Last year I underwent a business divorce. My partner and I decided that, after 22 years, we would split our business and continue as separate entities. While I knew the process of dividing up our clients, employees, and other aspects of our operations would be challenging on many levels, I nonetheless forged ahead, eager to create a firm that reflected fully my own vision and was of my own making.
There were profound challenges but, perhaps like much else in life, overcoming them allowed me to grow--and reinvent myself--both personally and professionally.
On a practical level, I knew I could no longer rely on the skills my erstwhile partner contributed to our business. It was essential that I learn those abilities ASAP, either by professional development or enlisting the help of experts.
On a higher level, I realized that remaking the "new" firm with my vision carried a singular financial and moral responsibility to the stakeholders who have entrusted me with their livelihoods and business reputations. This caused me to revisit, refine, and reaffirm the core values for my firm and its brand. The result was that not only was I both personally and professionally revitalized, but my firm's brand will mark its 25th anniversary in September.
Here are my 16 tips for surviving a business divorce and flying solo:
1. It's OK to grieve.
I named my firm in honor of my dog, Pepper, and thus when the "old" business was being split, I was reeling. I had poured my heart and soul into the company for more than two decades. I found that my grieving process closely resembled the five steps of dying first identified by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross in her seminal book. I did not expect to grieve, but I learned that it was natural and healthy.
2. Be grateful.
At various times throughout the split, I needed to remind myself how deeply grateful I was, and should be, for the 22-year partnership that was now ending. I am so proud of our professional accomplishments. Next up: I (gulp) fly solo.
3. Get focused.
In the run-up to the split, there was a steady stream of meetings and calls, and a seemingly endless array of documents that took my time and attention away from the business, requiring many late nights for me to catch up. While it may be tempting to take a break to recharge the batteries, in the immediate aftermath of the split, I needed to focus on the nuts and bolts of the business itself while shoring up existing relationships, both externally and internally. I also had to make sure internal systems and processes are up and running.
4. Conduct a self-assessment.
Who were you? Who are you today? And now that you are flying solo, what type of person do you want to be? Conduct the same audit of your revamped business model. Every day presents new opportunities to define yourself.
5. Ask for help.
To paraphrase Liam Neeson, while I have a particular set of business skills, in navigating the business divorce, I was in unchartered territory. Thus, I sought the advice of other industry executives who had experienced what I was going through. I engaged top-notch strategic, financial, and organizational advisers and employees who, in a short period of time, added another degree of sophisticated thinking, discipline, and professionalism to the process and the business.
6. Circle the wagons.
Let's face it: it's a free market, so I could not take for granted that folks would believe in me or the new business. I also needed to reward those long-time partners and employees who stuck with me in the past and are committed to creating a new and better business model with me in the future.
7. Know your limitations.
Be mindful of financial constraints on the business. For example, there were certain expectations conveyed to my employees prior to the divorce, and in my haste to please my employees, I tried but failed to deliver fully on them. That undermined my credibility in the beginning.
8. Make the toughest calls quickly.
Following the split, I found there were certain employees who did not fit within the new business model. Unfortunately, I had to make the very tough decision to part ways with them. I found that the quicker those decisions were made, the better it was for the business.
9. Hit the pavement.
It goes without saying that business growth is the lifeblood of any organization. Since the divorce, I've spent more time visiting our San Francisco and London offices than I had in the previous four years combined. It was critical that I began immediately to paint a positive but realistic picture for employees and create brand awareness in these local markets.
10. Expect a fallout of clients and employees alike.
Industry experts warned me to expect, in the immediate wake of the split, at least a 15 percent loss of clients and employees. That turned out to be spot-on. I'm pleased to report, however, that major new business wins and an infusion of new executives have offset the initial setbacks.
11. Everyone will have an opinion.
Be prepared for employees across all levels, as well as basically anyone you meet at a cocktail party, to share their opinions with you about the divorce. While most will be well-intentioned, some will head to websites to air their grievances. Don't panic. Any negative comments will be offset by others who have experienced a great workplace environment and who see the potential for what the new company is becoming. But don't ignore either side, because future prospects (employees and customers) will do their homework about what people are saying about your company. Be humble enough to listen. You may learn something.
12. Don't ignore your own well-being.
You will not be able to fly solo if you aren't selfish about your own physical, mental, spiritual, and emotional well-being. For me, that means working out with a personal trainer three times a week and finding time to ice, rock, or mountain climb every six weeks. Each activity provides the total cleanse I need to stay completely focused on the business.
13. Admit mistakes.
I made countess ones in the aftermath of the break-up and learned to immediately own them (when flying solo, the buck has no other place to stop!). Making mistakes is inevitable, admitting mistakes is admirable, but not learning from them is inexcusable. Also: see tip #5 above(!).
14. Celebrate success.
It's no exaggeration to say the past year or so has been challenging, but we turned a major corner about 60 days ago by winning major global accounts in hotly contested competitions. These wins confirmed our new direction was highly competitive and that we would not only succeed but, indeed, thrive. Trust me when I say we cerebrated the victories and will continue to do so.
15. Enjoy your solo flight.
I have loved mastering new business skills. For me, this was the financial and accounting aspects of running a company. I now have a greater real-time understanding of, and insight into, cash flows, profitability, and our bank line of credit. This enables me to make smart, informed, fiscally responsible decisions.
16. Give back even more.
Since the divorce I've gotten even more involved in industry trade associations and entrepreneurial-focused support groups. Each relationship continues to open new doors, connect with the powers-that-be and emerging superstars in my business, and most importantly, pay it forward to future generations of practitioners in my field.
I encourage you to read the tips in this article. It was written by Karen Swim, a peer in my profession who, while she didn't endure a business divorce, has enjoyed a very successful solo career. Her tips are perhaps even more valuable than mine.
In closing, I'm tremendously grateful for a 22-year partnership that provided a sturdy foundation for who I am as a professional today. It turns out you don't need to view a business divorce as the beginning of the end of your career. Instead, embrace it as an opportunity to soar to new heights.