Are You Too Necessary?

Saturday morning, January 7, 2012 my phone rings at home.

“Al, this is Bob. Guess where I am?.” Bob Neiman is a successful internet entrepreneur who flies his own plane and dominates a narrow niche in the construction industry. Bob and his wife Amy have been friends of ours for many years now. Amy is one of 2 known survivors of a rare, normally terminal, blood cancer. We had been part of a prayer team that met weekly to pray specifically for her during that time. Bob has seen plenty of adversity in his life but his faith has brought him many, many blessings as well. Those of us who know him know he is a classic “doer” and can often be expected to do the unexpected. But this call was new.

“I don’t know Bob, where are you?” I replied.

“Amy and I are sitting on the balcony of a condo in Miami, Florida enjoying the sea breeze and the view. We are going to be here for three months. I just wanted to call because we have you to thank for it.”

“Well, thanks Bob, why is that?”

“Do you remember that conversation you and I had about my business years ago?”

Years ago was actually 12 years ago and, for some reason, I did remember…vaguely.

“Sort of, but refresh my memory.” was my response.

“I asked you how I could increase the value of my business and you told me I needed to make myself unnecessary. Now I am. So, Amy and I can enjoy 3 months in Miami and I don’t even have to call in.”

Saturday morning, January 12, 2013. My phone rings. “Al, this is Bob, guess where I am?” “I don’t know Bob. Where are you?”  “Amy and I are in Miami again for three months. I just Wanted to call and thank you…”

The conversation Bob and I had some dozen years ago was a simple one but apparently a turning point for him. His business was doing well, he was having fun and making good money but he didn’t feel like he was growing the value of the business. He asked me to have coffee with him to discuss it and I did. The question was simple: “How do I grow the value of my business?” My answer was equally simple.

Owning a business can serve many purposes. Too many to list here. But a few will help us focus.  Obviously it provides a living (hopefully). Sometimes it provides a lifestyle. Often it can provide a life purpose.

But too often it can provide a self-definition. That is when people stop owning the business and the business begins owning them. What I told Bob was that if his purpose was to build value then he needed to make himself unnecessary. He needed to move beyond being a manager to being a leader. A business that is actually a person is intrinsically less valuable than a business that is self sustaining.

We all know the egos of too many funeral home owners are deeply entwined in their business. After all their family name is on the sign. In fact, in some states their name is required to be on the sign. But “being” the business and leading the business are two polar opposites.

In my opinion, when Bob first approached me he represented the best example of a good strong manager and he was already showing signs of becoming a good leader. In terms of employees and revenue his business is small. Probably the equivalent of a 300 to 400 call funeral home (albeit far more lucrative). He made a simple decision. Simple but emotionally (for the vast majority of people) very hard. He decided he needed to develop people to be able to assume his responsibilities as manager so he had time to lead. This kinda sheds true light on the common excuse that you don’t have time to work ON your business because you are too busy working IN your business.

Bob checked his ego at the door. I really don’t know how much turnover he has had. Not much. I do know that he began deliberately grooming someone to assume those daily responsibilities and they became a team.

What does this mean for Funeral Service?

Any particular day: My phone rings:

“Alan, I am tired. I’m 58, 60, 65 (Whatever. Bob just turned 70 and is going strong) and I really want to slow down. I don’t want to stop totally because I really love what I do but I would like to have a lot more time off.”

Me: “So what’s keeping you from doing that?”

Them: “Well, there really isn’t anyone to pick up the slack and deal with all the day to day issues. Every time I leave they call me and I have to call in all the time. And then if it’s someone I know I feel like I have to be here.”

Me: “What about your son, daughter, key man?” (usually in their mid ’30′s with 12 to 15 years experience)

Them: “Well, they just aren’t ready yet.”

Me: “What are you doing to get them ready?”

Them: after long pause “Well, no one did anything to get me ready.”

Me: “That’s not an answer. That’s not even a bad answer.”

It took time and a plan for Amy and Bob to be able to enjoy 3 consecutive months in Miami, now interspersed with flights to the UP of Michigan to visit their first grandchild.

trapped in jar thumbnailThe bible says: “Train up a child…” The problem is that, since my client caller was never trained, he / she doesn’t really know how to start with the next generation but they intuitively know that the business is significantly more complex than it was 30 and 40 years ago. Consequently, this generational transition is far riskier. Compound this with the unsaid reality that their ego is still deeply intertwined with the business and they feel trapped.

Next week:

Tune in next Monday when I will talk about a way you can quickly ramp up your transition plans.


  1. Matt Wren says:

    Alan- as you know I generally prefer to comment to you privately, but this is a very critical issue so I’ll do it publicly. Knowing you as a man of faith, let me just sum up my reaction to this piece by saying…..AMEN, AMEN and AMEN!

  2. Alan, you nailed it again!


  1. [...] Are You Too Necessary? [...]

Speak Your Mind