Sheet metal & Air Conditioning Contractors’ National Association

Saving the Hardest for Last

Ron_Magnus_high_res_photoIn a construction-related business of any size, decisions come early and often, particularly when you are the owner. As the scope of your leadership role expands, the decisions usually only get harder because all the easier decisions are made by other people! Initially, many decisions feel daunting because you have no frame of reference. But with time, some decisions get easier because you have the experience of past mistakes and successes to guide you.

But life has a way of handing us the very hardest decisions at the very end of our careers. Few of us will have any relevant experience to draw from. While the counsel of others will be valuable, these end-of-career decisions are intensely personal and require a leader’s lifelong accumulation of wisdom, resolve, and courage to make. These decisions are of ultimate strategic importance, but don’t feel urgent until it’s almost too late. I’m talking about decisions regarding what we think of as retirement.

“Retirement” is an inadequate social construct based on outdated actuarial tables and work demands. When the Social Security Act was passed in 1935 guaranteeing retirement pensions to all Americans over the age of 65, the average life expectancy was less than 62 years!

Today most people can expect around 20 plus years of productive living past that age. Many of our clients are actively engaged in their business long past 65. They enjoy the work itself, the thrill of accomplishment, as well as the financial rewards it provides. The only drawback is that past 65, the odds only increase that some external circumstance (illness, family complications etcetera) will force a decision we aren’t prepared to make. That’s why these hardest decisions still need to be made, before some unforeseen crisis makes it for us.

When do I step away?
This may be the hardest and most crucial decision we ever make. Leave too soon and the company will be weakened and unprepared for a future without you. Hold on to long and you can become an anchor working against the sails of the next generation, regardless of intent. There are many other difficult decisions that follow, but establishing a realistic timeline is where all these begin.

Who will take my place?
By the time you’ve been in leadership for a few decades, the job you’re doing is uniquely built around your skills and aptitudes, likes and dislikes, and personal preferences. There is no one individual in your organization who has that same profile. That means in most cases, replacing your scope of responsibility will necessitate a group of people. Understanding that early will save some costly misfires.

Where will I reinvest my life going forward?
One of the roadblocks to making these first two decisions is the lack of thought around how you plan to purposefully live in your next chapter. Recreation is great, but when you can golf/fish/travel, whenever you want, it very often loses its appeal. Conducting a simple audit of time and energy will usually reveal a leader’s significant lack of diversity in their time/energy portfolio. Right now, it’s likely that most/all of your meaningful relationships, sense of purpose, source of satisfaction and your very identity are wrapped up in your business.

Untangling these essentials of happiness from your current role is a primary prerequisite for discovering your preferable future!

Ron Magnus, managing director of FMI’s Center for Strategic Leadership with Ed Rowell, CSL consultant. Ed Rowell works in succession planning at FMI. You may contact him at erowell@fminet.com if you have any questions.

Reminders