In this article, first published in Business Leader, Pavlo argues that retirement is for the birds, certainly if you are a business owner. Creating a business is hard.
I was recently absorbed in a debate about retirement with a highly accomplished business owner. Having started her business 26 years ago after a successful corporate career of 12 years, we met to talk about growth. But that’s not how it started. Originally, we were meeting to discuss her company’s valuation.
Our conversation felt light, fleeting, almost whimsical. Something was wrong. It was as if she was going through the motions of the conversation that she felt she should have.
“You have no interest in selling your business,” I remarked eventually. She looked surprised at my comment. After briefly pausing, she said, “I’d hate to sell it. But I’m in my 60s, and the pressure is immense. Family and friends are asking why I want to carry on. The debates get testy when, in casual conversation, I talk about new products, new markets, and new opportunities.”
“What is the response when you do?” I asked. “When is enough, enough. Aren’t you being greedy? You have earned the right to retire and other such comments,” she said, smiling tentatively.
The business owner’s odyssey
These kinds of comments come from many sources:
- Peers who are corporate employees that either face a forced retirement, experience work as a political battlefield, or have lived a life in a narrow functional silo
- Friends or family who want more of your time or envy your achievements
- In family business scenarios, your successors may well want to lead and take the business in a different direction
- Other business owners who, as competitors or friends, have a different lived experience of building, growing, and managing their companies, and who, exasperated, want out and project their lived experience onto you
- Finally, the ‘Joneses’, where the collective view of life is that you work to earn your retirement and that is a key indicator of success.
But here’s the thing. Most business owners I’ve met do what they do for more than the economy. Through their business, they find inspiration, meaning, friendship and purpose. These are the ingredients of meaning. And when work becomes more than economy and meaning becomes the greatest driver behind why you do what you do, retirement is not a likely ambition.
The art of legacy building
It may sound idealistic, but I’ve witnessed it repeatedly. I think back to the first real client I had 16 years ago. A successful industrial baker who, after 27 years, had built a respectable £5.8m annual revenue business and wanted out. Unable to fetch the price he wanted, and a need to retire with dignity and pride, we met to discuss what needed to be done. I asked why he wanted to sell. “Every day feels like a grind, a slog, and as much as I have invested in my team, I’m square and centre of daily, weekly and monthly operations. I’ve tried to delegate and let go. I’ve tried to work ‘on’ my business, not ‘in’ it. I’m fed up. What I loved has become a choke around my neck.”
He vented for some time, and eventually, we mapped out a path to attract the valuation he wanted. 16 years on, with annual revenues approaching £100m, he remains fully invested and at the helm of his business. Each year, I ask him, are you ready to retire? He laughs and says, “Next year.”
If structure determines behaviour, how you build and grow your business will determine how you spend your time and attention. Should you find yourself experiencing growth that is stuck or stagnant, or alternatively, chaotic, and complex, you will tire, and retirement will be attractive.
It’s not how it has to be. The right blueprint to inform the design and development of your business will release your time to focus on the things that feed your soul.
John Milton’s (1608-1674) sonnet, “on his blindness,” captures the idea beautifully. He argues that everyone has a talent, and the job of life is to put that talent into service of humankind. Creating a business is hard. Building and growing it is hard. The trials and tribulations are what create meaning and value. Retiring such a talent robs us all of future prosperity.
Dying at your desk, then, indeed, is a life fully lived.