Today is Groundhog Day and millions of folks all over the country will be looking to see if there will be 6 more weeks of winter by watching the antics of a groundhog named Punxatawney Phil. You know, if he sees his shadow, we get six more weeks of winter. If not, then spring is right around the corner. In many a long winter, even the least superstitious of us has hoped that he doesn’t see his shadow and we can get on with spring already.
Do you know why I’m fascinated with today’s holiday? It reminds me of the way lots of advisors approach their deals. They seem absolutely mystified by how they end up in a repeating loop of busted deals, completely unaware of what’s going on underground and how to change the pattern. Likewise, our emotions can seem like unpredictable wild animals that pop up from nowhere and derail our lives and our deals. So the groundhog metaphor is a good one for us to use in thinking about how to help more owners make it all the way through a successful sale of their business.
The term “Groundhog Day” became part of the English lexicon as a means to describe a monotonous, unpleasant, and repetitive situation. It arose following the release of a comedy by the same name that has surprisingly philosophical undertones that are applicable to the process of selling a business.
In Groundhog Day, Bill Murray portrays Phil Connors, a cynical television weatherman covering the annual Groundhog Day event in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, who becomes trapped in a time loop forcing him to inexplicably relive February 2 again and again. The film’s creator, Danny Rubin, said that this lack of explanation made Phil’s situation more relatable, as “none of us seems to know exactly how we got stuck here either” when facing our own Groundhog Day experience.
Like some advisors I’ve met, Phil makes no secret of his contempt for the assignment, the small town, and the “hicks” who live there, nor does he conceal that he’s only doing it for the money and his ability to leverage it into something “better.”
In short order, when Phil realizes that each day is the same as the one before and there are no consequences for his actions, he begins spending loop after loop indulging in binge eating, one-night stands, robbery, and other dangerous activities, using his increasing knowledge of the day’s events and the town residents to manipulate circumstances to his advantage.
Some advisors in our industry have taken a similar approach, treating business owners, their precious life’s work and the sale process like “a numbers game” – slickly convincing lots of business owners to list their companies with them, but putting in little effort to help those owners succeed at the sale, concealing key information from deal partners and doing just enough to earn their fee and abandoning those deals and clients that don’t quickly show economic promise. They put their attention on only the technical aspects of the sale, persuading the owner and themselves that only reaching the highest dollar matters, ignoring the reality that their work as a trusted advisor is about so much more than just running a transaction and collecting their fee before moving on to the next one and the one after that.
We hear advisors mutter under their breath with contempt that they have to play “part-time psychologist” in their deals, meanwhile actively looking away from the signs of distress that owners exhibit about their uncertainty surrounding the transition and, worse yet, sometimes shaming those owners for needing to slow down so they can catch their breath and adjust to all the change that is happening around them. Those same advisors treat the inevitable emotional elements of the process as if they are dirty gophers mucking up the fantasy of their smooth playing field and often shove owners or their partners around, forcing a deal to close because their own fear of losing their commission overrides their ability to care for their client’s best interest.
These behaviors end up creating the self-perpetuating loop of busted deals and lead to mistrustful owners and advisors who treat owners with contempt that goes round and round.
In the movie, Phil gradually becomes depressed and desperate for a way to escape the loop. Each thing he tries lands him back in the same situation day after day. I’ll bet you know some folks like that, too. I sure do.
Beneath the comedy aspects, the script melds sentimental and deeply cynical elements to help us focus much more on the philosophical aspects of our chosen work in the world. It showcases Phil’s existential loneliness as he fails to find meaning in his looping days, consumed only with his self-interest and how to manipulate others into giving him what he wants.
It is only when Phil stops using the loops to indulge his own desires and instead uses them to selflessly help others that he is freed. He learns to use the knowledge he is gaining from the repeating loops to demonstrate genuine empathy and develops ways to care as he helps others without fakery or self-interest.
The more he understands what is going on for others and finds ways to ease their walk in the world, knowing that no matter which path he chooses (the selfish one or the helpful one) the day will likely reset anyway, that is when he wins the respect and affection of Rita, the paramour played by Andie MacDowell. He wins with her, not because he desires it or has impressed her with his knowledge or manipulated her into choosing him, but because he has genuinely become the type of person that Rita could love.
I see a similar path to success for advisors who take the opportunity to understand the journey their business owner clients are on as they navigate the exit of their business. Using each interaction with a prospect or client to display not just their transactional prowess, but their deep respect and affection for the business owner and what they have built, these advisors win their client’s trust. Those are the deals that close with ease and turn into loops of satisfied former clients and circles of influence filled with deal partners who make referrals that fill those advisors’ pipelines with clients they genuinely enjoy helping.
The behaviors we engage in create patterns and lead to the loops of our lives. We have more power to decide which loop plays out than we sometimes remember.
For Rubin and Murray, the essential message of Groundhog Day represents having the strength and knowledge to make a purposeful change when faced with the opportunity to simply keep repeating previous mistakes. The pair loosely used the Kübler-Ross model of the five stages of grief—denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance—as an outlining structure for the film. We watch Phil navigate those stages of grief as he grows, just as we watch our clients move through these elements as they let go of their business. Want to read more about that process and how you can use it to help your clients? Check out my article Grief, Loss & Owners on the Brink.
While Bill Murray got to replay the same day over and over in the movie Groundhog Day until he got it right, you don’t get that chance when you’re helping a client sell their business. You and they get only one chance and the way you show up with them makes all the difference in whether they place their trust in you and allow you to shepherd them to the other side of the single biggest transition in their professional life.
Keeping with my Bill Murray and small animal theme, in Murray’s other famous role as Carl the groundskeeper in Caddyshack, he said you’ve got to BE the gopher. Think like the gopher … er, I mean the business owner. Instead of setting up traps to catch the gopher or devices to suppress their emotions to keep them from blowing up your deal, tap into what it’s like to know the deeper meaning of the work you are doing and relate to what your client is experiencing. Get in touch with the sense of profound responsibility that comes with an owner entrusting their most prized possession to you and allowing you to guide them across a ravine of the unknown as they sell their business.
Ask yourself, “If this was my favorite uncle, how would I handle the sale of his business?” Would it be different than the way you are approaching or interacting with this business owner who might, today, feel like a stranger? Do you care about how this owner and his family and employees and community will experience this process and what lies for them on the other side? What can help you to build relationships of trust with your client and your deal partners so that this deal makes it all the way to the close in a way that leaves everyone feeling at ease?
Are you genuinely proud of the way you are doing your work and the way it affects the people you are serving? If not, change your approach or pick a different job. Otherwise, reconcile yourself to being like Bill Murray’s character Phil living a never-ending series of Groundhog Days filled with misery or his grubby groundskeeper character Carl in Caddyshack muttering about the string of senseless deals as “a pool or a pond, all the same to me.”
The emotional arc of a deal is actually far more predictable than you think and you don’t have to treat it like you’re stuck in a job crawling on your belly trying to outsmart your client’s emotions as if they are gophers and you’re caught in a game of Whack-a-Mole.
Remember, the way to get the kind of rich, satisfying life you want is to do your work in ways that serve others.