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Senior leadership: Creating a new life after leaving the family business

In September 2005, Campden FB featured an article entitled From My Hands to Yours, in which Christopher Oughtred (pictured) was in the final stages of his plan to exit as fifth-generation chairman of UK-based food manufacturers William Jackson and Son. Then 53-years-old, he had been planning his exit for about eight years in total. In his mid-forties, he undertook a long and detailed review of his life, his marriage, his family and his career in the family business.

What emerged from this process over a period of three years was the prospect of radical change in his life: he began to visualise a picture of the future in which he would no longer be the leader of the family business.

By 2001 he had formulated a detailed and tangible five-year plan that, unusually in the business world, went exactly according to plan. He retired as chairman in January 2007, passing over responsibility for the chairmanship to his youngest brother, Nicholas. These days his only formal involvement with the family enterprise is in his role of chairman of the Pension Trustees and of an Employee Benefit Trust. He has had to learn to be a family shareholder who attends quarterly family meetings where he is brought up-to-date with company progress by the new chairman.

Christopher is a phenomenon in the family business world. Rarely do we see such "textbook" or "smooth" successions. It is also rare to see a leader such as Christopher, in the prime of his middle years, who feels compelled to put the succession wheels in motion relatively early. Instead we much more often see seniors in their 60s, 70s and 80s who can't and won't let go. This can be detrimental to the "junior" family members, often getting past their prime but still waiting for the chance to make their mark on the business. Succession is as much of an emotional challenge as a business challenge.

What makes families in business so interesting is the blending of business ideals and economic imperatives with human psychology. The study of adult psychosocial development over the last century has identified a series of age-related life stages – each with it's own specific tasks, or developmental "work", which everyone needs to do to ensure healthy aging and a fulfilling life. In the panel overleaf, we have blended the family business context into an adult development framework to illustrate how members of business families can understand the challenges specific to their age and era, and the role the family business may play in helping with this work.

It has been particularly refreshing to follow Christopher's progress over the years, and with his help, to identify the factors that led him to plan his exit in such a timely manner. There is much to be learned from his experience. Three years have passed since our first article, and we are now able to look back at the 11-year period overall, during which all this change took place. From this we have identified the main elements which paved the way for a whole new approach to succession at William Jackson and Son, breathing life, imagination and optimism into the planning process; and we highlight the experience of transitioning into a new home life and a new, different work life. This will be extremely useful for people at a similar stage in life, or for those who have succession, retirement and renewal for late adulthood on the horizon. 

Pre-retirement factors

Conducting a personal reflection: Most people undertake a review of their life as they enter into their middle years, perhaps between the ages of 38-48. Christopher spent three years taking the time to reflect on the big picture and being courageous enough to imagine a future in an important area of his life without himself in the central role there. He was able to share this emerging vision with his spouse and close family.

In or out of synch? By looking at the relative ages of everyone involved, Christopher was able to sense when the younger members of his own generation were likely to be in situ – subject to proper assessment and development of course – with enough solid experience behind them and ready make their mark. He then set about ensuring there would be no bottlenecks or gaps in the leadership transfer.

Strengthening the legacy: Ultimately, Christopher saw himself as custodian of the legacy which kept the family united behind the business. He felt it was critical to "put all my initiative to work on the details of the family and business legacy held in trust for future generations, and in so doing,
strengthening it."

Changing the tradition: Many successors say they will retire earlier than their parents who often 'died in harness', but when the moment comes, find that they can't. Christopher recalls "I remember members of our fourth generation who soldiered on into their late 70s and became frightened of life after work – probably because there was so little else to look forward to." The key to the change in the case of William Jackson lies in the next two factors:

Attitude of abundance: When you have been used to working in the same place for many years, it may seem difficult to imagine anything different that you could do in "that big world out there". In Christopher's case, he was keen to cross that bridge sooner rather than later, and was helped along the way by his attitude of abundance. In his view, "the younger a person is when passing the baton, the more constructive the process is likely to be – probably because there remains (for the senior) unlimited opportunities for achievement and interest in other areas. The early to- mid 50s are probably ideal."

Generosity: Anyone who faces the prospect of letting go of something meaningful, needs to build up their generosity reserves, for it means giving away and giving to others. "From a business point of view, the new ideas, energy and dynamism comes from younger members of the corporate team, be it family or non-family members. So why not give them a chance?" asks Christoper.

So why not? The attitude of abundance, personal stance of generosity and the absence of fear (that no meaningful life would exist if he retired) all created the conditions for success at William Jackson. Not every senior facing succession may inherently possess, or be willing to nurture these qualities, but with it certainly it is possible. The detailed workings of the planning process, the presence of talent and its development, and a great deal of communication ensuring there were to be no surprises completed the picture.

Christopher retired from William Jacksons on 5 January 2007 after 31 years. He spent 18 of those years as joint managing director and 11 years as chairman. One of the inherent concerns for outgoing seniors is whether they may experience panic at the gravitas of the act of leaving, and how to handle the inevitable vulnerability that accompanies those actual, final, moments of exit.

A leaving dinner was held that Friday evening in a local restaurant (actually owned by the company), attended by his former colleagues, family shareholders, his wife and sons. Looking back on that evening, Christopher points out the many emotions were at work at this delicate time. "It is very emotional leaving the family business. I had to work quite hard on myself to ensure that the dinner was a happy occasion and not sad, nor sentimental which I could easily have let it become," he says. "I also had this dread of waking up on the following Monday morning and thinking – how are they doing without me; have they remembered this or that?" 

Post retirement

Christopher and Penny, his wife, ensured that they were fully committed to appointments the following week. On Friday 12 January, having purchased two "round the world" air tickets two months previously, they started out on their world tour.

After three weeks in North West India, Christopher and Penny spent most of their time in the southern hemisphere and just "wandered around" Australia, New Zealand, the Cook Islands and other backpacker favourites, booking no more than one or two nights ahead. "It was like a mini-gap year, though with a suitcase and hire car rather than a back pack".

They arrived home on 5 May 2007. Christopher says: "I was cured of hankering after the family business and quite content not to pry or question; moreover, I was desperately keen and ready to start on the next chapter." It had worked.

During the 20 months since then, Christopher has activated his plans for his second career, which has entailed playing a bigger role as a director of the Institute for Family Business, helping and providing advice to other family businesses, becoming a non executive and doing some speaking around the world. He also has taken over the chair of governors of a school and chairs a Trust Fund for the University of Hull – all of this based from an office that he created in an outbuilding at home prior to his retirement. "It is really satisfying to be my own boss – in William Jacksons, I felt I needed and was expected to be there; now I am entirely self sufficient at home". Christopher has enjoyed fishing and shooting "particularly mid week, which formerly I used to turn down" and short breaks away with his wife and family.

Now he attends meetings of the family shareholders where he is briefed, like all other family members, by the chairman or MD on company progress. He is not a member of the Family Council. "Once you have chaired the family, as well as the business, it is better to let go of both and watch the legacy develop from the side lines".

We could search all the adult developmental psychology books and still not come up with advice as clearly stated, useful, relevant and meaningful as the advice Christopher has for seniors who will face the same issues and challenges he did. Advice which can not be repeated often enough: "If you plan it well and far enough in advance, leaving the family business can be exciting and the business and family can prosper very well without you. You need a good plan for phase two and enough time and energy to get the benefit of the excitement and satisfaction that it brings".

Business aims and life stages

Age: 50s

Life purpose: enjoying life through

Key challenge: blend work and play.

Assume new leadership roles. Deepen
intimacies. Prepare for losses

Family business context: The family business can enable harvesting the years of work and refining one's leadership capacities.

Age : 60s

Life purpose: starting over. Re-designing life, work and leisure. Mentoring. Racing time.

Key challenge: renewing intimacy. Seeking new leadership roles. Creating a new

Family business context: use the business for mentoring and use the family to achieve intimacy. Shift from using one's power to direct or govern operations to using it to pass on competence either within or outside the family business. Revisit the dream and forge it into a legacy through setting up a foundation or family offices. Governance can create new roles for new beginnings and the focus for mentoring and family connections. Or a break can be made and a focus given to other external activities.

Age: 70s

Life purpose: living with integrity. Contributing beyond personal needs.

Key challenge: managing physical decline. Sustaining hope and trust. Appreciating

Family business context: for successors in-waiting and non-family executives, (who are likely to be in the mid-life mode of career-building and managing their own egos) having seniors in their 70s in top power roles can cause clashes and blockages.

Age: 80s

Life purpose: focus on legacy. Social
mentoring. Stewardship.

Key challenge: managing physical decline. Staying engaged. Simplifying.

Family business context: the family enterprise presents many chances for ambassadorial roles.

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