Adrienne Axler’s career, and indeed her entire life, have taught her one lesson very clearly: When change is required, there needs to be a definitive, conscious break with the past; it’s only after that you can move on to bigger and better things.
After spending the early years of her life in Cold War-era Czechoslovakia, in 1968 she left for Western Europe following the invasion of her home country by the USSR and 3 other Warsaw Pact countries. This sudden uprooting was her first clear example — if a bitter one — that when you really can’t go back, you simply have to go forward.
Still, Adrienne emphasizes that despite the emotions and difficulties linked to that sudden change, and particularly in light of current world events, those formative years marked by exile and a need to rebuild from zero were “extremely useful, extremely rich. The further I go, the more I see those difficulties as pushing me to find the best in any situation.”
And it’s undeniable that throughout her life she has been able to find the best. After completing her studies in hospitality, she ended up in the company that would define her career, Sodexo, where she would eventually serve as CEO.
“With Sodexo, I was working with a company whose industry, institutional catering, was just beginning to develop. And now, not so long after I retired, and in good part due to the COVID-19 crisis, it looks like an industry that’s on the way out as our workspaces and work methods change. I suspect my career took place during a unique period in the history of labor.”
Unlike many, who find the end of their careers to be unsatisfying due to it coming too early, or too late, or not as a result of their own decision, Adrienne saw her retirement both as a just conclusion and as the moment to start fresh.
“A career needs to come to a clean end, otherwise it’s hard to feel satisfied and fulfilled with what comes next. I know so many people at my age who are frustrated, their careers came to an end in a way that they didn’t choose or weren’t ready for. For me, I was lucky to have things happen in a way that lets me serenely guide others in their career. I also had a long spiritual path, I’d been studying for years as a yoga professor, that helps with each transition.”
She’s convinced that the lessons she’s learned — or better, lived — about how to move on also applies to an entirely different realm: the transmission of family-owned businesses. In her experience, the biggest problems regarding transmission come when there’s no clear break. “There needs to be a real decision, with a set date, when one owner goes into retirement and the next generation takes over. When people hold on, or they want to try to find a way to share the reins, it very rarely works out well.”
It’s worth noting that, despite the stereotypical “founder holds on until they die” scenario, this is a cultural phenomenon, one that isn’t reproduced everywhere. Adrienne notes that in Germany, for example, it is much more common (at least compared to other places such as France) for there to be clear succession plans and retirement dates, even within family-owned businesses.
“Otherwise, it all becomes very symbolic, especially within a family, the child waiting for the parent to die. That’s why there needs to be an explicit transmission of the business. As long as there’s a rivalry between the older generation and the new, there’s no way for things to move forward.”
Nonetheless, Adrienne points out that the emotional aspect of transmission is always there. Whether there’s a clear succession plan that’s carried out well or not, passing on a family business isn’t an easy moment. But as her life has demonstrated, it’s not so much a question of whether a given moment or transition is easy; it’s simply about how you respond to it.
And to Adrienne, those responses should be directed toward extracting the best possible future from whatever circumstances life may throw at you. Given that outlook, it’s only natural that she’d close with a dose of optimism:
“You have to hold onto your dreams and goals. React in the most positive way possible, I’d say that’s the one key to life.”
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A warm thank you to Adrienne for speaking with us and giving her insights on both life and business. If these topics resonate and you’d like to go further on how they can benefit your family-owned business, ask to join one of our upcoming Wholesaler Conferences using this link.