How do you step away from the company you founded? First, you have to figure out it’s time. Second, you have to have started working on it a long while before you do it. Third, you need to replace yourself. And finally, you have to make a whole bunch of adjustments in your life. It’s been eighteen months since I realized I needed a change. This post captures some of that time with a few observations and things I’ve learned.
I founded Atomic Object in 2001 with Bill Bereza. I’m currently in the sixth (and presumably final) role I’ll occupy at the company. To use our current titles, my primary roles have been Trainer/Coach (very briefly), Software Developer & Consultant, Delivery Lead, Managing Partner, CEO, and now Executive Chairman.
I never presumed I’d stay active in the company until my demise. In fact, back in 2008, when I wrote the prospectus for the Atomic Plan of employee ownership, I promised to remain in the top position in the company until at least 2017. That year, coincidentally, I challenged myself to consider what might be next for me. The conclusion I came to in that period of reflection was half-right: Atomic was still my “hell, yeah,” which I announced internally. But what I missed back then was that I didn’t still need to be CEO. That realization came later.
Believing I’d be the first of the early Atoms to leave the company (after all, I was 15 years older than our average age of those first Atoms), I started working toward that end a long time in advance — since 2008 at least. That turned out to be vitally important for both me and the company when I bottomed out.
2017 and 2018 were hard years personally. In January of 2019, I realized something was too wrong to ignore. I had many of the symptoms of burnout, and I’d been unaware, in denial, unhealthily coping, or gutting it out for long enough that the problem had become serious.
I took a few days off and I realized I needed to do more of that. My pastor asked whether we had a sabbatical program. We didn’t and don’t. I told the company on the following Monday that I was taking four months off.
While it wasn’t easy to admit that I needed to take an unplanned leave — starting immediately — I was confident that I could do so without jeopardizing the company. It helped me to realize I was capitalizing on ten years of succession planning and working my way out of most operational responsibilities.
I didn’t use the term sabbatical at the time, but in hindsight, it was a period of rest, refreshment, perspective gaining, and insights, which sounds like many of the implicit goals for an academic sabbatical. What it was not was ambitious: no writing, no travel, no research. I kept my outside obligations up (like board work), but otherwise I just stayed home and enjoyed not being highly scheduled. My only goal was stated in the negative: don’t make any big decisions until I felt better.
Another pastor who has since become a good friend introduced me to the idea of day-long silent retreats. My first experience doing this with him was on March 6, 2019 — Ash Wednesday. I was feeling a lot better by that time, six or so weeks into my leave. Lots happened that day, alone in a tiny room in a renovated hundred-year-old barn, staring out the window at the trees. I read the book of John, I had a visual hallucination accompanied by a feeling of overwhelming love and acceptance, I forgave some important people in my life, I journaled about what I wanted the future to hold, and I realized I didn’t need to be CEO anymore.
The realization about the CEO role was a huge weight off my shoulders. Part of reaching it was seeing all the years I’d carried the responsibility of the top leadership role in the company, what we’d accomplished in those years, and how hard I’d worked. It wasn’t a question of how old I was, how healthy I was, or how many ideas and how much energy I still had. I realized I had earned the right to step out of that role and let someone else carry the weight. I’d done enough. Breakthrough!
By the end of 2018, we’d already put many things into place to move the company out of the founder era. My only remaining operational role was in marketing and managing my direct reports. Our ownership plan had shifted fifty percent of my shares to other Atoms. We’d addressed the structural challenges in our largest office, making the Managing Partner job more sustainable. I had identified an architecture for the company that would support the growth of new offices. We’d resolved many of our initial multi-office mistakes and found success with Ann Arbor. I’d had a breakthrough on formalizing our purpose, and done the work that we now describe as the culture framework for the company.
When I tentatively shared my realization about not needing to be CEO any longer with the two people I knew would be part of making that happen, they not only reinforced and supported my feeling, but they suggested the solution: they would serve as co-CEOs. That was a huge relief to me, as selecting between my two “business sons” was a choice that I had been blocked on for some time. We’ll be sharing more on our co-CEO arrangement in future posts.
We announced my transition to executive chairman at the company conference in May and publicly in June.
The summer of 2019 was golden. It felt like my sabbatical had morphed into my new life. I got to manage my energy instead of my time and do the work for the organizations and people I have commitments to as I liked. None of those commitments were too heavy. The transition at Atomic went smoothly. My wife and I took a long road trip with the fur children out to Sun Valley, Idaho. I was giddy and maybe a teeny bit obnoxious for my friends still working their traditional jobs. Giddy wouldn’t last.
Executive Chairman role
So what does “executive chairman” mean for us? It’s got aspects of the traditional chairman role, providing accountability for the CEO, as well as governance responsibilities. Our current governance structure will eventually be extended to include a full board with outside members, in which case it’ll include chairing that board. But it has more hands-on responsibilities (that’s the “executive” modifier at play). I work closely with our co-CEOs on long-term projects in a few key areas, as well as advising them on operational questions, situations they face, and the initiatives they own.
The areas of focus on which we collaborate are ownership, governance, structure, investments, growth, and the elements of our culture framework. We talk about these things as our “hundred-year” list, as they all have the potential for making or breaking the accomplishment of our very long-term goal of Atomic celebrating its hundredth anniversary in 2101.
What I’ve noticed in the last year is that the combination of familiarity and distance can be helpful. I obviously know the company, people, business, and challenges very well, but they aren’t my daily responsibility any more. I have a distance from these things that provides a valuable perspective beyond simply a third point of view. It’s also helped the company for me to bring insights from my Tugboat Institute network and other company boards I sit on.
My chairman role makes it easy to continue to represent the company in the community. The boards I serve on, the non-profits I’m active in, the organizations I’m part of, and the network I’ve built over thirty years working in Michigan — the value of these connections continues to accrue to the company.
By adding a position to the company, we created additional executive capacity. Since it’s a part-time job for me, that extra capacity is limited, but it’s come in handy a few times in the last year.
When I work with our co-CEOs or VP of Business Operations (who is also my life partner) on the issues and initiatives they’re working on, I am nothing but relieved that the oh-so-familiar underlying challenges and long-standing human dynamics are no longer my responsibility. I owned those for a long time. I know how hard those problems are and how thankless the work can be. I can be the person for our company leaders that I never had, the one who says, “Well done!” and, “I know it’s hard,” and know of what I speak.
One thing I’ve become keenly aware of in the last year is the relationship between influence, implementation, and recognition. My position (and holding a plurality of shares) gives me a lot of influence, as it did when I was CEO. On the other hand, I’m doing much less implementing, which decreases my influence. Recognition of my influence is also much lower. Overall, it’s a tradeoff I’m happy with and one that seems to be working for the company.
My friend Bo Burlingham wrote a book that every entrepreneur should read — Small Giants, which profiles companies that chose to be great instead of big. This book was hugely influential on me in the early days of Atomic. It gave me an alternative to the “growth at all costs” or even “growth as the primary goal” model so prevalent in business. Bo has written another book, Finish Big, which every entrepreneur lucky enough to have founded a business successful enough to either sell or continue on without them, should read.
In Finish Big, Bo identifies the factors common to founders who are happy after they exit their business. Sadly, that’s only about fifty percent of the more than a hundred company founders he interviewed for the book. While I’m still part of the company I founded, my transition has a lot in common with the transitions Finish Big describes.
A core challenge Bo identifies is that, when you leave your company, you may leave behind your purpose. And one does not replace a purpose with more golf. Bo describes “being pulled out” by other interests or goals as a common pattern for successful transitions. For me, that wasn’t a single new, exciting venture I just had to pursue. But I have, over the last few years, gotten involved in other organizations in significant roles. I take a lot of satisfaction and pride from the positive impact I can have on these organizations by working closely with their executive directors, CEOs, or founders.
I also knew what I cared about with respect to Atomic. In fact, our long-term goal to someday celebrate the company’s hundred-year anniversary grew directly from my personal desire to have the company operate successfully beyond my tenure. Jonah Bailey’s written about why Atomic should be 100 years old. Our employee ownership plan reflects the same “know what I care about” thinking. Bo makes the point that if you don’t know what you care about, you’re unlikely to be satisfied with your exit, but if you do, and you start early, you’re much more likely to have things go the way you want them to go.
Starting early is another piece of advice he derived from the founders he interviewed. That may be necessary to put the company in a good state to sell. It also leaves you an option, should you make a poor choice of successor the first time. I think both our employee ownership plan and our succession plan exemplify the benefits of this advice.
A new take on work
I like to help people. I like creating valuable new things. I like bringing order from chaos. I’m curious and love to learn. I love pairing with smart, dedicated people. I have generalist skills, and I’m quite flexible. These things — and personal financial freedom — led to my current work arrangement.
Before my transition, I was already committed to several organizations, which have filled my “work” bucket in the last year:
- Atomic Object, Executive Chairman – software design and development consultancy
- Trinity Mission Church, President of Executive Board – startup church
- Grand Rapids HQ, Chairman – runaway and homeless youth drop-in center
- Grand Angels, Chairman – angel investment group
- Land Conservancy of West Michigan, Director – land protection non-profit
- Tappan Hill Ventures, Managing Director – venture capital fund
- Mader Mill, CFO & Co-founder – pallet sawmill
- 8th Light, Director – software design and development consultancy
- Legacy Trust, Director – wealth management bank
- AdAdapted, Director – ad-tech startup
The traits I described above brought me opportunities and leadership roles. I think it’s also natural and beneficial for a CEO to be looking outward and maintaining relationships in the community. My enjoyment of new experiences coupled with the weight of eighteen years of service to Atomic pulled me out of my CEO job. Stepping out of a full-time job time has let me engage with the responsibilities above in a more satisfying, less hectic fashion. In hindsight, I see now that I was over-committed.
What I’ve also learned in this first-year-post-CEO job is that my new arrangement of work has a very different risk exposure than a single full-time job. When you have a single full-time job and something unusual happens that threatens the organization or requires extra work, you buckle down and get the job done, focusing everything you’ve got on the problem at hand. Your other commitments, family, friends, hobbies, and personal time absorb the loss of the extra time required of you. That can be sustainable as long as such situations are extraordinary, not the status quo.
None of my commitments are full-time, and their needs shouldn’t be correlated, but in a crunch, when the need arises, I may have to dramatically increase the time I give some of them because of the role I have. But when more than one of the multiple organizations/people I’m responsible to experiences an extraordinary need at the same time, I’m in a bind. I learned this lesson in the fall of 2019 (the end of “giddy”) even before the coronavirus pandemic occurred.
With a better understanding now of how my commitment risk profile has changed, I’ve applied that insight twice, declining the nomination to chair of an organization I’m a board director for and concluding my involvement entirely with HQ once we completed the merger with 3:11 Youth Housing.
When things are normal, I thrive in my new work arrangement. I can more easily manage my energy, not my time, choosing to work on what I’m feeling energized by at the moment. I can break up my days with dog walks, lunches with friends, and meditation. I can overlap dog walks with giving advice. I take a weekly sabbath rest day, usually on Sundays, but flexibly as needed. In theory, I could even be more intentional about exercise. In short, I’ve been able to fully break down the false dichotomy implicit in the notion of work/life balance.
My connections and insights cross-fertilize between organizations. My contributions and advice are highly leveraged by the time and efforts of people in full-time implementation roles. The people I work closely with appreciate my efforts and express that, helping me feel fulfilled. I’m living out Atomic’s “work matters” purpose across multiple organizations.
One thing I had to untangle in the last year was my social connection to work. I never went into the office during the four months of my sabbatical. And once we made the transition, I still avoided being there to clarify how roles had changed and give Mike and Shawn space. What I learned in the course of that first year — which was a little surprising — is that I not only didn’t miss it, but I was happy to be away from it. There were some people I missed, for sure, but the physical space was connected to all the things I was responsible for and which had contributed to my burn out.
Overall, I don’t regret having blended work and friendship, but there were definitely some difficulties and downsides for having done so. As you’d expect, some of those work friendships have faded, and Atomic as a source for new friendships has ended. But some of my friends that I grew to know through the company have remained friends. With them, for me at least, it’s now a simpler and more certain friendship. It requires greater effort, as work no longer brings us naturally together, but the relationship is no longer complicated by the role I have or clouded by the resources I controlled. This transition has also motivated me to be more intentional about the incredible friends I have outside Atomic.
When you create something that becomes more than you, it becomes deeply a part of you. Realizing it was okay for me to hand off the day-to-day responsibility of the company after eighteen years — that I’d done enough — helped me work out the difference between the job and my identity. One thing I realized was that there’s a huge difference between founder and CEO.
Being a founder is existential. It’s part of who you are, like being part of a family. You don’t ever step down as founder. It’s not something you can pass on or that can be taken away from you. But being a CEO or President is a job you have. You may have it because you are a founder. But you can also have it without being a founder. You can step out of the job. You can lose it if you don’t do a good job.
I see my founding and serving Atomic for eighteen years a lot like I see my job as a parent. You really don’t know what you’re getting into at the start. You don’t do it alone. You make mistakes and learn along the way. There’s a great deal of you in your creation, for better and worse. You have incredible highs and incredible lows. Both are tied to other human beings. You’re incredibly proud of what you created. It’s impossible to do without some regrets.
You never stop being a parent, or a founder, but after about eighteen years, it’s not a full-time job anymore. Your baby grows up, and if you’ve done your job reasonably well, goes on to thrive without you.
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