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Necessary Endings

By Henry Cloud

Harper Business, 238 pages, $28.99

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Much of today's business is focused on innovation and starting new things. But leadership coach and psychotherapist Henry Cloud says we have to focus more on – and become better at – ending things. That might mean ending products or services, processes, relationships, or even the business itself.

"Getting to the next level always requires ending something, leaving it behind and moving on. Without the ability to end things, people stay stuck, never becoming who they are meant to be, never accomplishing all that their talents and abilities should afford them," he writes in Necessary Endings.

Your company might be stuck with something that isn't working – a product line or even entire area of business whose day has passed – and the required leadership step is to shut it down, or pull out of it. Or there may be some poor performers who have been allowed to stay on staff too long and you need to pull the plug. Or perhaps you have been in a job that is poisonous, and you need to bail out.

He says we should approach business – and our lives – with the outlook from Ecclesiastes that was popularized in the 1960s song by The Byrds, Turn! Turn! Turn! It begins: "To everything … there is a season, and a time for every purpose under heaven: a time to be born, a time to die; a time to plant, a time to reap; a time to kill, a time to heal; a time to laugh, a time to weep."

Such logic makes intellectual sense, but psychologically we often recoil. We are afraid of the unknown, or of confrontation, or of hurting someone. We are afraid of letting go and the sadness associated with an ending. We have had too many painful endings in our life, so we resist, or lack the skills to execute the ending.

"Something about the leaders' personal makeup gets in the way," Dr. Cloud observes. "Somewhere along the line, we have not been equipped with the discernment, courage, and skills needed to initiate, follow through, and complete these necessary endings. We are not prepared to go where we need to go. So we do not clearly see the need to end something, or we maintain false hope, or we just are not able to do it. As a result, we stay stuck in what should now be in our past."

Getting beyond that psychological barrier starts with gardening advice about pruning. The author notes that gardeners prune to help rose bushes reach their full potential. Branches that are pruned fall into these three categories:

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Healthy buds or branches that aren't the best ones: The gardener constantly examines the bush to see which parts are worthy of the plant's limited fuel and support, and cuts the rest off. Dr. Cloud notes that Jack Welch, the former head of General Electric, did that when he declared that if any of the company's businesses could not be No. 1 or No. 2 in its field, it would be cut.

Sick branches that aren't going to recover: At some point, the gardener realizes that more water, more fertilizer, and more hoping won't help. Mr. Welch followed that logic when he declared that any GE business that was struggling – in effect, sick – would be fixed, closed or sold, and that the bottom 10 per cent of the work force would be let go.

Dead branches that take up space needed for healthy ones to thrive: The branches and buds are dead and taking up space. Mr. Welch, for example, was celebrated for trying to get rid of the layers of bureaucracy in the company that slowed down communications, productivity, and ideas.

Dr. Cloud urges you to consider your intellectual and emotional response to pruning. Does it appeal to you, or make your stomach queasy? Creating necessary endings for business success, he argues, requires embracing the premise that pruning is necessary, natural and beneficial.

The paradox is that endings and great new beginnings are linked: You can't have one without the other.

His book offers lots of tips for applying this notion in business (as well as to your personal life). He presents the material clearly, with lots of stories, dealing with it at both an intellectual and emotional level, to help us to make the necessary endings in our lives.

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