The art of letting go
KC See, founder of MasteryAsia (M) Sdn Bhd, a coaching and mentoring organisation 
Young people want to be given an opportunity to innovate, to try new ideas and to have the freedom to run things on their own – 123Rf ​

My friend Chong told me he is washed out and tired after running his engineering consultancy of over 10 years.

He is still very passionate about his business and sees great potential in the industry but he is spending far too much time on it, clocking an average of 10-12 hours each day.

He goes home tired and spends hardly any time with his family, even on weekends.

Now that his child is four years old, he feels a desperate need to be with his lovely kid before he grows older, too soon too fast.

Chong’s business became his “busy-ness”.

I asked him why he does not let go and allow his employees to handle more of his work.

“No, they cannot be trusted,” he says. “They always screw up and I end up fixing it. It then takes up even more of my time.”

I asked him if he has a second man; someone who can be his deputy to look after the business so that he can spend more time with his family.

“I have employed a few before but they never last long.

“They are seldom up to the standards I set and when I try to teach them to do it the way we want it, they resign,” he explains.

Chong’s case is a classic one of not being able to “let go of their business”.  This is common among business owners.

I tell people that when a person starts a business, it is like giving birth to a child. When the child grows up, the parent has a natural tendency to still treat the child like a baby.

A classic case of not being able to let go.

And even when the businessmen get themselves some help they still want things done their way.

Their inability to let go stifles the contributions of the “next generation” and results in them just waiting for instructions and following them.

Young people today do not relate to that well.

They want to be given an opportunity to innovate, to try new ideas and to have the freedom to run things on their own.

However, entrepreneurs like Chong are not able to do that. They therefore find it hard to groom and retain successors.

The biggest fault of business owners when introducing a second person to the team is a lingering thought, “why can’t they be a little bit more like me?”

Reality check: they are never going to be.

The same goes for family businesses.

A man I know named Johan is the second son of a successful business owner.

He expresses his frustration, telling me that working for his father is really tough.

The father wants almost everything done his way.

He loves his father dearly and that is the only reason why he is still hanging around to help out.

His elder brother did that for a few years and could not “take it”, left and started his own business.

His father felt somewhat “betrayed” and now they hardly talk to one another.

What went wrong here? It couldn’t have been the father’s fault alone.

Although this is another case of not being able to let go, it is also possible that the son wants changes done too fast and too soon.

But Johan says: “No. The old man just doesn’t trust us.”

That cannot be entirely true. He might perhaps not agree with the way the sons want things done because he has had years of experience and it is “just not done that way”.

We need to understand that change is always difficult. We just need to rationalise things slowly for the older generation to accept changes.

Here are some suggestions for business owners who have difficulty letting go:

1. Be aware that changes are necessary in a fast-changing market environment. How you run your business today cannot be how it was years ago. Your potential customers are getting younger (than you) and it makes sense for a younger generation to tap this potential.

2. Realise that you can never do everything yourself. For the business to expand you need to decide what is it you do that can be done by someone else. Invest in time and effort to coach and mentor them. Although it will take some time, it would be worth the while. As the saying goes, “you have to take one step back to go three steps forward”.

3. Accept that the people who work for you can never be like you. Therefore, for you to retain successors you need to allow them to innovate. Focus on the results and less on the way things need to be done. By all means retain the values of your organisation that you founded but allow changes in methods and processes as long as results are achieved.

4. If you need to control; control only a few things.  If necessary, control:

▶ Finance, especially cash flow, inventory and purchase of assets.

▶ Key customer accounts that you might still want to continue to service.

▶ Key partnerships that are essential for your business to continue and to grow.

▶ Employment of key positions.

▶ Any significant changes of policies and company rules.

Eventually, some of these areas will need to be let go off as well.

However, if you set up a good monitoring and control system that will keep you informed on a timely basis, you will have less to worry about.

KC See is the founder of MasteryAsia (M) Sdn Bhd, a coaching and mentoring organisation

This article first appeared in Focus Malaysia Issue 253.