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Don’t find yourself saying ‘I wish I had known …’

February 15, 2018

By Martha Sullivan, CPA, CVA/ABV, CM&AA, CEPA
Partner, Succession Planning Practice Leader

Martha leads HK’s succession and exit planning services division and is a regular contributor to Wisconsin’s InBusiness digital magazine.

“I wish I had known …” is a phrase I hear quite often.

For example, as a part of my board role with the South Central Wisconsin Chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association, I recently went to its national Leadership Summit in New Orleans. Time and time again, people shared stories of how they “wished they had known” about the care and support, information, and resources available to them through the Association when they were faced with the disease. It would’ve helped them to understand the warning signs, how to advocate for a proper diagnosis, or learn how to best communicate with and support a person living with Alzheimer’s. Awareness of the Association would have helped them find resources for respite or support for the caregiver. Answers to the multitude of questions that wash over a person entangled in the insidious disease could have been quickly delivered through the 24/7 helpline (1-800-272-3800).

Many business owners also tell me “I wish I had known” after they have been through the wringer of selling their business. Perhaps they walked that journey by themselves, trying to do it all on their own. Maybe they had asked for advice and support but the advisor wasn’t experienced or knowledgeable about the complexities of the transition. Lastly, maybe they were trying to sell the business before it was “ready” to be sold. That is, there was work to be done to make the business attractive to a buyer, but the company was taken to market prematurely on a misdiagnosis of readiness.

Then there’s the whole issue of keeping it all a secret. In the world of Alzheimer’s, struggles with the disease are often hidden — born out of fear, the stigma of mental illness, and the loss of control over one’s life. Fear similarly drives secrecy in business. What if the employees find out? Competitors? Customers? What if I make the wrong move?

These fears are extremely valid and understandable. Care needs to be taken before opening your mouth and blurting out “I’m selling the business” or “I can’t remember squat.” The consequences could be serious. However, not talking to anyone could have equally if not more serious consequences.

There is a happy balance to be had:

  • Don’t go solo and try to shoulder it all on your own. It will cost you more than you saved, mentally, emotionally, and potentially financially.
  • Research resources. Ask around. Ask again.
  • Remember that you are not the first person to step into this ring. Others have boxed their way through this match. Find them.
  • Talk to that trusted friend, colleague, and/or specialist. Talk about what’s going on. Demonstrate courage and ask them to help you, even if it’s just a little.
  • When the time is right, share your experience with others. It’s an easy way to pay it forward.

These seemingly obvious steps are admittedly hard at times. Having experienced the impact of Alzheimer’s personally, I witnessed it in family and myself. Working with business owners in transition, we see the fatigue in their faces and relief when we check in on how they are doing.

We need to break the cones of silence in both arenas. Consider the parallel statistics:

  • More than 5 million people are living with Alzheimer’s today. This number is only going to increase. It is predicted that by 2050 that number will have grown to 16 million.
  • There are 4 million baby boomer business owners in the country who are contemplating retirement, over half of them in the next five years. That is a lot of businesses transitioning!

Think about the impact of these statistics, separately and together. If you haven’t been impacted by either of these events, just wait. You will be, either directly or through a friend or family member. It’s only a matter of time.

Share and learn from one another. Help get rid of the different stigmas of life’s transitions. Let’s eliminate “I wish I had known.”

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