Grief, Loss, and Owners on the Brink
Denise Logan

“I can’t take it anymore!” Ed shouted into the phone when I answered.  He was understandably exasperated.  This was the third time his client, Walter, had threatened to blow up the deal he’d been working on for months.  “He told me he’s not sure he wants to sell the business anymore.   Can you believe that?  We’re set to close in less than two weeks!  What is this guy talking about?  How do I get him to think clearly and just get with the program?”

Not only could I believe that Walter had said that – he’d been signaling his ambivalence for several weeks –  I also knew that both Ed and the prospective buyer were losing their patience with Walter and that the way they were responding to Walter’s emotional swings were contributing to the likely demise of the deal. Frankly, it’s not uncommon for business owners to struggle with the decision to sell, even at these late moments, or for that uncertainty to cause the advisors to lose their cool and start pressuring the owners in unproductive ways.

Ed often remarked that he spent half his time in every deal “playing therapist” to his clients and I knew that, even though he thought he hid it well, he resented having to coddle business owners he thought should be grateful for his help and for all the money he was getting for them.   I told Ed that what Walter was signaling was more than just ambivalence about the deal.  I recognized it as signs of the grief that comes late in the process of a transition, and told Ed this.

“Grief?” he asked.  “What does this guy have to be upset about?  He’s poised to make a pretty penny from this deal.”  I asked Ed whether he wanted to know what he could do to help Walter stay in the deal and make it through the closing and, even better, to help Walter become Ed’s best referral source ever. 

Here’s what I told him…

Even in the best of times, the moment the illusion of our perfectly laid plans comes crashing down, we’re likely to feel an unexpected and sudden sense of loss.  Even more so, now, for business owners who are being flailed by such uncertainty and the repeated stripping away of even a fleeting sense of control.

Many of us don’t recognize this emotion as grief and, if we do, we can feel a sense of shame when we recognize that our loss appears small compared to that which others around us are suffering. I’ve learned over time that grief is not relative – no one person’s grief is more deserving of being felt than others. 

From personal experience, I also know that our disappointments and losses, both great and small, deserve to be acknowledged and grieved.  And when we don’t deal with our losses they have a way of impacting our lives in unexpected ways.

Let’s take a look at how grief can show up for an owner in the sale of a business during these tumultuous times.  See if you can spot how it might also be showing up for you right now as you struggle with all of this transition, uncertainty and change.  Try to catch sight of your own fantasy that things will return to normal.  My hope is that you will recognize this pattern as it plays out in your transactions and be able to bring a sense of compassion to the process, along the way helping to move all of us to something even better than the old normal.

Grief is playing out in my calls with business owners and advisors every day … “When will things get back to normal?” they ask.  Of course, I have no satisfying answer to that question.  Instead, I often inquire in return whether the “normal” for which they are longing was really that great or if it was just familiar?

I recognize their attempts to control what cannot be controlled, to find ways to use busyness or money or things to fill the gap left by a loss.  Like when a business owner gets close to the end of the deal and suddenly realizes that he and his spouse have nothing in common.  What rears its head at that moment is relational grief – the realization that the “golden years” he dreamed of having after years of hard work were an illusion.  If we don’t tend to that grief, he may kill his own deal rather than face the loss of the dream and the loneliness that it presents.

What we’re seeing in the reaction of an owner when the valuation comes in significantly lower than what they had imagined, is grief.  Their shock and adamant denial, the anger at the valuation professional, the bargaining to engage someone else to redo the valuation or for the advisor to seek out other offers, or to just keep the business and terminate the sale process abruptly.  But, if we’re patient and help to guide them, many of these owners come through the grief to acceptance and conclude their sale.

The old adage, ‘time kills all deals’ needs a modifier because it takes time to recognize and process grief.  If we are careless or brusque with our clients, not only will the sale not close, but the owner, the business and their community will be harmed by our callousness.  We can do better and we must, for our clients and for each other.  Many of our clients or the surviving spouses and partners of those who die in this pandemic will need us to be prepared to help them navigate the uncertainty, the losses and the normal grief responses we are observing but, until now, may not have recognized in response to the wide-ranging uncertainty that surrounds all of us.

Much has been written about the Five Stages of Grief, but one of my favorite tools when talking with clients about navigating a loss is this amusing little video clip by Adult Swim.  Take a minute to watch it and come on back … I’ll wait.

Stage 1 – DENIAL, NUMBNESS & SHOCK.  At first, the giraffe can’t believe what’s happened.  He can’t be caught in quicksand, he tells himself, creating a sense of denial and even making a bit of a joke.  You’ll recognize this in current rhetoric that “things are going to turn around quickly, in fact, I’m sure we’ll be open by ____!” We’ve all filled in that blank with some date by which we were hoping normal would have returned and it hasn’t.  You may also recognize it in an owner’s protest “That valuation must be wrong, they probably missed something.”

Coming face to face with the realization that our best laid plans are failing us can be crushing.  We struggle to process what’s just happened, often yearning for what we’ve lost and searching for a way to make it not be true, to turn back the clock.  Although we may want to shake our clients out of their denial and drag them into facing the reality of their situation, be patient.  They call it shock for a reason and denial serves a purpose, to allow our bodies and brains to catch up.

Stage 2 – ANGER.  As the reality of the situation sinks in (just like our little friend the giraffe sinks further into the quicksand) anger erupts and he rages against the unfairness of what has happened.  We’ve seen it recently as someone lashing out at the officials who insist we must shelter at home or when our clients rage about what they characterize as an outrageously low-ball offer that a buyer has made, insisting that they’d rather burn the thing down rather than let someone have their company at that insulting price.  Most often this shows up as blame, but sometimes we see an owner turning it inward on themselves, blaming themselves as to why they didn’t see the crisis coming.  Sometimes their anger is turned on us as their advisors.  Recognize it for what it is – grief.  Don’t take it personally and don’t vent yours on them.

Stage 3 – BARGAINING.  Our giraffe slips into the next stage – Bargaining & Guilt – by trying to make a deal.  I always know I’m in bargaining mode when I catch myself using “If only… “ statements.  Notice your desire to insist that, if only we can get back to normal soon, none of this will be happening.  You’ll hear this in our owners as they try to explain why older valuations should apply to their businesses going forward, as a way to mitigate reduced valuations that they’ll be facing.  We’ll hear them argue that they just need one more year to turn things around, ignoring the realities facing their companies, their own advanced age or ill health, daydreaming about the big year ahead that will turn it all around, bargaining for anything that will seemingly delay the sale or the reality of this crisis and its impact on their business.

It’s logical, like all the stages of grief, but it’s a natural mistake we all engage in during the grieving process. The lure of bargaining makes us think we can solve past pains by making a deal about what fresh hell we’ll tolerate in the future. “If only …” Sometimes we do this because we feel guilty or even responsible for what’s happened to us, and negotiating is our penance. When you recognize a client in the bargaining stage, be kind, not shaming or dismissive. 

Stage 4 – DEPRESSION. The video shows us that howling pain our friend the giraffe feels. That’s what our owners are feeling right now.  Chances are it’s what you’re feeling too.  Feeling deep sadness about your loss sucks. There’s no way around that. But letting yourself acknowledge and feel the depth of your emotions about your situation is a great way to clear those feelings out. When the reality of the situation dawns, owners may fall into despair. After all, what’s the point in soldiering on if the underlying cause is out of your control?

Those who are missing payments may stop opening the mail or answering the phone entirely. Guilt blossoms here, as does the tendency to “awfulize” and focus on the feeling that their business or credit will never recover, they’ve lost everything, etc.

Those who aren’t missing payments, but are realizing the serious extent of their lost value, may mentally spin on the feeling that they’re trapped: “I’ll never be able to make a move or recover” or “I’ll never be able to sell.” These feelings are not reality-based, but it feels very real to them at the time.  Like you would with a child who seemed inconsolable, treat your client with comfort.

Stage 5 – ACCEPTANCE & HOPE. Finally, our little giraffe gets to Acceptance and Hope.  Acceptance gets a bad reputation because it sounds like you’re choosing to settle for your current reality. But in the context of grief, acceptance is the return to hopefulness because you’re no longer denying the truth of your situation.  This is also the stage when people start consulting attorneys and accountants and other advisors to help them decide whether to walk away, to sell or to rebuild.

Instead of offering a callous “It is what it is” viewpoint for your client (which could flip them back into denial-based or depression-based thinking), it’s about understanding where they are in the grieving process and gently helping to shift their mindset into “I see what it is, and I see what I can and can’t do about it.” There’s a lot of power in this mindset evolution.  Although the challenge is to remember that grief is not linear, nor is it a “one-and-done” experience, especially as losses pile up, as they are inevitably for all of us during this crisis. 

Remember that grief also sets its own timeline and refuses to be rushed.  Denial and bargaining might stretch out for long periods of time and the bargaining and anger phases may frequently flip on and off in reverse order.  That’s normal and you need to prepare yourself to support (not rush) them through the process.

Your client’s dream of how great the amount they could reap from a sale has died, but now that they’ve accepted its demise, they are free to pursue a new path that fits them better. It’s then possible to learn from the reality and craft a new plan to rebuild or to sell.  Acceptance is not always easy or fun to get to but it is totally possible.

Crisis and catastrophe are inevitable in a business, as in life.  Most business owners are made of pretty sturdy stuff and will not allow themselves to wallow in self-pity for long. Consequently, they will make peace with the threat and begin to develop a strategy to deal with it. How? By focusing on what’s working and eliminating what isn’t.

In my observations, the manner, speed and severity at which a business owner experiences these stages of grieving has a lot to do with how hard their local market and their business’ value was hit, and with what else was going on in their scenario, combined with what other simultaneous personal catastrophes they were experiencing. 

But the single most determinative factor in whether an owner is able to successfully complete the sale without regret is how the advisors around them understand that the owner is involved in a transition, not just a transaction. The advisors who demonstrate high levels of empathy in the deal to help their clients recognize and process the grief that surfaces along with the changes they are facing are the ones who are rewarded with deals that close and clients who become lifelong sources of quality referrals. 

Need some more tools to help your team or an owner recognize and deal with these emotions? Let’s talk.

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