The art of letting go

How difficult is it to let go of something that you build? One of the most difficult things in my career was to leave a successful project, to leave a great team I built, my pet project, to leave behind something I felt very proud of. It took me some time to realize that it is simply for the best of both me and the team. At some point you have to admit that even though what you built is great, it is actually holding you back and preventing you from doing new cool stuff. At the end of the day there is an opportunity cost associate with everything we do and sometimes, especially when doing something we enjoy, we don’t realize that it is costing us something even greater. At some stage you feel that it is not providing you with the challenge anymore and you are not that passionate about it as you used to be. The team is still great and the project is still “the good old” project but you are different.

You are not your job

Is it a good or a bad thing? From my own experience, building several successful teams working on great projects, the most difficult aspect of letting go is that you feel like you are still crucial to the success and you believe that if you leave things will break down. You are afraid that without your guidance the team will not perform at the level you would like to see. You need to realize that if you have done your job then the team is able to survive without you just fine. You built the team, you gave them the tools and taught them how to be successful.

I’m not talking only about the daily execution. The team should be able to be self-sufficient, able to hire the same quality of talent, able to make the same smart decisions, and to certain level keep the culture you created. The cultural aspect is of course something that may change a bit with your departure. If you were a real leader, you built the culture, you constantly promoted the right values, you led by example and now you are out. The team may, and most likely will, build on that culture but create something a bit different. The culture will shift a bit and maybe it is not a bad thing. If the team feels that if you are not around they need to do some stuff differently to get things done, why not?

You must believe that your team are grown-ups, smart adults who will figure out how to make things work.

What if things go bad after you leave?

And what if things really don’t work when you leave? Well, maybe that is not that bad too. Let me tell you a story. It was in 2007 when I was leaving my first big successful initiative that I led for several years. For me it was obvious choice to make as it was a promotion that benefited my career. After I left, the project went sour and in a year the team was essentially dismantled. I took this really personally and hated to see something I built to evaporate so fast. This experience made it even more difficult for me to leave behind things I’ve build. It took me a while to realize that things would probably go that way even if I continued to be there. The market conditions have changed in these twelve months so dramatically that even if I were still involved in the project it would end up the same way. And even if I were keeping it somehow afloat I would be just spending my energy on something that essentially deserved to die. Why not to let go and focus the effort on growing something new that deserves to live? That is sort of natural selection, only the strongest projects/teams survive and the weak should be reborn into something new.

Business is not a family, but still…

Once you hire good people, you mentor them and you build a great team it becomes sort of family. It is very difficult to completely disconnect and cut all ties. And it is not even the right thing to do. So what do you do if you feel the time is right and you need to move on? And how to do it so you feel good about the whole experience? I would compare this to your family. You always have ties with your family, even if you move to work in a different city, you marry, you leave your parents and siblings behind, you move to another country. What do you do in such situations? You keep in touch! You don’t tell them how to live their lives, you are not there on daily basis to provide help, but you are available to talk, to provide a sympathetic ear. When things are really bad you come back and help to fix stuff. And this pretty much applies also to your professional life, with one exception. Business is not a family and it shouldn’t be. Business is business, and as mentioned above you don’t need to sacrifice your whole life to make it work so scratch the part about coming back and fixing it.

So what are the five not so easy steps to follow?

  • Understand the opportunity cost – think about what things are you missing if you change longer than wanted. I suggest you read “Who moved my cheese” parable by Spencer Johnson. It is a short story discussing the need of change.
  • Accept that you are replaceable – realize that everyone is replaceable. Even you. If you have done your job building the team, you trust them and they have the ownership of the business your job is done anyway.
  • Keep in touch with the team – not really to provide guidance but to show that you still care about how they are doing (they, not the business!) and that you are there to listen and provide mentoring or coaching so they continue to see you as a leader you are. Never try to provide guidance on execution! You are not part of the team anymore, the dynamics has changed, you don’t really know what is going on and the guidance you would provide may do more harm than good.
  • Business is not a family – and shouldn’t be treated that way if you want to keep your sanity. Businesses fail all the time and you don’t want to get too emotionally attached. Just keep healthy relationship with the team, you don’t want to burn any bridges behind you.
  • Focus on the future – and never second-guess your decision. As I wrote in “Human brain, the biggest liar of all times”, the human mind has incredible power to misremember things so don’t try to live too much in the past as you are likely to remember only the high-lights and successes and not all the things that didn’t go as planned and thus you would keep saying to yourself “this would never happen in the past”. Chances are, it would and it did.

And if you still struggle and still are not able to let go? Well, talk to someone who you know who went through the same experience and get some mentoring. Or hire a professional business coach to help you focus your mind on positive future rather than to live in the past (regardless how great).

I don’t have kids myself, but in my mind the experience must be very similar to seeing your children to whom you dedicated years of your life to grow up and go their separate ways. You spent years making sure they have the right values, they are self-sufficient, they respect you and love you. But you cannot guide them forever, so at some point you have to step aside and let them live their own lives…

Twitter type summary: “Just let go! At some point you realize that what you built is great, but it is preventing you from building something even greater.”

Have you ever had to let go? How did you do it? What helped you and how it felt?

2 thoughts on “The art of letting go

  1. Pingback: Leadership In The Age Of Duck | The Geeky Leader

  2. Pingback: The Most Difficult Thing In Management – The Geeky Leader

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