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The CEO at Exit: Prepare; Talk; Listen; Empathize

Posted Wednesday, May 31st, 2017

Member Submitted

Submitted by: Jack Warnock, President, JW Strategic Advisors LLC

Being the CEO and running your business during “normal days” is full of challenges whether you are growing fast, slow, or not at all. When the opportunity arises, either by luck or happenstance or by your own decision and initiative, to go down the path of exiting (selling) your business, a very different array of challenges emerges for you. Because now you are entering a process for which you were never trained, and if you are lucky, perhaps you experienced this once, maybe twice, but likely never at all. There is not a single CEO I have worked with or spoken to about the exit process who has not defined it as anything but the complex, confusing and convoluted process that it is. So if this is the feeling of the CEO about the exit process, you can easily imagine the emotional and physical state of every member of the CEO’s team as they live through this too. Then what do you need to do to lead your team to perform, cope with, and survive the process to not only the closing but through life thereafter?

My recommendation to every CEO going into and through their company’s exit is first and foremost to stay focused on your solid and persistent operating of your business. Primary in doing this is to take care of your team, and here is how to do that:

  1. Prepare – By this I mean much more that setting up a comprehensive and complete data room for due diligence and engaging the right and best professionals to “do the deal”, all of which and then some, are important and necessary. No, what I am saying is you need to prepare for what life may ultimately be like after your deal is closed for you and your team. Don’t know what that looks like? Well, you can create your vision for what this looks like by talking to and learning from those who have gone through this already — former CEOs and CFOs and exit coaches and advisors for starters.  Then you can immerse yourself into reading some well-selected blogs and papers about this on the internet.  Next, and perhaps more significantly, is using your own imagination to create a vision for what you want life to be after the deal is closed, and share this with those you trust to get a reality check and refine your vision.  Finally, prepare to talk to your team – direct reports first; full team thereafter.
  2. Talk – The act of speaking is a very personal thing, especially for CEOs.  Not surprising to anyone is that in the normal course of operating your company speaking to the team is quite easy for some and is quite difficult for others.  But we all know how much easier it is to talk about what we know like operating needs, issues and activities.  Now switch the circumstances into one where we are not knowledgeable, experienced and sure-footed like selling your business, working for new owners, and trying to preserve a great culture against the forces of change.  This is not easy at all.  Yet talk we must; early and often too.  So plan your talk; prepare to talk; and talk your plan.  Plan for how much you want to say balanced, of course, by what you truly can say (i.e. now vs later vs not at all).  Prepare to talk by setting the date, time, place and emotional environment your want for your communication to be the best.  Prepare what you want to say such that by the end of it, your message is clear, the right information is shared, and people leave satisfied, respected and engaged (as much as humanly possible).  Prepare for questions by challenging yourself with those questions that you would ask if you were one of your team members listening to you speak.
  3. Listen – Like speaking, the act of listening is a personal thing that some do well, do a little, or do not do at all.  Yet there is no greater time for the skill of active and effective listening to be vital to your success in exiting.  The degree of risk in both listening and empathizing is never higher in the life of your company than now.  Blow it here and you may very well blow up your deal.  That said, by keeping a clear and open mind to the fears, issues, and concerns of others – most of which will be similar to your own – you can listen at your very best.  By listening to your best, you will be wholly stable, absorbing what is said, and can formulate and deliver the right responses.  Hopefully, the preparation around possible questions and answers serves you well in the moment.  And when the occasional “curve ball” comes your way, you can (and should) say, “I don’t know, but I will find out and get back to you”.  CEOs do not have to have all of the answers all of the time.  Be human; show humility, but always follow up.
  4. Empathize – No challenge is greater for you the CEO during the exit process than being empathetic to the needs and concerns of your team.  Amid the blur of the technical aspects – legal, accounting, regulatory – and the tactical aspects – meetings, calls, negotiations, sidebars – of every deal, the relationship side demands the most and rewards the greatest.  You did not get to this moment when all the long hours and hard work come to fruition just by yourself.  This moment is as much your team’s achievement as it is yours.  Yet the fears and risks of each person hangs over and around the deal.  The future is rarely clear about jobs, positions, compensation, etc., and also what it means for families and friends is really concerning too.  None of these emotions and concerns can be ignored.  Your sensitivity to the moods around you and inside of you needs to be well tuned and highly effective.  How to be the most empathetic CEO in your, or any, exit lies in what you already read here about preparing, talking and listening.  Empathizing advances the hard work you’ve already accomplished in this process by putting you in the center of your team’s world.  As that center, you act well by answering their hard, and often, personal questions.  You can make things happen for them that have lasting and satisfying impacts.  You can create options for them with what you know, what can be expected, and believe it or not, with what you don know either.  We all like to make promises and create “happy campers”.   We simply know we can only make promises we can keep.  Empathizing in the deal is not just a state of being.  It is a result of your actions for and with your team.

Even though your exit is likely the most complex, confusing and convoluted process you will ever experience, by taking care of your team with solid preparation, clear talking, open listening, and active empathy, you will survive with your sanity intact and assure the devotion and loyalty of your team.  No doubt you will succeed.

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