An old English literature teacher of mine once talked to me about the fact that a story I had pulled together didn’t really have a beginning, a middle and an end – at least not in the classic sense of the word. I mean, it started and it finished, and there were likely some other words in between, but I guess my structure didn’t quite live up to the expectations that had been set by many centuries of storytellers who had come before me. Little did this person realise that I would spend the best part of my career writing and telling stories for a living.
Of course, businesses spend a lot of their time communicating beginnings and endings. New hires, new strategies, new geographies, new products, new lawsuits and other new initiatives provide great fodder for companies looking to tell their stakeholders why their particular business stands out from the pack. Barely a minute goes by without another company shouting from the rafters about something new that will change the world, or at least change the trajectory of their business for the better.
Endings are a little more tricky. Businesses often struggle to talk about the decision to end a long-standing executive’s tenure, or to exit a market, or to step away from a planned acquisition. Corporate endings rarely feel joyful, even if the business rationale behind them makes complete financial and strategic sense.
Conclusions aren’t just difficult for corporations either. For CEOs who have reached the pinnacle of their career and then decided to take a step out of the spotlight to enjoy the fruits of their hard work, saying goodbye is never easy. It’s hard to replace the dopamine hit from a key boardroom decision or the skilful swerving of a c-suite disaster, particularly in the case of CEO’s who are also the founder of the business.
Talking to Guy Raz in his excellent podcast series How I Built This, SoulCycle founders Elizabeth Cutler and Julie Rice summed up the pain of the leader stepping away from a company that simply would not have existed without their blood, sweat and tears. The pair departed indoor cycling pioneer SoulCycle following its sale to the gym chain Equinox Fitness, and Cutler” admits it wasn’t easy to say goodbye.
“There are those who said to me when we were getting ready to do our original deal in 2011, ‘you know selling a business is not like selling a child. You have children…this is your business’ in a very detached way. I would say that is super not-true. I obviously did no fact-checking as to whether the people who said that to me had ever started a business. It is a child. Each one of the studios was like a child, and when we left we left a piece of our heart there because that’s what you do.”
Agreeing with her partner, Rice said: “Somebody should write a book for founders about what it’s like to sell their businesses. There’s definitely a mourning period, there’s definitely a period when you spend some money, and then there’s definitely a period when you begin to think about ‘what am I going to do next?’
Finding your niche after life in the corner suite is never easy. For some – like Cutler and Rice – it’s important to continue to head into an office every day, to spend time together and to brainstorm future opportunities. For others it’s time to blow off some well-deserved steam before heading back into the boardroom. And then there’s always the leader who wants nothing more than some time with his or her grandchildren. Taking control of your personal narrative is the key to future happiness, regardless. Understand what it is you want in life, and don’t be afraid to tell that story. Share your knowledge and experience with future generations of leaders, or use it to help those organizations that mean the most to you. And don’t be afraid to look back even as you look forward.
After all, leaving the c-suite may be an ending, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be a ‘happily ever after’.