Jack Welch once said, “Change before you have to.” A lot of business owners or leaders do not put a plan in place to transition the business before it is necessary.
Why is that? Maybe because it is very emotional for everyone involved. No one likes change because it causes stress. There is a fear of the unknown. But change is necessary for growth.
For nine years, I have had the opportunity to lead Onex, an industrial furnace manufacturer in Erie, Pennsylvania. I remember vividly how stressed and worried I was in the days after I accepted my father-in-law’s offer to become the company’s general manager. A friend soon calmed me down, saying, “You can only eat an elephant one bite at a time.”
As time went on, I settled into a rhythm. Being a problem solver naturally, I found the resources I needed in order to successfully lead the business through a transformation.
My original goal of turning the family business around, creating financial wealth for our employees and ensuring our clients are well served has been accomplished—but only through the help of many people along the journey. When my husband Drew and I purchased the business from his father in 2018, we were very thoughtful in how we would transition the business knowing that most family businesses do not make it to the third generation. Now, it is time for me to pass the torch to the next leaders at the company.
In the new year, my role will change from leader to advocate. As chairwoman of the Onex board, my job is to ensure the company strategy is sound and people have the resources and support they need to be successful.
Could I stay and lead for another nine years? Sure. But I did what I do best—fix things. It’s time to transition so new leadership can grow the business in ways I could have never dreamed of.
Here is some advice for business owners who prefer changing before they have to:
Well in advance, like years, plan for the transition that will one day occur with your business. Ask yourself: What do you want your legacy to be? Think about what is important to you. Do you want the business to remain in the community for years to come? Or is it important to join forces with another company in an industry consolidation?
Train the Next Generation
No matter what your choice may be for exiting the business, you must train the next generation of leaders. Start early in the transition process, familiarizing young leaders with the business strategy, mission and core values. Include them in the tough decisions, talking through all possible scenarios with them and explaining why you made the decision you did. Always be coaching and mentoring, helping people grow and accomplish their goals.
Transition over Time
Have a transition period so everyone has time to pass along information and duties in an orderly manner. We used 90 days to hand off tasks and pass along relationships. Now, we will transition to six months of weekly phone calls to go over operational issues, paired with monthly financial meetings. Eventually, we will move to quarterly board meetings and informal check-ins as needed.
The most popular question I get these days is, “What will you do next?” My answer is, “I honestly don’t know.” (Though I do plan to continue writing this column.) But I can assure you that I will be involved in helping others reach their goals. I am saying “yes” to opportunities that are true to my core values. I am not saying “goodbye.”
While this transition is emotionally charged, it is the beginning of an exciting new chapter for me. So, stay tuned!
Are you ready to embrace the change that is inevitable in life?
Ashleigh Walters was president of Onex Inc. through 2022 and is the author of Leading with Grit and Grace.