Is it possible to cope with a Loss of Identity?

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I think the short answer is ‘Yes’.

So, is there a big difference between loss of identity and identity theft?  I do not know a great deal about identity theft, I do know a lot about loss of identity. In both cases identity is taken from the individual, the big difference seems to be although there is undoubtably an emotional element felt in identity theft, it does not reach the depth or reach the level experienced in loss of identity. If you experience identity theft the first thing to do is contact the UK fraud prevention service and you should consider subscribing to the CIFAS Protection Registration Service. All very practical steps you can take to protecting yourself and ensuring that you mitigate the damage that can be done.

Where do you go and what do you do when you feel you have lost your identity without your credit card being stolen and your identity used to defraud? A loss of identity is not a practical event or a moment in time.

Over the last thirty or so years I have worked with many men and women in positions of power and authority in their family owned and run business. The pattern is very familiar and seems to follow a well- worn path. We have often talked about the three- circle model used in the field of family business and how the three ‘systems’ of Family, Ownership and Business overlap and how often the contrasting needs and wants of each system cause conflict. When a family member joins the family business, usually in the second generation, it is as a family member and whilst there may never be a formal discussion around expectations, it is not unusual for a family member joining the business to have an expectation of becoming a manager at some point in the future. For many family members joining the family business, this is often a process of osmosis, it simply just happens. And whilst the individual understands the business and probably understands it from inside, out, there is often less exposure to the outside world and the wider business community. There is often little or no formal business education and the only role model is ‘Dad’. Eventually at some point there is a natural progression to a management position in the business and then to a director position. If the business goes to the third generation and many do, we see changes in the management structure starting to take place, but the family members in the business will often be in the top positions. It is not unusual to see three generations of the same family either working in the business, with others attached to the business through relationships or ownership, when the business gets into the third generation. From a management or directorial position family members inevitably start to think about ownership and eventually, often in the second generation an individual family member can find themselves in the top spot of Managing Director and having a shareholding stake in the business. It is difficult for the title and the ownership to be stolen as in identity theft, it is however, not difficult to lose identity in the process of transition and change.

There are no practical steps to be taken when there is a loss of identity, it creeps up and one day you wake up and think, ‘what’s happened’?

You cannot register your emotions and feelings with an outside organisation, and you cannot simply put a stop on the fraud.

When an individual family member is in the position of top dog for an extended period, the feeling of emotional ownership of the undertaking is firmly embedded and giving this up, is no easy ask. Being in the top job plays to the ego and meets the need for adulation that often goes with the need for recognition and praise. Being the centre of attention and being acknowledged as the most important person in the business are key components for some family business MDs. There are numerous psychological profiles of the entrepreneur and many family business owners and directors fit these profiles and in some cases I have heard the behaviour described as sociopathic. This may be harsh, but I can see why this view could prevail. So, when the baton passes, is it a case of stolen identity, which seems to me to be a very practical, proactive process perpetrated from outside or do we experience loss of identity, which seems to me to be far more subtle process and whilst influenced from the outside by maybe the bank or an investor, it is usually perpetrated from inside and usually by other family members.

I came across a great story of a father and son in business together. The father was in his seventies and the son in his fifties. The father was the MD and came into the office every day. They had offices next to one another. The question of succession and the link to the inevitable retirement of the father was never discussed. The father did not take holiday until in his seventy fifth year he decided to take a couple of weeks off. Whilst he was away the son had the wall between the two offices moved to make his office bigger. His father came back from holiday and did not say a word, just simply carried on. The same thing happened the next year and the following year, the father was now seventy- eight. The next year when the father returned from holiday, his desk was in the corridor outside of the one office. It was then the father said

‘is there something we should talk about’?

The ability to self- deny is astonishing. It was only when the bailiffs walked into my office and picked up my desk; (that I was sat at) did it dawn on me it was all over. We seem to have an amazing ability to block out that which we do not want to see or hear. And when you wake up and realise that what you had is no longer there it is hard to come to terms with the loss and I can tell you from bitter experience it is that sense of ‘who I thought I was’ to ’who I am now’ that is the hardest journey of all. I was lucky, I had a wife with no pretensions to being anything other than who she was and despite all the heights we reached, Pauline never really changed, it was me with the pretensions of grandeur. I also had two daughters who ‘told it as it was’. I vividly remember the night I told them our business was bust and we would most likely lose everything. Lesley shrugged and Jenny, with big tears running down her cheeks, said

‘does that mean we will lose the BMW dad’?

For a couple of months after the event of liquidation and yes, the BMW did go, I ended up driving an old Morris Montego and was told quite categorically, to ‘park round the corner’ when I picked Jenny up from school. I have always seen myself as a BMW man and I am happy to say we drive a beautiful BMW today, even if it is thirteen years old!

I can say with hand on heart I know what loss of identity means. Events that trigger the journey to that loss of identity can happen quickly, the realisation of the loss is more pernicious. It eats away at you; it wakes you at night and it will not go away. It is all consuming and destructive and it leads to isolation and self- pity. It can also lead to drug addiction, mainly alcohol to drown out the voices and help cope with the feelings of loss for a life that once was. I had one father describe his son taking over as the MD, as having his business ‘stolen’ from him. It was not true, but that was how he felt.

So, back to the beginning, can we cope with a loss of identity when the very thing that has defined who we think we are has been taken away. I can only say without my family and my friends I would not be here. I did find myself one morning, on the Clifton Suspension Bridge. I had no recollection of driving there, of parking up or of walking on the bridge. I am sure there was an intention to jump, the feelings of loss and failure were so acute I could think of nothing else. I phoned Pauline to say goodbye and thank you, I cannot remember doing it. The next half an hour or so was a blur, all I can remember is my great friend and business colleague at that time, Ian saying,

‘John, we all love you’.

He had turned up from nowhere, I was later to learn it was as a result of frantic call from Pauline. I came back from the brink of taking my life thanks to the love and care of my family and my friends. My case may be extreme, but I have a suspicion that whilst it may have been extreme in that I got to the Suspension Bridge, my case is not that unusual. Many owners and directors face the same loss of identity when the time comes to hand over the reins or they get taken away. It takes time, understanding, care and compassion to rediscover that once people loved you and cared about you, because of who you were and not what you were. It did not matter to Pauline, Lesley and Jenny that I was MD of a business. I was John and Dad and the lifestyle was nice to have, but not at the expense of who I was. 

The one observation made by both my daughters has remained with me until this day.

They said

‘Dad, you are much nicer now than you were when you had the business’. Maybe, just maybe they were right.

If you are family in business out there reading this and you are the older incumbent generation, recognise the signs, acknowledge that succession is not an option, you will have to hand it over, even if you are carried out in a box. Plan your succession and do it with good grace and dignity, help the next generation to protect and look after your legacy, if that is what you want. If you are the up and coming generation, recognise that you too will be old one day, have compassion and care for your folks, understand and help them come to terms with a loss of identity and in the words of the song ‘Teach your Children’, by Crosby Stills  & Nash.

‘Know they love you’