Is It Time To Let Your “Baby” Go? Transitioning to Retirement

You’ve nurtured, fed, hovered over, and perhaps spent every waking minute working on and worrying about your agency. Meanwhile, your agency people, who helped you to grow the business, have grown into—and are now skilled and confident in—their various roles. Many of you learned to become helicopter pilots years ago, as agency and client responsibilities grew beyond the hands-on abilities of one or two people. Now, it may be time for you to fly further afield, beginning to move toward retirement or other projects. 

How do you know when it’s time to gradually step back from daily business?

Obviously, this is a very personal decision. If you love what you do, feel energized by daily involvement, and don’t want to retire, you don’t have to. And, there’s no one to tell you that you must (unlike the old “out by 65” mentality). But, you may be longing for a longer vacation or two each year, allowing you to take a retirement test flight.

Others may be longing to retire for any number of reasons. Family may play a part: you may want to spend more time caring for aging parents or young grandchildren. You may be feeling worn down or overwhelmed and just in need of more downtime. Maybe your people are clamoring for more responsibilities and autonomy, and you feel this is the right time. Perhaps the wanderlust is calling, and you’d like to check a few destinations off your growing bucket list. You may even want to embark on new projects, and feel your current “project” is all set to carry on without your constant attention.

The first step: make a plan and share the plan

When you utter the “r” word, your people may be a little (or a lot) nervous. Do yourself andyour people a favor by spelling things out. This is especially important with all of those talented, visually-oriented, arts-and-letters people on your team. Verbally share one piece of surprising news, and they will hear nothing but white noise for the rest of the meeting (I’ve been there). Provide a written copy containing at least the “bones” of your plan, with a caveat that it is subject to change as time goes on.

Stepping back with grace and ease is only possible when you have the right people in the right places, especially in leadership/successor positions. Trust is the key. You need to be able to step away for weeks, or a month, and know what those individuals will do, and how they will manage through the inevitable issues that arise. Just as important is the trust engendered by your chosen leaders among all of the agency staffers. Your chances of a successful transition go up tremendously when your successors are viewed as capable, fair and (hopefully) likable. 

The client side of the transition is perhaps the most delicate area. Begin in advance (even years in advance, and certainly months in advance) by deferring critical decisions to your chosen next-in-command people. Of course, you will participate behind the scenes, but have your people take decisions and answers to the clients. This will help to build the all-important trusted agency/client relationship… and will encourage a closer relationship between the individuals involved. 

Be a better helicopter pilot, not a helicopter parent.

As you begin to back away, you’ll have to fly your helicopter a little higher. You need to have not only a broad overview of the agency, but an idea of what is coming up in the future. Flying higher means you will not intercede during day-to-day agency issues. Don’t swoop in and take over at the first sign of trouble; just keep an eye on the situation.

  • Pick your battles. Resist the temptation to become involved in minor disputes; just continue setting the tone/tempo.
  • Let your managers actually manage their people. Don’t overstep, but continue to be a next-level resource and a sage advisor.
  • Resist the urge to check on—and critique—every job. Instead, check the work when you are asked, or just glance over the final work a day or two before it goes to the client.

Invited guests only

Don’t be that annoying parent who stays to listen in on the kids’ party. Stop in, say hello, catch up on their plans, have a (no more than 10 minute) conversation, and perhaps check in later as the “party” is ending and the work is underway. Make no mistake, it’s hard to resist being totally involved… but unless you are clearly invited to stay by everyone, make yourself scarce. 

Don’t manage the petty cash…

Just keep an eye on the bank account. Give your people clear budgetary guidelines, and turn them loose. Assign your accounting person to manage department managers to keep a lid on costs. Then check in with the accounting person at your regular weekly/monthly meeting times. Micro-managing spending, worrying about copies, pencils, and pens, is not a stance that engenders respect. Of course, if your agency is full of spendthrifts (i.e. folks who have to have every new “work-related” tool or toy that appears online), make sure they get the memo: if accounting has not approved purchases, over-budget personal/work items will be purchased with their personal credit cards, not the agency account.

Confidence and competence: “All systems go.”

Every great pilot has two traits: confidence and competence. In order to let go, you need confidence in your people, in their judgment, and in their abilities. To increase your confidence, you only need to surround yourself with competent people… and let them prove themselves. This is a positive cycle that, over time, enables you to fly higher and further afield. Who knows, you might finally be able to take that Viking River Cruise, or at least sneak in a couple of weeks at the beach.

Remember: you’re not leaving the business, just giving the business and your people a little more room.Your culture, systems and people will keep the business moving along. If things are not working the way you’d like in absentia, you can zoom back in and do more training and preparation work. Then take another test flight. It’s a process… and in the meantime, you get to take more vacations.