Three Strategies for Making the Shift from Employee to Owner Less Lonely

Over the past few years, the emergence of new business enterprises has skyrocketed.  Between the Pandemic and Great Resignation, many looked in the mirror and said, “Let’s do this!”  Since 2019 and the start of the Pandemic, Americans have started close to 13 million new establishments, according to the over U.S. Census Bureau and the Bureau of Labor Statistics.  The ten-year average of new establishments in 2019 was 2.9 million.  The average of 2020 and 2021 was 4.9 million.

These new owners shifted their mindset and took on new and higher levels of responsibility.  Most start out as solo operations but may, depending on the business model, take on employees and partners.

In addition to the launching of new businesses, there have been record numbers of companies changing hand in terms of ownership, resulting in some people stepping into the ownership role for the very first time.

Altogether this adds up to a whole bunch of people entering the twilight zone of business ownership.  likely taking on something different from what they have ever done before.  Of course, there are different levels of skills, competence, and preparation for ownership but every one of these new owners share two common realities: 

  • Owning a company is different than working in a company
  • It is damn lonely at the “top”

When you’re an employee, you have responsibilities.  You need to show up on time, do what asked of you to do, do it well, be nice to the people you work with, and do your part to take care of customers.

When you’re an owner, you have all that responsibility too.  But there are different and more complex levels of responsibility.  You have greater risk and liability to your customers, employees, and suppliers.  There are contracts to honored.  If not, you’re the person they will come to for answers and to make things right. 

There are four other significant differences when you’re an owner and not merely an employee:

  • You go home last. It’s a seven day a week job.  Unless it’s a hobby business, it fills your head.  If someone drops a ball, it impacts your bottom line.  It’s always there.
  • You get paid last. There are no wage and hour laws or company policies specifying when your pay day is.  If the company is having a bad, you still have to honor your contracts and pay your employees. In the beginning, you are chief, cook, and bottlewasher.  If you don’t slay the dragon, there are no dragon-burgers on the table for dinner. If your customers lag in paying you, it dominoes into your cash flow.  Delayed gratification can be painfully long.
  • The buck stops with you. If things go sideways, it’s your tail on the line.  Your name is on the loan.  There’s probably a personal guarantee meaning your home is on the line too.  If there are legal issues, your name shows up on the suit.  The business risks are your risks.  The world is on your shoulders. 
  • “It is strange to be known so universally and yet to be so lonely.” When Albert Einstein said that he was talking more about people in general.  But it applies in business leadership and ownership.  Everybody knows you and nobody knows you at the same time.

When you’re an employee, you likely had peers to connect with.  You learned from them, as well as your mentors, supervisors, and others in the company.  If you had a problem to solve, you have people you can turn to.

As an owner, the pool of people you can confide in narrows.  There may not be anyone involved in the operation you’re comfortable sharing concerns, problems, or challenges with.  Depending on your situation, you may not even have someone at home you’re comfortable sharing with. Loneliness is real.  You may feel that you are left to figure it out on you own.

How an owner navigates this collision of risk, responsibility and loneliness has a direct correlation to the growth, profitability, and value of the company.  The more committed an owner is to a solo/lone ranger approach, the slower and lower the value and value growth. 

Conversely, an owner, or any leader, for that matter, with a collaborative and relationship-focused approach will be in a better position to drive better results.

There are several reasons for this.  More successful owners implement and benefit from three key strategies:

  • Build Your Posse: Sounding boards developed through owner roundtables, family business centers, boards of advisors or directors are key.  By developing and nurturing relationships with others that share a common interest, these owners expand their network and pool of resources.  When it hits the fan, they have developed people to call, share what’s on their mind, be vulnerable, and get support.  In return, they are able to contribute to others’ success, learning alongside and exploring best practices.
  • Build Your Posse – Part II: Developing an internal leadership team empowers better, more creative problem solving and innovation.  This allows these owners to leverage their superpowers in concert with others’ and share some of the load.  With leverage, superpowers grow, and the load is more balanced.
  • Invest in advisory relationships: Rather than penny pinching and using their advisors for the bare minimum needed to comply with laws, regulations, and filing requirements, these owners seek out their expertise and advice to help them grow the business.  They cast a wider net and work with a full range of advisors such as accountants, attorneys, wealth advisors, investment bankers, commercial bankers, exit planners, family business advisors, and other consultants early on.  They’ve established relationships to turn to when it hits the fan or certain specific needs arise.  They recognize that their advisors have seen more business situations than they have.  Why reinvent the wheel when the bike shop is right down the road?
  • See the business in a holistic manner: Whether family engages in the operation or not, they realize that their company is a “family business” because the family depends on its success.  They recognize the need for balance between and within the overall system of family, ownership, and operation of the business.  With the world on their shoulders, they know that strength comes that balance.

Each of these strategies translate into decision making that drives value and the long-term sustainability of the company.  Accessing support, resources and advice is an act of humility.  It honors the universal truth:  Companies that are not dependent on the owner for all the answers are more valuable.

For example, as a member of The Family Business Consulting Group, I meet once a quarter with my peer group.  The theme at the most recent meeting was admittedly an area that I believed was not my strength.  I was looking forward to expanding my knowledge.

It took conversations with peers, both one-on-one and in group conversations, for me to recognize the flaw in my thinking.  I had it in my mind that I was responsible for something that I wasn’t.  In fact, there was no way a consultant could take on the responsibility I has assigned myself.  Left alone, I was in my own head.  (Imagine that!)  The echo chamber was blaring the negative self-talk around my own misperception of responsibility.  Once I was able to reframe the challenge, I was able to see that I actually have a great deal more experience than I was giving myself credit for.   I’ve got this and will be even more present and in service of my clients as we work together.

This may seem small, but it is actually an example of the powerful miracles that happen everyday as leaders and owners broaden their resources to be less alone and lonely in their thinking.  When we are able to find peers, colleagues, advisors, and friends that pull us out of our echo chambers, we think more clearly.  We have someone to challenge us and call “Bull” when we need to hear it.  We learn new ways to look at situations and innovate.

We grow.

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