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Family Communication is Important to Growth
By Jane Eckert
There are many, many factors that determine the success of a farm business. Every farm is unique, and we grow different crops, we are in diverse locations and we have different expectations for our businesses. But some factors are constant and consistent from one business to another, and I’d like to talk about one of the most critical factors, communication. If you aren’t working together with common goals, you are far less likely to succeed, regardless of all other factors.
Most farms are family businesses, and most span at least two—if not several—generations, with different values, interests, and ideas. Often, too, the farm has been turned over to siblings, cousins, or other family members, and there are just plain an awful lot of ideas and directions floating around! But you know the old story…all four wheels of the wagon have to be going to the same place!
After personally working with over 100 farm families in North America, I have witnessed first-hand the inner dynamics of families and how they communicate with one another. Whether the family business structure is mom and dad, mom and dad with grown children, siblings, cousins or aunts and uncles, a family business is made up of individuals who all have opinions with business strengths and weaknesses.
As mom and dad it is so easy to view your children, your nephew or cousins based on how they acted and what they were like as a kid. We “label” them with terms like lazy, cocky, trouble maker, low-achiever, head strong, perfectionist and many more. Unfortunately, these labels seem to stick into adulthood and often prevent you from seeing the person they have become and what they are capable of achieving.
On the flip side of that coin, as adult children, you may still be looking at your parents as controlling, dictatorial, inflexible, unwilling to take risks, workaholic, frugal, no fun and even much worse. Yes, we are all a product of our upbringing, but at some point, as we reach adulthood, it is time to look in the mirror and look at each other as business peers in order to make this farm business succeed. This is a critical point, however else you are connected, on the farm you are peers in the farm business.
It’s not helpful when dad makes a decision to plant a field or purchase a new tractor without his grown son or daughter knowing this was going to be happening. It’s not helpful when a business decision regarding opening a line of credit, the purchase of more land, or the decision to expand the business is not discussed with all family members.
While personality differences and varied opinions are both desired and challenging, it is necessary for a family farm business to discuss the differences, actually working to hear each other, and then coming to common agreement. That’s right – start talking with each other! I have seen so many families that for whatever reason don’t talk to each other or, when they do, someone storms out of the room yelling or crying. The family has to move beyond that, and seriously work at communication.
As family members, we all individually work very hard to make our farm businesses grow, and consequently we need to feel that we participate in the forward direction of the farm and are not just another “grunt” worker. All too often, that’s not the case. Over and over again, I have witnessed families that maintain the hierarchy—past down from one generation to the next—that “dad knows all” and makes all decisions. This may have worked for your grandfather, but now, if we want to expand our businesses beyond one generation, it is time to start including the next generation in the planning and decision process.
The best way to do this is to schedule regular family meetings throughout the year to discuss the new plantings, physical and building improvements, change of responsibilities and current needs of the day. It’s best for these family meetings to be a regular time – perhaps every Tuesday at 9 a.m. after you have gotten the crew started working. If you think a weekly gathering is too often, then schedule it less frequently, but get it on everyone’s calendar.
Regular family meetings can include an update by each person about what is going on in their particular area, what’s ripening, how many workers are needed for a project, or who can be shifted to a different assignment. These meetings help you to prioritize the work and help each person understand the current work level and pressures of each enterprise.
The meetings don’t have to be long or drawn out and don’t require a written agenda. Just show up and start talking about your business. Share with each other your concerns, your successes and your ideas for improvements. New business ideas and expansion for next year often need more time for discussion and probably require a special meeting(s) dedicated for this purpose. With new ideas, allow that family member to take responsibility for the project, yet with the support and encouragement of everyone—there’s no joy in watching the other end of the boat sink just because you didn’t agree with the idea!
It appears to me that the families that have regular times to get together to talk freely are able to foresee issues and negotiate potential conflicts. Many families tell me that they often have difficulty separating family time from business time, but you need to make it happen…that can be as simple as moving the breakfast coffee discussion from the kitchen table to a meeting time in the office barn.
Don’t make the excuse “I don’t have time for these meetings.” Frankly, from what I have seen, business growth is based on the family’s ability to communicate regularly and maintain harmony.P.S. You may want to share this article with everyone in your family and set aside a time to discuss.
Jane Eckert is the founder of Eckert AgriMarketing (www.eckertagrimarketing.com), a full-service marketing and public relations firm that helps farmers to sell directly to consumers, diversify operations and become tourist destinations. She is also CEO of www.RuralBounty.com, a search directory for agritourism farms and ranches in North America. Jane can be reached at 314-862-6288 or you may email her directly.