Business side: Family communication

CONVERSATIONS WITH BUSINESS EXPERTS

Richard Cressman, Farm Family Communications Coach, www.cressman.net

(R.H.) HOW DO YOU RECOMMEND FARM FAMILIES START TALKING ABOUT SUCCESSION PLANNING?
(R.C.) Good decision making requires excellent communication. There are two types of families — one who finds communication easy to do as part of the culture of the family and one who has difficulty communicating. For any family who has difficulty communicating, involving a third-party is a good place to start.
Farm family succession ultimately comes down to three questions:

  • Can the farm financially support the retirement of mother and father and the added income needs of the younger generation?
  • Does the younger generation have enough passion and drive to get them out of bed each morning for the next 15 to 20 years?
  • Can a deal be put together to transition ownership, management, and workload that will allow mother and father to sleep peacefully every night for the rest of their lives?

From my experience working with families for the past 15 years, farmers typically start talking about succession by going through the mechanics of the process and the hard issues such as accounting. What is actually important upfront is the soft issues —  communicating what the opinions are of everyone involved, including significant others.

The first step should be for parents to assess what their retirement goals are and write down a wish list of things they have been talking about doing for the last 25 years. Are mother and father on the same page with regards to what they want to do? Is mother’s voice being heard? Whether it’s staying on the farm, travelling, or moving to town, sitting down and putting together a lifestyle budget is very important. This is seldom done and instead, retirement incomes are reduced to what the farm can afford to cash flow.

WHEN SHOULD FAMILY CONVERSATIONS ABOUT SUCCESSION BEGIN?
It’s always better to start having family conversations sooner than later. If a client has children and they think they might want to farm, I recommend starting to show them how to get along with each other and how to tolerate the opinions of other people at a young age. When I look at the relationship issues people experience in their 30s, 40s, and 50s, many have roots in the sandbox — meaning the younger that teaching starts, the better.

WHAT ADVICE CAN YOU OFFER FAMILIES TO IMPROVE THEIR COMMUNICATION AND WORKING RELATIONSHIPS?
Respect each other. Respect trumps all relationship advice. It is so important for each person in the family to feel respected by the other family members, including significant others. For young farmers, this means building emotional equity with their parents and acknowledging that the farm business is in place because of their hard work and sacrifice.

Spend time together. If I look at the successful families that I have worked with, particularly in the seed business, they spend time getting to know each other on a very regular basis. Taking a coffee break and spending time getting to know farming partners is worthwhile. It is important to know what they and other players in the business are thinking so you know how they may be feeling when something new happens.

Accept disagreements and move on. When there is a disagreement, ask yourself if what is on the table today will be a deal breaker next week or next year. Successful farming families can get past the disagreement and move ahead.

Create a culture. There is a common saying that the farm business has to work well enough that family members can sit down together for a holiday meal but that’s not necessarily the case. I know families who work very well together and who choose not to spend a lot of time together as a family. The key is for each family to discover what type of culture they want to cultivate.

Listen to others. To be an effective communicator takes practice and patience. It is especially important for the female voice to be heard in farm family succession discussions as there is a lot of wisdom that sits on her side of the table that often goes unheard.

Invest in people. The most important personal development training I have seen reveals how conflict and stress are dealt with. Knowing this about yourself and about farming partners can greatly improve emotional intelligence. In some cases, specific personality trait development or training may be needed, such as conflict resolution. •