indicatorSuccession Planning

Building emotional resilience during an unexpected business transition

By ATB Financial 3 December 2020 8 min read

Selling, merging or closing a business is an incredibly emotional time for a business owner.

Perhaps because of this, owners often avoid dealing with the difficult—and sometimes surprising—emotions that arise during business transitions.

Given that Canadian entrepreneurs are more likely to experience mental health issues frequently, according to a major report from the Canadian Mental Health Association, not addressing tough emotions can put them at risk for depression, anxiety and other mental health conditions.

Ganz Ferrance is a registered psychologist based in Edmonton with 24 years in private practice who regularly helps entrepreneurs through business transition and succession planning. He says that right now entrepreneurs are particularly sensitive to change fatigue, especially if they are navigating an unexpected or undesired business transition.

“One of the experiences that entrepreneurs can have when an unexpected change comes up—like they have to sell or close their doors or merge with another company—is overwhelming. With so many things coming at them, it can really be overwhelming. There can be exhaustion from all the changes. They can be left feeling like they can never get their feet on solid ground,” he says.

Emotions entrepreneurs can expect in business transition

When an entrepreneur needs to make a major change to their business, it’s important to recognize there can be a significant sense of loss, says Dr Ferrance.

“For most entrepreneurs, their business is their baby. When a change happens, it’s a huge sense of loss or grief. It can trigger depression or anxiety,” he says. “Entrepreneurs should recognize the change as a legitimate loss and give themselves space to process it. Everyone deserves a grief process. It can be days or weeks or months. Don’t beat yourself up if you need time. There is no guidebook to say you’re only allowed to do this for three days. Give yourself space around the transition.”

Brent Macdonald, a Calgary-based registered psychologist with 13 years in private practice, says entrepreneurs who make an unexpected major change to their business can expect to go through the five stages of grief—denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.

The five stages of grief can be only a part of the emotions to expect during a transition, adds Ferrance. “There can be a real sense of guilt for people too because things are not going as well as possible. This can add a real sense of failure or not being good enough as an entrepreneur,” he says.

There can also be survivor guilt depending on the transition. An entrepreneur might get to keep some version of her company, or a portion of her assets while employees lose their jobs and vendors lose sales, says Ferrance.

Another major emotion to anticipate is the loss of a sense of purpose, belonging and significance. “The loss of ‘who am I?’ can be quite profound when a business transition happens,” he says.

Some of the other emotions can be quite surprising. “In some cases, there can be joy, relief, happiness and closure,” says Kerilee Snatenchuk, director of People & Culture at ATB. “That could be unexpected and lead to guilt about feeling happy.”


Navigating mixed emotions around business transition

During an unexpected transition, entrepreneurs will often be focused on problem solving and figuring all the details out while ignoring the emotional side of the transition. It’s time to pay closer attention to your own emotions and self care when you notice you’re more irritable, you have a shorter temper, a lack of patience, difficulty sleeping, aches and pains or you’re getting sick frequently, says Ferrance.

“You need to take your self care and personal maintenance seriously during a transition,” he says. “Self care is not frivolous. It’s a core skill to your business success. You can make better decisions. You can be more creative. Everything works better when you're looking after yourself.”

What is involved in a good self care routine? It starts with getting enough sleep, says Dr Ferrance. It should also include a regular exercise routine, a balanced diet and connecting with your social support network.

When emotions do arise, Ferrance recommends writing in a journal. “Start with five to 10 minutes a day to write about how you feel and what's working well and what's not going so well. It’s a space where you can unload. It helps to reduce the load you're carrying and it’s also a great tool for self awareness. Journaling will help you to notice a lot of these emotional things as they start to show up,” he says.

If things are particularly stressful or triggering anxiety, Macdonald suggests creating a two-column list where you write things you can’t control on the left side and things you can control on the right. “What we tend to find is that there are more things you do have control over than things you don’t. Once you have the list, focus on the things that you can control and do those things,” he says.

Tara Adams, an Alberta-based corporate wellness professional, says mental health is a combination of self care and professional care. “When things get hard for me—which they do—what I often do is I set a personal goal around my mental health, physical health, financial health and social health. I pick one doable thing for all four and aim to get those done. It helps me manage the ups and down of life which builds my resilience,” she says.

Snatenchuk adds that it can be helpful to have a buddy who can check in on you and your goals in each of the four areas of where you have set goals. This can include a friend and a professional in each of the areas, like your running partner and your trainer or a close friend and a mental health professional.

“[A transition] isn’t just about selling the business and putting a cheque in the bank,” says Adams. A successful transition includes goals for pre-, during and post-transition in all areas of your life.”


Why a post-business plan is an important part of transition planning

Whether a transition is expected or not, putting together a business transition plan is a necessary and important step. This includes finding a valuation for your business and putting steps in place to enhance that value.

Emotions are a large part of this process that often get overlooked. “Emotions come up in each stage of a transition. It can prevent people from doing any of the transition or planning work,” says Amanda Vella, senior director, Business Advisory and Transition Planning at ATB Wealth.

Going through a transition process and sale can bring down an entrepreneur’s confidence as other people review the business and question decisions the owner has made. As the process moves along, it becomes more real and owners can get “squirrely,” Vella says, as the emotions surrounding the decision become more intense. As a result, owners can do things that sabotage the deal such as demanding more money or changing the terms at the last minute.

Adams says setting goals can have a positive mental health impact. While in a transition, it can be as simple as writing down the first three things that need to get done then doing those and moving on to the next. This approach can help to transform a process that feels out of control — like an unexpected business transition — into one where the entrepreneur feels he has more control.

Another part of the transition process that gets deprioritized and also intensifies feelings of loss and grief is planning for what life will be like post-business, says Vella.

Part of her work with entrepreneurs in transitions includes discussing what their business is giving to them and exploring how to find another way to fill that void. It might be starting another business, investing in companies, volunteering in the community or joining a board. What is important is ensuring there is a plan in place to address those needs. Otherwise entrepreneurs can be left feeling like they are not contributing or provide little value , which is significantly different to what it felt like running a business and risks leading to deeply negative emotions.

Snatenchuk says that many entrepreneurs sometimes have a list of things they want to do after they’ve sold their business, however, they don’t do any of those things prior to retirement. It can be spending more time with family, getting enough sleep, eating healthier, taking vacations or committing to an exercise routine. “Entrepreneurs need to start seeding those things years before they consider selling or exiting. Make those non-negotiable. It will help you have greater success when you do sell your business or retire,” she says.

Unexpected transitions are bound to bring up intense emotions and that’s okay. In fact, it’s human. Taking time to acknowledge and process them is a critical step in an entrepreneur’s journey.

“In transitions, a lot of the time, entrepreneurs do prep work around finances and tech planning, but not around the emotions,” says Dr. Ferrance. “Emotions are part of the transition. We’re not taught that but we should be because the transition is smoother when you know that you’re going to feel crappy for a while and going to ask ‘who am I and how do I organize myself?’ If you know these are normal feelings then you can prepare ahead of time for it.”

Find out more about selling your business successfully with ATB’s Business Transition Guide. Want to talk some more? For tailored advice around business transition planning reach out to our Business Transition team at

Business Transition Guide

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