Rudy Stankowitz: Plan for Your Expiration Date

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“You need to create a succession plan,” they say. “All you need to do is this, this, and this.”

Yeah, well, doing this, this, and this is daunting. It’s enough to give a person agita! I know because that’s the way I felt about it. I didn’t procrastinate; I flat out avoided it. I didn’t want to admit to myself that my time in pool service had an expiration date.

I was too busy interviewing pool tech applicants, penciling out if we could afford a third truck, considering marketing strategies and trying to focus on growth to devote time to something like that, which in my mind, is the polar opposite. I’m focused on winning today; and you want me to think about leaving? Those just seem like cross purposes.

Coming up with an exit strategy simultaneously triggers ALL my avoidance behaviors. It’s like sitting down to write a will. It makes it all too real.

Sadly, it remains one of those “the sooner, the better” types of things. You can optimistically look at it as your preparation for retirement. But that tends to delay things as the mind wants to tell you you have plenty of time. Here’s the thing: You don’t know how much time you have.

Whatcha gonna do if (knock on wood) you get hurt tomorrow? What then? Okay, you’re in a trade association like IPSSA, where route coverage is available, or you could have a friend or relative help you. But, as valuable as it is to have a safety net, neither of those are long-term options. So, seriously, what would you do?

The truth is most small business owners fail to plan for a future in which their business can operate without them, and 20 years and five minutes from now are both in the future.

So I’m going to urge you to start yours now. If that gives you a slight feeling of unease in your gut, think of how much better you’ll feel when it’s written. Consider the worst case scenario, where in the absence of a plan or any meaningful steps to prepare for a transition, destructive chaos envelops this entity you’ve worked so hard to build and drives it into the ground. It’s that realization that, despite some feelings of dread, will motivate you to get something on paper.

Last month, Haley Grace Harris had a great article in AQUA Magazine titled “Succession Planning: Hunsaker’s Five Steps.” The story covered the workshop on succession planning led by Scot Hunsaker of the Ardent Group that kicked off the AQUA Live Leadership Retreat in December. The session underscores five crucial steps:

Firstly, fostering authentic conversations within the company promotes transparency and alignment, aided by data-driven discussions.

Secondly, identifying potential leaders through strategic planning helps select successors with the right qualities.

Thirdly, transferring knowledge systematically ensures critical insights are shared and accessible.

Fourthly, encouraging innovation fosters a culture of continuous improvement, supported by tools like situation reports and the jar system.

Finally, entrusting leadership confidently involves early planning and clear communication to ensure a smooth transition that honors the company’s legacy and future leaders’ potential.

I was lucky enough to be there in attendance, and I took home with me a deeper understanding of the challenge.

Who Could Run Your Business?

Take a moment now and just consider who in your company you’d hand the keys to if you had to. Maybe you don’t have that person right now. Hiring in recent years with the workforce shortage has been stressful enough — now they need to show promise of having the potential to fill your shoes?! Welp, you gotta find them somewhere.

Once you have identified your potential possible stand-ins, you’ll have to eliminate personal bias from the equation as you develop and evaluate. You can’t let friendship or favoritism drive this decision. There is too much at risk. We want the person, without a doubt, who is best suited for the role and responsibility. Step outside of it for a minute and take an honest look at who you have.

Suppose no one on your team can swing it — a distinct possibility. You’ll need to get over that uneasy feeling of looking outside your company for someone who can come onboard and grow into the person you need. You will very likely have to think differently about compensating this person. You’ve already admitted they have skills and potential your current employees lack. You can’t pay them the same.

Once you’ve picked the winning horse, you must put money down for training and development. We don’t just want technical acumen; we must make this person a competent business professional. I know you are not Bass Pro Shops with a big fat wallet for education, but that shouldn’t discourage you from looking at workshops that charge a fee. You are more likely to take a class where the solutions taught are unbiased if you pay to be there versus one you attend for free.

Understand that although the benefit of investing in that future manager is crucial, there is the risk that the person will leave one day after you spend a ton of time and money on their development. On top of that, we now have the FTC’s ban on noncompete clauses, which takes effect in August, to give your gut an extra twist if you were planning to go that route to protect your investment. Chalk all that up to the cost of doing business.

Blindsided by Injury

I had to do all this — find someone outside my small service company to take over. In 2013, I suffered an injury that turned me from a small servicebased business owner to someone who makes his living in education — speaking, consulting and writing. When I see people now at shows, I’m usually sporting a cane or sitting in a wheelchair.

I was blindsided when this happened. I had no one on my team with whom I could run my business. So, in reading this, know that I am coming to you with first-hand experience.

I had no succession plan, but I got lucky. Searching for someone to step into my shoes, I found a relative interested in buying the company. I was able to sell and quickly pivot to a new venture. Still, I had this gutpunched feeling because I loved what I was doing before the accident; that company was my baby. Sure, there were times when it would kick and scream all night, but there were also other times when it would make me smile ear to ear with joy. I never wanted to leave it.

I think if I would have had a good plan and been better prepared before my injury, there might have been another outcome, because selling was never the plan.

But you, who has time to prepare, free of the constraints of crisis, do this now. Grab a paper and a pen, or open a new Word document. Turn on the television, kick back in your favorite chair, and jot out a rough draft of what you think your succession plan might look like. Incorporate Hunsaker’s five steps. Maybe start with an outline. See what you come up with. It’s okay if you don’t map out a complete picture of what this should look like. It’s okay if it sucks, it’s only your first draft. We can try again next Monday. Why Monday? Unscheduled tasks are easily delayed.

Over time, you’ll see that you are putting together something of value that will work. The other thing about a succession plan is that you are never done writing it. You need to schedule time to periodically review and update once you have something you think you can work with. As long as you operate your business, this plan should be ever-evolving, reflecting your company’s needs and capabilities.

This article first appeared in the June 2024 issue of AQUA Magazine — the top resource for retailers, builders and service pros in the pool and spa industry. Subscriptions to the print magazine are free to all industry professionals. Click here to subscribe.

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