’s fears about her transition made her reluctant to talk about it. Typically, successors are just as reluctant, though most don’t react as her son did. She had no confidence in her ability to create a plan to transition her company to her sons because all she could see was what she didn’t want to happen. I assured her that setting her goals and speaking with her sons about what she wanted for them would boost her confidence, give her a platform for intentional conversations and most importantly, get her unstuck.

Finally, I asked her to think about her goals for her life after ownership. She admitted that she hadn’t thought about that life in a long time. I promised her that if she could envision the next, great phase of her life, she’d find it far easier to do the hard work of transition.

I know that this owner left our conversation with transition homework. I think she also left with hope for the future because she could see that basing her plan on what she wanted was a far better foundation for a successful business transition than basing it on her fears.

Elizabeth Ledoux is a co-author of the award-winning It’s A Journey: The MUST-HAVE Roadmap to Successful Succession Planning,  as well as Accelerate Your Entrepreneurial Flight and Understanding the Growth of the Entrepreneur. She frequently speaks to organizations and business owners about challenges and opportunities in private and family business transitions, business and individual growth, and the business succession journey.

She serves as Chair for TIGER 21 in Denver, Colorado and was Chair for 14 years of the Women Presidents’ Organization’s Denver chapter.

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