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Helping Family Businesses
Prosper Across Generations®

The Three Fears of Retirement

Ideally, family businesses should experience a peaceful change of command---one that insures continued success, harmony and profitability.

Instead, the process often takes a considerable toll on both the family and the business.

So how do you move an immovable object? The answer is the same as how you move a 700-pound gorilla: very, very carefully. It takes finesse rather than force and understanding rather than confrontation.

Businesses that haven’t already gone through a succession are likely to have the most difficult time of all. In my experience, if heads of family businesses haven’t left by the age of 67, they’re not likely to go quietly or smoothly. Their intransigence often proves more powerful than logic, threats or subtle manipulations. I remember working with one business to ease out the patriarch. We finally accomplished it by setting him up with an office in the heart of the city, miles away from the company plant. To ease the transition, we gave him his own fax and email so he could stay in touch. He ended up creating more electronic havoc, confusion and dissension than he’d ever done in person.

It helps to understand the reasons why an aging family member refuses to exit gracefully. It usually comes down to one of three fears:

Fear of Poverty. Many founders began their businesses on a shoestring, during tough or uncertain times, and their psychology of deprivation and anxiety endures long after they have achieved profitability or even riches. Financial security is often a subjective perception, not an economic reality. Those heads of businesses whose memory and fear of deprivation is strongest are the least likely to consider giving up their positions with sanguinity.

Fear of Loss of Power and Control. It’s not just the real power and controls that they fear losing, often the trappings matter a great deal too. The personal parking space right by the door is more than a convenience. When a founder walks through the warehouse---his warehouse---and every employee knows who he is and what he means to their own jobs and families, it creates a feeling that is a potent elixir.

Fear of Mortality. Never underestimate the power of superstition. Few would dare say this aloud, but you would be surprised how many founders fear that within a year of giving up their business, they’ll be dead. This fearful fantasy takes several forms. If their life’s work is done, then their life is done. Their business is their life. Since a person with no goals and no challenges can actually wither away and die, their fears might actually be true. We’ve all heard of self-fulfilling prophecies and stories of someone who hangs on until the next birthday or anniversary and then dies the next day. I still remember a female CEO who had taken over the company when her husband died. Ten years later, two of her children could have easily taken the reins from her now faltering hands. But to her, giving up the business was like losing her husband all over again.

Trying to disprove or reason fears away is like trying to wrestle with a ghost. Don’t expect people who have held on to power and control for years to admit to their fears. The have found a very effective way to quell and even to forget their fears---by running a business. Expecting them to give this up for logical reasons usually does not work.

I find it useful to deal with fears not through ridicule or logic, but through reassurance. Perhaps the most common mistake is to confuse reassuring fears with trying to talk someone out of them. Reassurance means that you acknowledge and accept the intractability of the fear and find a solution that addresses the fear’s reality.

Let’s go over the three fears again to find some reassuring solutions.

For financial anxiety, help them find another source of income. The fear of poverty doesn’t require a salary equal to the one being given up. It merely requires the reassurance of some money coming in, even irregularly. Perhaps a consulting job here and there, paid speech, pension or buyout structured so that monthly checks come in, job in the community or new career as a coach.

For the fear of losing power and control, consider giving the retiree responsibility for organizing company events (events that don’t interfere with strategic decision-making, such as social events or other special projects) or perhaps building liaisons between the company and the community. Leave the coveted parking spot open for him. Put up a new sign or redesign the company logo to highlight the person’s name even more. Mark the transition with a company and family ceremony that honors the exit at least as much as it welcomes the new entrance. If you have a website, give him his own section on it.

To reassure the fear of mortality, I believe it’s essential to find a new challenge, something that energizes the person and gives new meaning to his life. Help the retiree ease into philanthropic or volunteer work.

I see a long overdue change finally happening in our society---perhaps we’ve become smarter or perhaps it’s simpler because the average age of our country continues to rise. But more people are seeing that our older citizens can impart a lot of knowledge, experience and wisdom. I believe that this trend is going to accelerate and that people who are giving up the reins today are in a position to ride with the wave rather than struggle against the tide.

Bernard Kliska is a licensed family therapist and associate of The Family Business Consulting Group, Inc. Active in his family's 95-year-old plastic and glass container business for 21 years--eventually becoming president and CEO--he has personally experienced many of the joys and problems of family business involvement. He relinquished his position in the company to one of his fourth-generation sons when he returned to consulting, limiting his focus to the challenges of family business.


Today there are more opportunities than ever before for retiring executives to find challenging, useful and meaningful activities. Here are just a few examples:

Volunteer Opportunities

SCORE The Service Corps of Retired Executives links retired executives with small businesses to provide consulting, either via email, phone or in person. or 800-634-0245.

AARP The AARP lists dozens of volunteer opportunities, either within the AARP or with other community and national organization. You may want to start your aging executives reading their volunteer newsletter or joining their online volunteers’ discussion group well before the talk of retirement begins. 800-424-3410

Second Harvest The country’s oldest food bank not only offers opportunities to help, but assisting some of the neediest members of our society is often an excellent antidote for that irrational fear of poverty that so many successful founders have. 800-771-2303 For dozens of other suggestions, call your community’s volunteer office or ask your local United Way chapter for a list of volunteer opportunities in your community or state.


For those who want to continue to earn money, one of the fastest growing fields is coaching. It’s especially ideal for retiring people, because the training, marketing and actual business requires virtually no mobility and can be done entirely from the home.

There are dozens of places that offer training, but here are two places to begin your research:

Institute for Life Coach Training: or 888-267-1206 International Coach Academy: or 866-262-2400.




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