When I first heard the word “proactive”, about 20 years ago, I really did not like it. It sounded funny and awkward. It sounded made up. But I have learned to like it, mostly because it fits so well with my way of thinking.
The easiest way to help someone understand it is to contrast it with the word “reactive”. You react to something after it happens. When you are proactive, you plan and act before something happens.
Anyone can react. All of us do, every day. We start doing it from the day we are born.
But not everyone gets to the stage where they do things proactively. It’s almost as if there is some sort of maturity required of people to get to where they consistently look ahead at what is coming, and try to get things prepared in advance.
In some ways, I wonder if the ability to see the “big picture” is somehow correlated with how proactive people will be. When you see how the large pieces of the puzzle fit together, you are more likely to anticipate many of the steps in advance.
So why am I even talking about being proactive? Well, in large part it is because I don’t think enough people do it naturally, and there are some people for whom it is really really important. Can you guess that I am talking about family business owners?
Founders of businesses, entrepreneurs, first generation family business people become successful thanks to certain traits that they have. Whether we are talking about drive and determination, knowledge of their industry, or the willingness to take risks, there are key traits that almost all of them share.
They often become consumed with running their business on a day-to-day basis, fighting fires, making their next payroll, getting the big order out the door. Long range planning? Who has time for that?
Succession planning? I don’t need that? I am never going to retire anyways. And entrepreneurs live forever, don’t they?
In second- or third-generation family businesses, planning, whether for succession or other major transitions, is usually much more structured and formalized. Could it be that the ability to make long-term plans has contributed to the fact that these businesses survived into a following generation?
Maybe being proactive does not come naturally to everyone. Even those who acknowledge that it is important are often not able to get themselves to take a longer-term view. Some people are natural procrastinators, who only do those things that are marked URGENT, at the expense of things that are truly important. (Note to self: there is a whole other blog right there).
Let me conclude with an idea that I think can be helpful. We have all heard that people who start an exercise program with a partner are more likely to stick with it. We also know that there are some people who only succeed when they have to answer to someone else, such as a personal trainer, who keeps them on track and motivated.
I believe that being proactive, especially when we are looking at major transitions like business succession, is easiest when someone from the outside is brought in to help organize, lead, and steer the process.
Let those who run the business run the business. But in order to make sure that the long term is not an afterthought, someone needs to pull those people out of the trenches and force them to think through, discuss, and plan what needs to be done for the long term.
It’s called being proactive. I hope this blog elicits an appropriate reaction, and starts you thinking about this important subject.