By Dr. Paul Chafetz
Business owners are a breed of their own. One characteristic of business owners is that their identity is closely tied to their business. Most working adults derive much of their identity from their work, but business owners put this approach onto steroids. It’s one reason I counsel people on what it takes to sell your business. While many men, in particular, feel that they are their job, business owners feel that they are their business. Since they identify with their business so completely, they gauge their sense of success, worth, and significance as a person by the success, worth, and significance of their business.
It is not mysterious at all that a business owner loves running his business. Paid work in general, and far more so running one’s own profitable business, is an amazingly good way to meet many powerful, universal psychological needs. Tripp Braden lists a few of these:
- Being the ‘boss’
- Having control over one’s destiny
- Achieving personal goals through the business creation process
- Enjoyment of influencing and empowering others
- Personal wealth creation (Salary, equity, and the business pays a lot of personal expenses!)
- Personal guarantees tied to business loans
- Personal promises and contracts made with co-owners and partners
- Recognition as a ‘a successful owner’ in one’s community
The successful businessman has demonstrated to the world that he has outstanding business skills. But how skilled is he in other areas of life? How developed are his personal relationship skills, and his leisure skills? How well rounded is he as a person? His business is profitable and stable. Can the same be said for his marriage and his children’s development? Does he have hobbies? Can he dance, or ski, or play bridge? When did he last read a novel, or take a vacation? Does he know his neighbors, or go to church regularly? How often does he laugh? Could he happily spend a week in the mountains with his family?
Ironically, successful businessmen are often quite lopsided in their skill set. On the one hand, it might seem just fine to be skilled in business but less so in personal life. After all, the money is coming in, the owner and his family members all have a stable routine. The owner is enjoying the stimulation, challenge, and prestige of his daily work life. Everyone in his family is fed, clothed, housed, educated, etc. Since running the business is so rewarding, why rock the boat? Why fix what isn’t broken?
On the other hand, though, businessmen achieve success by being realistic about the world, clear- and open-eyed about trends, about the future, and about known patterns in the world. Isn’t it obvious to the owner that, with the passing years, there will be changes in his abilities, his needs, his desires? How can a practical, realistic person like a business owner fall victim to an illusion of immortality or to an illusion of an eternal present situation?
Further, even when the owner does start to realize that selling the business and moving on to the next stage of their life (which business brokers like to call “the afterlife”) should happen sooner than later, why do many of them do such a poor job of diversifying their skill set and creating a updated fabric of healthy relationships and challenging activities that will give meaning, purpose, significance to every day? When this task is not accomplished, the afterlife generally proves truly painful. The name for this challenge, this task, is “psychological readiness to sell.”
As a psychologist, I believe that we grow our way through life, and we do it in stages, which are somewhat uniform across individuals. Stages are bridged by transitions, and transitions between stages have similar features. Selling one’s business, the product of decades of one’s personal investment of creativity, time, passion, fortune, sacrifice, identity, integrity, etc., is obviously a monumental transition in life. Yet, it still consists of the same psychological tasks as every other transition in life, however small. First, the emotional aspects often include, for example, grief over the loss of pleasant parts of the past, and joy over the anticipated gains and reward that lie ahead. Second, the intellectual aspect refers to the fact that the new stage will require us to learn new skills. Think of skills like toileting, homework, safe sex, keeping a job, or planning a kid’s wedding. We are always breaking new ground, and hopefully have some guidance from those who have gone through it before us. Third, the behavioral aspect consists of the real time and focused effort that must be spent to successfully transition.
It is vital that any business owner engaged in selling his business understand this basic three part anatomy of life stage transitions. It is but one of several concepts and skills what can help the business seller create a smooth and successful transition to his ‘afterlife.’
I offer a five session consultation package to help business sellers keep building upward in their own life. Through reading assignments, writing assignments, and structured exploration, my clients acquire the cognitive, behavioral, and emotional tools to create an individualized, updated fabric of challenging activities and healthy relationships that will give meaning, purpose, and significance to every day.
If the time is right for you to approach this transition, talk to a professional in this area.
Dr. Paul Chafetz, Dallas, TX Psychologist, Author, Speaker, Talk Show Host