Transitions, Part II

Returning to author William Bridges, he writes,

“…one of the most important transitions that is likely to take place in a person’s work life sometime after the age of forty: the transition from being motivated by the chance to demonstrate competence to being motivated by the chance to find personal meaning in the work and its results. It is the shift from the question of how to the question of why.”

The idea of demonstrating competence goes much deeper than just exhibiting the ability to perform a task well. It also includes the emotional rewards we receive when demonstrating our competence to competitors, colleagues, or social networks. These emotional rewards help satisfy our need to find personal meaning, however we define it.

The role of an effective business founder is in a constant state of transition from the day we start our company. Some of the transitions are minor, like hiring our first worker, remodeling our store or plant, or assimilating our largest new customer. Others can be major transitions that accompany things like changing careers, taking on or losing a partner, or attempting to fully embrace the role of “manager” rather than “doer.” (In my opinion, it is failure to successfully make this last transition that underlies the statistic that over 70% of all businesses have no employees.)

Transitioning is what happens when our business grows, moving us from one size boat to a larger one. And it’s not unusual for several transitions to take place at the same time. We might be hiring more employees, and depending on the change our business is experiencing, that could include hiring managers who give directions as well as receive them. In this case, the change that’s taking place is in the number of workers we’re hiring or in their business acumen. The transition that’s taking place is within us as the owner. It involves the evolution that must take place as we make a mental shift and relinquish (delegate) old responsibilities to embrace new ones. This is frequently an uncomfortable and chaotic time, especially for people with a high need to be in control.

Another example is when our company experiences a sudden and significant increase in revenue or profits. While this is a change most business owners dream about and work years to achieve, the transition can also take us by surprise. It requires a shift on our part regarding our deep-seated beliefs about money and our readiness to manage larger amounts of it. When this transition isn’t handled well, it often results in undisciplined purchases and poor financial decisions on the owner’s part.

The examples are endless, and their impact is compounded when several transitions are taking place at the same time. These transitions frequently include a temporary drop in the company’s profitability and can cause even the strongest business leader to want to cling to the old way of doing things … and the old way of thinking.

When business owners don’t successfully make these transitions—navigating the chaos experienced in letting go of the past and embracing an unfamiliar future—they find themselves trying to sail a larger vessel while using the same skills and understanding they had when they were sailing a much smaller boat. Unfortunately, this rarely ends well for the captain or crew.

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