Help! How can I let go?
A founder of a food business, 73, says: “I agree that many founders find it hard to let go of the business. I am one of them. My sons want me to retire and let them handle things. But they are not very capable, and if I leave, the business might fail. You said that founders have to learn to let go. How can I do this?”
My reply: Learn to let go bit by bit. First, entrust a small matter to your children and guide them to handle it well. Afterwards, give them more complex tasks.
When you see that they are capable of doing things well (though not always the way you would do so), you will learn to trust them more, and feel more at ease transferring responsibility to them.
No successor would probably be able to perform to your complete satisfaction. But follow the 70- or 80-percent rule.
If your children can execute the business 70 or 80 percent as well as could be expected, then well and good. Guide them, but do not stifle their initiative.
Mistakes will arise—how can your children learn otherwise? No one is perfect, certainly not you, and sooner or later, your children will be on their own, whether you like it or not.
Choose your battles. With careful mentorship, you can ensure that mistakes will not be extremely costly.
You fear that if you are no longer there, then the business will suffer. There is only one way to find out: take a break and leave them alone. Go on a much-needed vacation—surely, a week without your presence will not create havoc!
Resist the urge to monitor them during your absence. Your children will be eager to prove that they can manage the business without you. When you return, guide them when correcting their lapses, if any, and then schedule a longer vacation, say two weeks.
Repeat the process till you reach six months. Prepare for ups and downs, but if you remain open to mentoring them and they respect your views, then rest assured that the succession process is going along fine.
Rest assured, too, that retirement is not a death sentence. It does not mean that you are no longer needed. But let go while your children take over, and while you are still around to guide them if needed.
During retirement, try things you have always wanted to do but have had no time for before. Gardening, sailing, swimming? Set up a foundation, join the local civic group, or dream up your next enterprise.
A second-generation male in a manufacturing business, 40, says: “I read your advice to several quarrelling siblings before, and I am relieved that in our business, it is only my brother and I. If we were four or five in the family, the business would have split up.
“Frankly, my elder brother and I have never been close. Our parents started the business and they say they will leave it to us. My brother and I don’t fight, but I worry about what will happen if our parents are no longer here. But it’s just the two of us, so things should not get complicated. Right?”
Even if there are only two of you, things will not automatically work out if you don’t get along. Take the Hong Kong restaurant Yung Kee, famed for its roast goose.
When founder Kam Shui-Fai died, he left majority of the shares to his two sons, and some to his daughter, who subsequently sold out to the younger son. But the two sons were often in conflict, particularly when their wives and kids entered the picture.
Things became so heated that after the elder son’s death, the courts decided in favor of the winding up order of the holding company. Business suffered: a Michelin star in 2009 became a mere Bib Gourmand in 2012.
Clear the air with your brother now, for the sake of your family and your legacy.
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