I once met a prominent family business psychologist, and he shared with me a very powerful insight. He often gets called into family businesses to help wIith the family's business succession plan. One of the things he insists on is meeting the spouse of the founder, owner or CEO. If he ascertains that the only reason the spouse has respect for the founder is because of their position, he claims that the founder will likely never retire, as they won’t want to lose the power of the title. Therefore, a seamless business successionwill likely never happen.
Having a life outside the family business is important for so many reasons and especially if you want to have a smooth succession.
A Reason To Retire
Having hobbies, philanthropic endeavors and community activities that you take part in and of course family interests allows you to not be a slave to your business or feel chained to your desk. When the founder or business owner is so wrapped up in the business that they can't separate their identity from it, they'll likely always find a reason or excuse for not stepping away in a timely, seamless way.
Oftentimes, founders are so afraid to step back from their business that they use a variety of excuses, such as saying that their kids or managers aren't ready (even if they’ve been running the business for years), that they're not ready to retire or that they're afraid to step out of their comfort zone.
In his book The 8th Habit: From Effectiveness to Greatness, Stephen Covey wrote, “Retire from your job but never from meaningful projects. If you want to live a long life, you need eustress, that is, a deep sense of meaning and of contribution to worthy projects and causes, particularly, your intergenerational family.” In other words, have great and inspiring interests and projects that will fill you with energy to retire to.
A good friend who's the former CEO of a large family business told me that when his grandfather founded the business, it was predicated on the understanding that before retirement age, the family member in charge would help the next generation take over. My friend decided at age 62 to start the process and removed himself as CEO to become the chairman of the board and help the next generation assume the CEO position.
My friend enjoys his hobbies immensely — he's a community activist, a religious leader, an independent board member for other family businesses, etc. He’s never bored and enjoys his retirement. His outside interests and understanding of the succession process gave him the satisfaction and courage to step away and enjoy his other endeavors as much as he enjoyed running his business. And his stepping away allowed the next generation to move into the leadership role in a progressive and systematic way with his guidance and mentoring.
Opening Yourself Up To New Possibilities
Stanford professor Carol Dweck in her excellent book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success explains that people either have a growth or fixed mindset. So if you say things like, "Oh, I’m just not good at math," or "I’m not good with technology," it’s because you believe that you have a finite amount of wisdom and that it can’t be changed. This is a fixed mindset.
On the other hand, if you say things like, "Maybe at the moment I don’t understand it, but I’m willing to give it a try and learn something new," that is a growth mindset. For many, this attitude comes from childhood and being led to believe that either you’re good at something or not.
Try to cultivate a growth mindset to open yourself up to new possibilities other than just being stuck in your business. Be bold, and great things may happen. A great question you might want to ask yourself is: "What new things would I be doing if money weren't an issue and I couldn't fail?" The fear of failure is what Dweck says holds many of us back from trying to learn new things.
Taking on new hobbies, learning new languages, listening to new music, traveling to new places, etc., rather than just focusing on your business gives the younger generation space to grow into their positions. The easiest way for the next generation to be successful in assuming a leadership role is doing it intentionally and proactively. Otherwise, it often becomes contentious and has a negative effect on the morale of the team.
Your family business's future leaders will also probably love you for being a great role model for their own eventual retirement. Regularly stepping out of your comfort zone can help you build new neural pathways in your brain and keep your brain flexible as you age. Scientists call this ability to change your brain “neuroplasticity.” A family member of mine retired at age 65 from a very prominent banking executive position, and many thought that this might be the beginning of the end for him. Instead, he reinvented his passion for writing and is a prolific editor and writer. He’s well into his 80s and going strong.
There's a great saying that goes: "The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now." If you haven’t started cultivating a life outside your business until now, don’t give up; just start today.
Mark Victor Hansen, co-creator of the Chicken Soup for the Soul book series, wrote a great book called How to Make the Rest of Your Life the Best of Your Life. Read it, and make it happen. Doing so can benefit both you and your family business.