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  • Writer's pictureJayne McQuillan

The Fear of Exiting a Business: Embrace Uncertainty and Seize Opportunities!

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Fear of the unknown – the tendency to be afraid when you have no information about something you face.

Fear of the unknown is deeply ingrained in human nature. Whether it's uncertainty at a global level, such as economic crises or health emergencies, or at a personal level, like career choices or business ventures, it often triggers anxiety and can be debilitating. However, what many fail to recognize is that uncertainty and possibility go hand in hand.

Consider the moments in life that you are most proud of – the transformative experiences and the relationships that bring meaning to your life. Often, they emerged from a period of uncertainty. For example, when I started Journey Consulting, I left a safe and secure career as an executive and was immediately faced with the uncertainty of not knowing whether I would have enough clients to financially provide for our family.

Would I be able to successfully start a business from scratch? Would anyone want to work with me? To pay me to help them with their business? Thankfully, the answer was yes! Looking back, I am grateful for the opportunities and possibilities that entered my life when I put aside fear and took the leap into uncertainty. Over 15 years later, I still say it was the best decision of my career.

Uncertainty does not have to paralyze us! Extensive research on resilience and tolerance for ambiguity has revealed that anyone can learn to navigate uncertainty and embrace the opportunities it presents.

By applying four key principles, you can manage uncertainty and step confidently into the unknown:

Reframe Your Situation: Most people have an aversion to loss. Research shows that how we frame things influences our decision-making process. By shifting our mindset and focusing on the potential benefits rather than the drawbacks, we can decrease our fear of uncertainty. Embracing the "infinite game" mindset, where the rules and boundaries of the game are seen as flexible, enables us to view uncertainty as an essential part of the journey.

This concept can be directly applied to business owners planning for an exit. In working with our clients, we never approach a potential exit with only one option. In fact, by planning and preparing many years in advance, we create multiple options that can be pursued simultaneously until a clear path is defined.

Prime Yourself for New Risks: Innovators who appear fearless often rely on various habits to create balance in their lives. By reducing uncertainty in certain areas, such as personal routines or stable relationships, people can build their tolerance for uncertainty in other aspects. Recognizing the types of risks that naturally make you uncomfortable or those that you are comfortable with can guide your approach. Taking smaller risks, even in unrelated fields, can gradually increase your risk tolerance and build courage.

You might be thinking, “business owners are risk takers!” While that is true in many areas, they are still human and can be very risk averse, particularly when it comes to personal decisions concerning their “next chapter.” Why? Because these decisions can impact family members, employees, and other key relationships. If you don’t step out of your comfort zone and face your fears, the number of situations that make you uncomfortable will continue to grow.

Do Something: Taking action is essential in facing uncertainty because each step provides valuable learning opportunities. Research suggests that successful breakthroughs often result from a series of small steps rather than giant efforts. Starting modestly and gradually progressing can be more effective and less anxiety-inducing than attempting to tackle everything at once.

One way to do this as a business owner is to try different aspects of what you think you might want retirement to look like before you exit. This could involve engaging in volunteer work, serving on a for profit or non-profit board, traveling for extended periods of time, spending more time with family, renting a winter home in an area you might be interested in relocating to, and so on. By taking action to move closer toward an exit, you are beginning to eliminate uncertainties.

Nurture Yourself: Building resilience and the ability to handle frustration is essential when facing uncertainty. Taking care of our emotional well-being and acknowledging failures as part of the process can help us overcome self-doubt and unproductive overthinking. It’s important to remind ourselves that failure is a normal part of the process and should be embraced as an opportunity to learn and grow.

Let’s say you’ve “practiced” certain aspects of retirement and you find you didn’t enjoy an activity as much as you expected. Use that experience as a lesson and try new and different things! Focusing on values rather than goals provides the confidence to face uncertainty and redefine success according to personal principles. Holding onto meaningful relationships and aspects of life helps navigate not only the fear of potential losses but also the pain of real setbacks.

For business owners, exiting your company can feel like giving your child up for adoption. The pain and loss are real. Embracing uncertainty is not just about resilience; it is about transforming uncertainty into opportunity. By adopting a mindset that views uncertainty as a natural part of the journey and applying these principles, you can navigate uncertainty and seize the possibilities ahead.

Plan, prepare, test, adjust! There is no one right way to exit a business. But there will be an exit! Do you want to be the one who defines it?

“The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” - H.P. Lovecraft

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Jayne McQuillan, CPA, MBA, Certified Exit Planning Advisor (CEPA) is the owner of Journey Consulting, LLC

Our firm is focused on providing business owners and their businesses with strategic planning, exit planning, financial expertise, and organizational improvement. We use a holistic approach within all of our services by aligning leadership with business strategy and outcomes.

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