That’s not the word that comes to mind for most people when describing a future without the responsibilities of running a business. It’s not the word that comes up when imagining a life with the time to do whatever you want to do, and sufficient financial reserves to fund a range of options. So why is that the word I hear most often?

Often, business owners confide in me about their plans for succession and how they are thinking about a full, or some sort of partial exit. Whether they are 55 or 75 years old, the most common emotion they express to me is fear. Despite a successful, financially rewarding career as an owner, this is a major life change, and they have fear.  In some cases it’s a subtle gnawing fear – more of an uncertainty about getting started or a discomfort thinking  about ‘what’s next’, making it easy to go on with business as usual. In other cases it’s a constant stressor as worries about finding that right buyer/successor, , concerns about fully funding their lifestyle in retirement, waning energy levels, or what to do with endless hours of free time permeate sleepless nights or creep in during the busyness of the day. 

Our perceptions, their reality

I know what you’re thinking…You’re thinking ‘That’s crazy! Those worries are unfounded. They are successful business owners! Hard charging, financially savvy, with a backlog of activities they never had the time to do! This will simply be the next stage of a wonderful, earned, and well-deserved life!’

Sadly, that’s rarely what I hear. The fear they face is often due to one of the following:

1.       Stress from the reality of letting go of their business. This includes the stresses of finding a trusted, qualified buyer, negotiating through the sale or transfer of their business, and the uncertainty of whether their financial return will meet expectations…or worse, their base financial requirements.

2.       Losing their identity, and in some cases – their perceived status, built over a lifetime of growing and leading a successful business. Who am I if I am not the owner of…?

3.       Uncertainty about ‘what’s next?’.  In our achievement-oriented culture, retirement/semi-retirement is treated as an exciting, coveted time! But many owners fear endless days of nothing -- boredom. And worse, they believe that if they broach the subject of their uncertainty with friends or family, they will be ridiculed or summarily dismissed. And they just might be!

The reality is that every owner will leave his or her business one day. Whether they leave to go TO something they have been waiting to do all of their life, find themselves ousted from the business as a new owner takes over, or they experience health or family issues…. They will exit.

The opportunity

To do it well, we need to address the fear. How? First, we need to talk about it! We need to reduce the stigma associated with the stress and uncertainty that comes with a life change of this magnitude. A change this big will often come with a wide range of emotions. Holding them inside serves no one. We need to be able to talk about them, express them, seek out others who are facing them as well. Let’s de-stigmatize the fear! 

We also need to take action. We need to come together to create an environment where it’s acceptable, even encouraged, to acknowledge the stressors, and then we need to build systems and structures to navigate the transition from business ownership to what’s next. We need to support each other as we figure out how to let go of the responsibilities and identities that served us so well in the past and craft new ones, creating a different and exciting future.

Cultural Shifts

Some of the most significant shifts in our cultural and social norms have come from the combination of changing demographics, a collective recognition that change is necessary, and the innovation and creation of a whole new set of systems and structures to facilitate that change.  It’s time to create a shift. With baby boomers turning 68 this year, six to 8 Million businesses will be changing hands in the next nine years. We need to address the stress and uncertainty head on. This is not just a nice to do. It’s imperative.

What are you willing to acknowledge…even if only to yourself?