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Business

Business Advice

Company founder won’t let go: What’s a CEO to do?

Q. I’m an interim chief executive at a $10 million-plus company with 30 employees. The founder and 100 percent owner is well past retirement age, and he’s hired a name-brand executive search firm to recruit a permanent CEO; he brought me in so he could learn how to “let go” of running the business day to day.

He thinks he’s done that — but he insists on being in the office and casually talking to employees about what they are doing. This is really confusing the troops, who don’t know how to handle it. I’ve explained this to him, and he’ll pull back for a day or two — but then he falls off the wagon.

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The board of advisers and I have tried to get him not to be in the office at all — or only a couple of days a week — and he just will not listen. He has a grandson who loves to play golf with him near the retirement home he owns out of state. Maybe that’s the key? My concern is that we’ll never be able to attract a top-notch chief executive as long as he’s meddling — and that I’ll be stuck in this assignment for a long time.

ANONYMOUS, BOSTON

A. The fact that you used the phrase “falls off the wagon” is telling: This gentleman is addicted to running his company, and while you’ve explained to him why it’s a problem, you’re clearly going to have to double down on that strategy. It may even be time for a full-on intervention.

But first take a moment to empathize your way into his head. Certainly, much of his identity is wrapped up in his company; he may not really be ready to walk away from this phase of his life. I’m sure that he enjoys golfing with his grandson, but it’s possible that he simply can’t envision a world in which activities like that are a primary focus, rather than a pleasurable break from what he really does.

One strategy is to prod him to go cold turkey. Persuade him to spend at least a month at that retirement house, and thus definitively out of the office. Maybe he’ll see the merits of a less business-centric lifestyle.

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If he balks, or if this move fails, it’s intervention time. With the board’s support — and, preferably, its involvement — you need to do two things.

First, make it clear that you’ll never get the best CEO candidate to take a job that involves the owner peering over his or her shoulder all day. In the long run, that undermines the future of the company to which this founder has devoted his life. And the best thing that he can do for its future is to back off.

Second, be specific about what that means: strict limits on time in the office, specific parameters on employee interactions, a timetable for backing off the detailed updates, firm rules about a transition that will give the new chief executive genuine control. You can soften all this with a vision of the very good phase of life that he now deserves to enjoy.

The starker the choice, the more likely that he will either kick the boss habit or acknowledge that this is all a charade and that he can never quit. Either way, make it clear that if he will not commit to this plan, he’s wasting his time — and yours.

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