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How to let go and back away from your farm

Barb Dartt Published on 06 August 2015

During a recent interview with a 94-year-old family business patriarch, he kicked off the conversation with the following statement. “I am not in control of this business anymore. And I don’t like it.”

The entrepreneurial spirit present in many of today’s family business owners and managers is fundamental to their success. And, like so many of our strengths, when we over-rely on it, the strength becomes a weakness.

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When a business is in start-up, the traits of an entrepreneur – independence, flying by the seat of your pants and a dogged belief in your own abilities – are critical to success. When a business moves beyond a start-up and becomes a stable, professional organization, those traits can get in the way of success.

What was independence now looks like not communicating with key decision-makers. What was improvising because you didn’t have the resources now looks like a devaluation of consistency and process.

What was a dogged belief in your own abilities looks like a lack of confidence in others and micromanaging. (Note: A business can be in start-up for several generations. And it can be quite large. Start-up is when capital and other resources are scarce; founders wear leader, manager and worker hats; and it is unclear if the venture is a dream or a reality.)

In family businesses, this transition can be even more challenging. The business leader who can’t let a decision get made without his input isn’t just some dynamic individual that inspired you to take a low-paying job because you believed in the work. He’s your father. The CFO who will share only a few transaction lists rather than a full P&L isn’t just a frustrating colleague. She’s your aunt.

Letting go – or handing over control of a family business – is one of the most emotionally challenging experiences in an entrepreneur’s life. And this is completely normal. Most senior-generation leaders within family-owned businesses have dedicated their career and the majority of their time to building and sustaining the operation.

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The farm business takes on a life of its own. It requires intensity, commitment and patience. It produces setbacks, pride and satisfaction ... much like raising another child. It can get awfully hard to separate yourself from the business.

Still, many of these same senior-generation business leaders who have poured their passion into the business and don’t know how to let go ... also have told their successors (and me, in one-on-one interviews) that their vision is to pass on the business. To see it outlast them. To find a way to disconnect their own identity from that of the business.

How do you solve this paradox of “I’m not sure I see myself backing away” and “I want the business to go on without me”? Here are four steps to get started.

1.Discover and communicate what you really want. To die with your boots on? Or to see your successors carry on the business? There is nothing wrong with choosing to hang on. Just do it responsibly by being clear with potential successors that you don’t plan to relinquish control. They deserve to make decisions about their lives and careers with full knowledge of the potential for management and ownership opportunities.

If you plan to work toward a business transition, consider the next three steps as well.

2.Acknowledge how much expertise you have to share. Most senior-generation business leaders make incredibly complex decisions quickly and intuitively because they have seen so much, so many times.

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Find a close friend or adviser (maybe your spouse) and spend a couple hours (or a weekend away) talking through the life of your business. Pull out old pictures. Build a timeline. Take time to appreciate just how far you and the business have come.

3.Shift perspective of your role from how many phone calls you take in a day to how many you make in a day. Instead of being the problem-solver and crisis manager others reach out to, move to the role of coach – where you check in with others on their status and progress. And coach successors on how to take advantage of all that expertise you’ve earned.

4.Learn to play piano. Not really. But to effectively let go, every entrepreneur must find something to move toward. Many of my clients don’t have many hobbies; they really love business. Being on the board of directors for another family business, a foundation or a college can take up a lot of your time. One leader I know is currently on seven leadership boards.

He stays pretty busy – away from the business. Another began doing mission work to Russia while his three children were in the early stages of taking on day-to-day decisions. He didn’t trust himself to stick around and not “meddle.” I don’t think you have to banish yourself to Siberia to be effective at letting go. But my experience shows that you do need to find another pursuit instead of the business.

I read a great (unattributed) quote recently. “Retire means a new set of tires. May they take you where you want to go.” Letting go is not for the faint of heart – it is the hardest work you’ll do on your business. However, it could be one of the most rewarding things you’ll ever do – for your family and for your business. PD

Barb Dartt is a family business consultant with 16 years’ experience supporting folks in business with family.

Barb Dartt
  • Barb Dartt

  • Consultant
  • The Family Business Consulting Group
  • Email Barb Dartt

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