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When is it time to let go of your organisation?

“How do owner-managers know when and by how much to loosen the apron strings? And how do they choose who should take over responsibility for their precious offspring?

Mayank Patel, founder of Currencies Direct, a UK-based foreign exchange and international payments business with turnover of £1.2bn ($1.8bn, €1.4bn), says he knew from the start in 1996 that his business would outgrow him. Even so, he felt torn. “I asked myself could I trust someone else’s judgment? And would I be able to stop myself from meddling?” he says.”

Alicia Clegg, Financial Times (5 May 2010)

If you have founded a business or been the driver of its success for a long period, there is a wrenching transition awaiting you. Sooner or later, and preferably sooner rather than later, you will have to step aside and let someone else take the reins. Michael Joseph has just done it at Safaricom, and you will have to as well.

It is one of the life’s most difficult moments, not unlike the letting go of a favourite child. But just as that child must be given the space to find its own feet and make its own way in the world, so must your organisation. When your child has reached a certain age and you decide to let go, many, many doubts assail you. Is my child ready? Will it cope with a harsh world? I know so much – should I not keep advising and guiding? Will my child get into bad company and lose its way?

The same thoughts haunt those trying to step away from a company. First, there is the choice of a successor. No one – no one – is going to run your company quite the way you did. That’s a given. Three doubts bedevil the founder. The first is obvious: will my successor mess up my company and squander all my good work? The second and third are less easy to admit to, even to ourselves: will my successor outshine me and cause me to be forgotten? And what the hell will I do with myself now?

The choice of successor is indeed crucial, and good leaders should spend a long time pondering it. Two things you should not do: appoint a “reduced clone” of yourself; and pretend to hand over power while driving from the back seat. Neither of those is a true “letting go” – you are merely trying to hang on to power by other means.

The basic question you must ask yourself is this: which is more important, my organisation – or me? If it’s the former, you must step away in good time. Like a great tree, you must fell yourself so that other smaller trees get the sunlight and nutrients with which to grow. Hanging on for dear life will cripple your organisation. It will cause it to stagnate, and it will cause a tired formula to be used for too long. If your real joy is in seeing your organisation outlast you, you will not choose to hang around for too long.

But many of us are more interested in ourselves. We don’t admit it, but we create an enterprise that turns on our say-so. We are not then creating an organisation, but a perfect, self-perpetuating job for ourselves. Founders of this type never leave. They hang on until death intervenes to separate them from their company, and they often leave it in tatters.

More’s the pity. More business founders need a more philosphical view. All good things come to an end. All eras cease. Every endeavour involves transitions. Letting go of so many things is part of nature itself. Letting go of your business is no different, and you must have the foresight and wisdom to let your organisation walk on without you.

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