So you’ve built a successful business? Now leave it alone.
You’ve done the hard work. You’ve put in the long hours and sleepless nights. You secured the loans and serviced them. Your payroll no longer gives you higher blood pressure as the end of the month approaches. Your business is established; it’s secure; it’s viable; and it’s throwing up positive cash flow.
Now please learn to leave your business alone.
Having gone through the myriad trials and multiple tribulations of starting a business, many founders are unable to delink it from their lives. It swallows everything else up, and becomes the beginning and end of their existence.
Therein danger lies.
A great business is indeed a great endeavour. It is something worth working for, worth making big sacrifices for. When done well, it is a noble enterprise – one that bestows good careers on its employees, does a useful job in the life of its customers, and earns handsome returns for its founder and other shareholders. That happens very rarely, truth be told, so why would I be asking you to detach yourself from your precious achievement?
Because, truth continue to be told, no one thing needs to become the whole of your life. And business is a powerful drug, a dangerous stimulant where deal-making and continuous growth become addictions that can’t be shaken off and must be continued at all costs.
I have watched too many business founders become so utterly engrossed in their enterprises that everything else in life fades to become background noise. Family is just part of the decor. Children are just a funding need. The world is seen only during business trips. Bigger thoughts about life and meaning are just vapid snippets exchanged over dinner with customers or financiers. The business is literally everything. Nothing else matters. If spouses don’t like it, they can leave. Offspring get their education paid for – what more do they want?
The business also becomes indistinguishable from the founder’s personal finances. School fees and wedding costs are drawn from the business; personal properties are thrown in as securities without a moment’s hesitation; guarantees are signed without a murmur.
The danger now becomes very real. To make your business (or your professional practice) the whole of your life is to expose yourself to many pitfalls. For one thing, you will become an extremely one-dimensional person, interesting only to yourself. For another, your continuing obsessive involvement may preclude any real growth and positive change in the business – it will always be about you and your plan A. Plan B will never materialize. And you will find it very difficult to attract fresh capital and grow beyond a certain self-imposed ceiling, because financiers see great risks in one-man shows.
You may also suffer a rather lonely and empty end-of-life. Your business may pay your hospital bill, but it won’t give you the deep relationships that sustain people in their old age. If the only meaning you found in your life was in clocking the sales and pulling off the deals, that won’t give you much succour when you can’t hack it any more.
Our businesses and our professions are just vehicles in which we traverse our lives. The vehicle itself is not interesting – the journey is. We must of course maintain a roadworthy vehicle, but only because it allows us to travel comfortably and have multiple rich experiences. We must not end up hogging the steering wheel manically and refusing to disembark. Someday we need to hand over the controls with grace and dignity, or lock the door and walk away whistling cheerfully, ready for fresh challenges and experiences.
Confusing your business for your life is a severe delusion. A business should of course be a key feature in your life, that goes without saying. No one builds a great business without great personal engagement. But keep that engagement healthy. Draw some lines early, and respect them. Depersonalize the enterprise, involve and empower others as you go. Evolve your own role. Be ready to step away from any one business if your work there is done and others will now do it better. Create many options for your life, things that you can do at different stages to earn both income and respect, and add meaning to your life.
There are many relationships that matter, not just those that involve personal achievement and financial growth. Life is a multiplicity. It is rich and complex and full of different flavours. Experience it in its fullness.
(Sunday Nation, 14 October 2018)
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