I was at a networking cocktail party two weeks ago and the investment banker I was talking to kept checking his phone. He apologized at one point, explaining that his wife was driving to another state with his daughter who was starting college the following week. He was, understandably, nervous about them being on the road during a storm. But, when we dropped deeper into the conversation, what he really was nervous about was what life would be like without the sound of his gregarious teen and her friends filling the house. He wondered aloud about what exactly he and his wife would DO with themselves now that they wouldn’t be consumed with the routine of soccer games, college tours and keeping an ear out to make sure she got in safely at night. How, he asked, would everything change and how would he know what to do?
We talked about how we had each heard similar stories from friends at the gym and even celebrities seemed to be posting about their angst on our respective social media feeds.
I remarked how lucky we are to have a name for what we were talking about “Empty Nest Syndrome”. He nodded his head and said, “Yeah, I guess you’re right, that IS what we’re talking about, isn’t it?”
As you read on, I invite you to think about the similarities our owners face when they sell their business and how our familiarity with the emotional journey of launching our children can help you to care for your client through this very similar moment of transition when letting go of their business.
While much has been written about how to survive empty nesting and we’re all familiar with couples who, once the children are “out of the nest”, look at each other and wonder “Who are you?” and “Do I even want to find out again?” or “What the heck do I do with myself now?” Many of those relationships don’t survive the existential challenges of reframing the relationship when caregiving for children and mutual parenting responsibilities lay bare what remains of substance in their relationship.
The same is true for our business owners. It’s not a coincidence that so many of them think of their business as “their baby”. They birthed this business, nurtured it through troubled times and watched it grow. When faced with the time to let go and launch it into the world, they understandably experience this same emotional arc of letting go and the concurrent question about their identity without it.
One of the things that helps parents process the innate sense of disorientation and sometimes surprising sense of emptiness is knowing that it’s perfectly normal. That what they’re feeling is what tens of millions of other parents are going through in the same moment and that others have survived and gone on to thrive in their post-acute parenting time. Most people around them recognize what they are experiencing as a normal part of letting go of their children and find support in their family and friends as they work through these feelings.
What if, as advisors, we helped to prepare our clients for this same perfectly normal period of adjustment. Instead of ignoring it, shaming them for their feelings or telling them they’ll “get over it” – recognize the transition that they are experiencing. Bring to your client conversations an awareness of how you have navigated similar emotions when your children launched (or if you haven’t yet launched children, you can draw upon your own experience of the period of uncertainty when YOU left home, or had to leave behind a favorite coach or even sold a home and realized you were leaving behind the oak tree you had planted all those years before). Come to the conversation with empathy and help normalize the experience, validate their fears, anxiety and worries. Help your client to reflect upon how they dealt with the similar experience when their children launched (or they left a home they loved, etc.) Because most parents know that what they are experiencing is “empty nest” adjustment, we can laugh about it when we come to the table with one more plate than there are diners that night. “Oh, that’s right, she’s at college.” We remind ourselves or know to gently comfort our spouse who remarks, “It’s so quiet here now. I miss him.” Even though just weeks ago he was shouting up the stairs, “Turn down the music!” or “Why can’t you remember to turn off the lights!” Oddly now we feel a little lost longing for those same things that annoyed us so recently. If we didn’t know this was normal, we’d feel crazy.
That’s exactly what our business owner client feels when she finds herself about to turn into the parking lot of the business she already sold, when she was actually headed somewhere else. Her brain was on auto pilot, going to work was such a part of her routine. Of course, it feels jarring to suddenly find herself in the parking lot where she no longer belongs. She might feel embarrassed and hope no one saw her. Or she might want to just pop in and say hello to her former employees.
Likewise, the owner who was absolutely fed up with all the employees’ shenanigans and swore they wouldn’t miss it one single bit needs our compassion when the nostalgia appears and they question “maybe it wasn’t really all that bad” wondering if they made a mistake in their decision to sell.
As parents, we remember that it was always our goal to raise this child and launch them into the world. That this was what we were working toward and is actually a marker of our success as parents. We kept them safe until adulthood (or this reasonable facsimile of adulthood!) and instilled in them the basics to begin making their way into the world. Such is true for our business owners. Their goal was always to build something successful and sell it or turn it over to the next generation, a means to harvest the wealth from their labors to fund their future or that of their family.
But, then again, we experience the emptiness of the space in our home and in our routine that the now-launched child or business used to fill and find ourselves surprised by the depth of conflicting emotions and loss.
We, and they, let go of the roles and routines and step herky-jerky into our new not-quite-so-clear and definitely less comfortable routines and roles. We begin to discover who we are, other than Drew’s mom or Tory’s dad or the owner of XYZ Company. Perhaps we pick up hobbies we enjoyed earlier in our life or had deferred because of our parenting responsibilities or realize we have no outside interests and feel ashamed and worried we won’t find anything to occupy our time.
We try to navigate friendships that were forged with the parents of our children’s friends or with our employees and business associates. We discover those friendships drifting and realize that they were based on common interests we no longer share and question if those friendships were even real. As empty nesters and former business owners, we are faced with the prospect of making new friends as adults and it can feel scary.
Years ago, a close friend confided that she and her husband were thinking of having another baby since they missed their daughter who had just gone off to college. I remarked, “But you’re finally free!” to which she replied, “It doesn’t feel free, it just feels … well … empty. We loved being involved parents with our daughter.” Sound familiar? How many of your business owner clients dive right back into another business within a few months to avoid the emotions involved in forging a new identity? Metaphorically, having another baby.
Make good use of this season of launching to notice how you and the people around you are practicing the art of letting go and bring those lessons and that empathy into your work with owners all year long.
I know I say it all the time but it’s true – it really IS a transition, not a transaction – and when we treat it that way, everyone wins.