Seeing the firm you started or used to run be successful when you’re gone is one of the greatest accomplishments you can hope for.
As parents, our goal is to raise children who are completely independent and able to stand on their own. As business owners, our goal should be much the same.
Most owners of AEC firms (again – I define the “C” as consulting for the purposes of this article) are wired that way, although I can’t say all are. I did have one famous “starchitect” tell me some years ago that he didn’t care if his firm survived once he was gone. He said he wasn’t sure he wanted any buildings with his name on them that he hadn’t personally designed. But thankfully, he is an anomaly. Most people aren’t like that.
For most of us, seeing the firms we started or used to run be successful when we are gone is one of the greatest accomplishments we can hope for. So what does it take to actually make that happen? Here are some of my observations and experiences:
- You have to be able to separate yourself and your own identity from the business. This is never easy. It helps to have a strong family and other interests. If you are a workaholic and your entire purpose in life is running your business, you – and your business – will probably have problems getting out of it. This is fundamental. Work on your workaholicism as a first step!
- You need to be able to recruit and retain good people. Without good people, your “baby” will not thrive on its own. To get really good people, you, as the top person in the business must be highly involved in recruiting yourself. You have to have a pay scheme that attracts and retains good people. It also helps to have a viable ownership transition plan that you can talk in specifics about – not generalities – with both new and existing employees. Getting other people to become owners in your business before you are gone is an important early step.
- You need to learn how to delegate. There has been a lot written about delegation both here in The Zweig Letter and elsewhere, yet many design professionals really struggle with it. I can’t tell you how many times I have heard from leaders in this industry that they want to delegate, but no one is as good as they are at “X.” I always tell these people that they have to get past that. Sure, no one will be as good as you are at something you have done for years at FIRST. But they may actually be better than you after a little while.
- You need to document and codify your systems and processes. Whatever it is you use to run your business needs to be fully defined and described and shared with everyone. And it should be followed or changed if you aren’t following it. You cannot have it all in your head but not known to anyone else. This is super critical to your ability to step away and have the business still thrive.
- You have to create a brand and promote the other people there to your client base and what they are doing long before you exit. This will get your market thinking the business is not all about you. And if that brand is strong, the business will have a lot of inertia that will help them overcome the loss of your involvement at some point. This is really important and cannot be started soon enough!
- You may want to consider a company name change or perhaps a name modification. Again, you don’t want the perception that the business is all about you. This is how many companies end up with the bland “alphabet soup” names – they modify them post-founder departure or in preparation for the founder’s departure. You have to be really careful here that you don’t lose your identity as a company or any brand equity if you do this. I say proceed with caution on this one!
Founders and CEOs, I don’t want to minimize the difficulty of doing this. I know it is really hard to ease out of something that has been such a big part of your life and identity. But think how great it will be to see that business growing and thriving without you! I can tell you from personal experience it is incredibly gratifying.
Mark Zweig is Zweig Group’s chairman and founder. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.