Step back, step up

By Barbara Spector

If you're a senior family business leader preparing for retirement, you likely have done a lot of thinking about choosing and developing your successor and transferring ownership of the company. Are you also planning what you will do after you step back from leadership?

In a feature article in this issue, I explore how business leaders plan for a fulfilling life after they leave the top job. Part of that planning involves letting go of the leader's role.

Stephanie Brun de Pontet of the Family Business Consulting Group says retirees who have the easiest transition are those who have developed an identity outside the family firm. If the only way that you define yourself is as the leader of your family business, Brun de Pontet says, "it's extremely hard to walk away" from that position.

The broader your network, the easier it is to find fulfillment after retirement, because you have more venues outside the family company where you're "already a known entity," Brun de Pontet says.

Phil Clemens, who stepped back from the CEO's role at the Hatfield, Pa.-based Clemens Family Corporation in 2014 and retired as chairman in 2015, compares a reluctant retiree to an aging athlete seeking one last major-league contract despite obviously declining performance. Rather than hang on and make the kind of errors that you wouldn't have made in your prime, "It's much better to go out on a high note—and then go do something else," says Clemens.

Those senior leaders who were successful and enjoyed their jobs might need to reframe their thinking. Dave Juday, who retired as chairman of Sycamore, Ill.-based IDEAL Industries in 2014, says he had to suppress the urge to keep control of pet projects and continue attending key meetings. "I had to keep saying [to myself], 'No, no, no; I'm not going to do that,' " he recalls.

Being away from the day-to-day running of the company "actually is pretty comforting," Clemens says. "You get to focus on what the next part of your life is, and not worry about what's happening" with the family business, he points out.

What's definitely not worth worrying about, according to Clemens, is how the sucessor CEO may have changed operations. Change is inevitable and does not equate to criticism of the retiree, he emphasizes; it just means the former and current leaders are different people and have different ways of doing things. "Accept change as the inevitable, not as the enemy," Clemens advises.

Sometimes the new leadership team is interested in their predecessor's input—but the retiree mustn't cross the line. "I'm available to both my successors, if they choose to ask me questions," says Jim Ethier, who stepped down as CEO of Chestnut Hill, Tenn.-based Bush Brothers & Co in late 2009 and retired as CEO in 2015. "I will share my thoughts with either of my successors, just between the two of us. But I won't go any further than that."

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