There are lots of things that cause business owners to bolt upright in their beds at 3am scared out of their minds when they’re selling their business. Whether the tale of your next deal is a horror story filled with regrets or has your client telling all their business owner friends about the fairy tale ending you helped them discover is up to you and how you help them navigate this one thing.
You know what’s scary? Leaving. Even when it’s your choice. I know because last week I made a difficult decision to step away from an important relationship. It was the right decision, and I didn’t make it lightly, but that didn’t seem to matter to my rollicking emotional brain. In fact, it had me up at 3am – both on nights before and after I made and shared my decision.
This experience reminded me of what our clients go through when deciding to sell and leave their businesses. This monster is called Seller’s Remorse. It kills way too many deals, but it doesn’t have to.
The monster under the bed: Am I making the right decision?
Change is hard, whether or not you’re the person who made the decision. One person might be left wondering “What the heck just happened?” Sometimes that person is also the one who made the decision.
Making decisions and adjusting to the change that follows can create a paralyzing fear that leaves us waffling, prone to indecision and often second guessing ourselves. It’s our brain adjusting to what’s called Cognitive Dissonance. You can read more on cognitive dissonance here but for our purposes it’s what happens as our brain is jumping back and forth between two different scenarios that it can’t reconcile. At least, not yet.
It takes time for our brains and our bodies to adjust to something new. I’ve found myself waking in the night, doing the hard work of letting go of what was and aligning to what IS, without yet knowing what will be. I’m missing the familiar and comforting routines, the regular contact, sharing news of the day and still reconciling to the reality that what I thought my future would look like will actually be different.
That’s what our clients go through, too. If they’re not prepared for it, it can (and too often does) derail their deal.
Why the jitters?: Cognitive dissonance is a very real effect of change but it doesn’t mean the decision was wrong.
I was talking with my college roommate on Saturday and heard a version of this same experience from her. She lives in Texas and her daughter and son-in-law live in Colorado. My friend and her husband have spoken for several years about moving closer to their kids. Their daughter had a baby this summer and the longing to live closer has become even stronger, as you might imagine. Two weeks ago, they made an offer on a house near her daughter and the offer was accepted. Immediately she was filled with both excitement and something she couldn’t quite name – maybe regret.
Within days of returning home, they had several offers on their old house. It means they can get on with the good stuff in their new home right away. But my friend is also sad about leaving the house that she and her husband put so much effort into making right for them. She told me that she was struggling because she loved this house and can’t quite imagine not living in it. She felt embarrassed that she was torn between being with her daughter and her grandson and the house she also loved. “It’s just a house!” she tried to reassure herself. Adding to her confusion is that she really likes the house she is moving to.
This is classic cognitive dissonance in action – her brain is trying to reconcile two different scenarios … living in the house she thought they would stay in forever and living in the new house she also loves, closer to her daughter. Her brain can’t yet reconcile the two different versions of her future. The good news is that, eventually, and with enough care, it will.
Fear buster: Letting go is a process, not a moment in time – even if the leaving is.
It made me remember a day more than two decades ago. The last moving truck, filled with the furniture and files and things that had made up my law firm was loaded. In my effort to spot the truck as it rounded the corner, I bumped my head against the window of my now-empty office. I didn’t think I had hit my head that hard. Then I realized it wasn’t hitting my head that had triggered the tears. The business I had spent more than a decade building now belonged to someone else. Someone else would care for my clients, my employees, the pieces of a business I had painstakingly curated over the years.
“But, this is what I wanted,” I kept repeating to myself. Yet I was still sad. At the time, I found it hard to reconcile two conflicting feelings – relief and regret. Even more feelings kept surfacing, demanding to be reconciled, creating even more cognitive dissonance. Fear and exhilaration and sadness and uncertainty, sometimes even anger and shame. I stood there second-guessing myself – even though one part of me knew with certainty that the decision was the right one – and the moving truck had already pulled away from the building. The deal was done.
In the days and weeks that followed, I kept waking up in the middle of the night – confused and uncertain – having to remind myself that YES I had left my business. I found the lack of routine, and the freedom it brought, unsettling – even though I had longed for those very things. Some days I was thrilled and lounged about with my tea on the deck, so happy to not have to go anywhere or do anything. Other days I roamed the house like a lost soul, or found it difficult to even get out of bed.
Thoughts of clients and employees drifted in and out of my head and I had to resist the urge to pick up the phone or jot a note about something to tell them. Reminding myself that I was no longer responsible for them. I wanted to just check in, see how things were, catch up with my peers. But their lives and mine had gone in different directions and what we had in common was drifting. They no longer needed or sought my input on things. While I was glad I had exited my business, I was also questioning whether it had been the right decision. Some days, I flat out felt like a crazy person as my brain whip-sawed between the two thoughts.
It took longer than I thought for this to settle down in my brain and in my body. My body knew what time it used to get up, the route to the office. It surprised me that sometimes I accidentally found myself driving toward the office that was no longer mine. Recalling the rhythm of my old life, my brain and my body recalled that such and such date was when an industry conference always happened – one that I had enjoyed but no longer had a reason to attend.
Eventually, I settled into a new rhythm, a new life, actually happy – although occasionally one of those old thoughts would pop into my head surprising me.
What Can You Do: For the Owner, this is a Transition not just a Transaction
Because of my own experience, I remind advisors to stay focused on how this will impact their clients beyond just the economics and the importance of providing support as they transition. I didn’t know that was what I would be feeling then. In fact, it surprised me at the time that I felt what I did – and for so long. Honestly, even knowing that this was likely, it continues to surprise me in the days after ending this recent relationship. It’s likely that my friend will continue to be surprised by it in the weeks ahead as they pack up their house and move into the new one closer to her daughter.
One of the reasons I’m so focused on helping owners and their advisors remember that this is a transition even more than a transaction is because it’s so easy for advisors to close their files and move on to the next deal – leaving an owner all alone with these surprising feelings. Too often, the advisors or family members and friends of the owner think that the enthusiasm and relief and accompanying financial windfall will be enough. They seem perplexed by this emotional maelstrom that sets in, the malaise and ennui (and regret) saying “But I thought this was what you wanted!”
Yes, it IS what the owner wanted. Just like my friend who wants to live close to her daughter and grandson. Just like I wanted to sell my business and be freed of the pressures. Just like you wanted your teenager to launch off to college, but still find yourself surprised that you need to set one less plate at the dinner table or miss stumbling over their lacrosse gear at the back door.
If we’re not careful with this, when the 3am boogie man thoughts surface for our clients, they will accidentally kill their own deals to relieve the distress from the cognitive dissonance. But they don’t have to stay stuck and we don’t have to let them navigate it alone. We can do better – for them and for ourselves. Feeling paralyzing uncertainty is part of the process. Second guessing is natural. Wanting to stay with what feels familiar makes sense, even when staying is the wrong choice. Feeling sad is normal. Missing what was and forgetting that things are different now makes sense. Yes, even when you’ve wanted what you got and got what you wanted. All of that is true, and there is a gradual letting go … a reconciling of what WAS with what IS.
I find myself missing my special person and know that, for a time, I am likely to still wake up in the night – surprised by the fact that I have forgotten that we’re no longer together. Surprised by a sense of longing for what was and, yes, even surprised that I am surprised; sad while also knowing that it was the right decision.
How can you help? Endings matter, so prepare for it, stay connected – it’s in your interest, too
Normalize the experience, help your owners to expect it (and to also let them know that it’s normal to underestimate or even discount that they will feel this) just like it is normal to forget or to second guess a decision once it’s been made. It’s a transition. If you think it will help, give them a copy of The Seller’s Journey a business fable about how another owner navigated the emotions as he prepared for the sale of his business and throughout the year following his exit. Stay connected to them, help them and the people who will support them to also know what to expect – hiding the feelings or being ashamed of them leaves them stuck and alone.
Don’t forget that this cognitive dissonance also happens for our owners’ employees, customers, vendors, and family members, too. Even for the deal team – there is an emotional process to go through to reach completion and closure – whether a deal concludes or crashes and burns. Just closing the file, cashing the check or hosting a closing dinner doesn’t mean it’s “over” for everyone.
Endings matter. Owners who get the support they need when things go bump in the night settle soundly on the other side and go on to live happily ever after and tell all their friends you can help them write their story that way too. And the advisors who learn how to navigate this process are rewarded with work that makes a difference in their clients’ lives and the referrals that prove it. Call me, I can help.