Woodbury: Farm Family Business

In Defense of the Family Meeting

Lance Woodbury
By  Lance Woodbury , DTN Farm Business Adviser
Meetings that build consensus and family unity shouldn't be viewed as a waste of time. (Photo by William Warby, CC BY 2.0)

Meetings get a bad rap. They are often mentioned as a necessary evil in organizations. In productivity literature, they are loathed for their intrusion on "productive" time. Sometimes, people add up the hourly rate of participants to provide a financial context for just how much time is being wasted. Meetings, unfortunately, are often seen as the opposite of working. And in agriculture, meetings in the spring, summer and fall months can feel particularly unproductive when one considers the physical demands of a farming or ranching enterprise.

There are plenty of blog posts, articles and books describing how to make meetings better. For example, make meetings short, with a clear purpose, ending with action plans and identifying individual responsibility for follow-through. In addition, a full consideration of these meetings would address their frequency, duration, who can call them and the extent of the agenda (see my related Q&A in DTN's Minding Ag's Business blog). But in this column, I want to step back and suggest some basic reasons to have meetings in the first place -- even during the busy times.

DEVELOPING A COMMON PERSPECTIVE

In other columns and books about family business, I've written about the importance of turning "I knowledge" into "we knowledge." That is, it is important to create a shared perspective by which people see a particular challenge, opportunity or decision, in order to ensure multiple owners or managers are supportive of the business' direction.

Take financial decisions. If one supervising family member offers to give a staff member a raise without first checking with other family supervisors, the imbalance in the timing of compensation adjustments -- not to mention the potential disparity in amounts -- can create all kinds of chaos when employees discuss compensation or compare paychecks. Or consider a family member who purchases an asset or piece of equipment without a meeting of the minds of the owners. The other family members may be likely be guaranteeing some portion of the operation's debt, and are now financially committed when they weren't given an opportunity to be psychologically committed.

Meetings provide an opportunity to hash out financial and other strategies, which can help prevent feelings of resentment. Meetings also provide a chance to get multiple perspectives on an opportunity, potentially resulting in a better decision. In short, putting up with some short-term frustration with meetings potentially prevents relationship issues and may give you a better answer.

INVITING THE RIGHT PEOPLE

I'm often asked whether spouses of family business participants should be at meetings. If the decision is a major financial commitment or estate decision with long-term implications, then the spouse probably should be included in some form of direct communication like a meeting. The risk, if not included, is that they hear someone's interpretation of what you said.

It's a bit like the game where children sit in a circle and the first one whispers a secret to the next person, who passes it on to the next until the secret makes it around the circle. The ending communication is often significantly different than the starting communication because of selective memory, hearing, recollection of details, etc. Even the spirit or tone in which a remark is made can be missed when someone hears of the decision second or third-hand.

Using this spousal inclusion question as a starting point, my larger argument is that the business and family is often better off if people who will be affected by a decision -- whether spouses, key staff members or business partners like your banker or CPA -- are part of the direct communication about the decision. Not only might they be more likely to support the outcome, but they may have a perspective, or information, that changes the direction. In one family I know, open and direct communication about the parent's estate plan caused a change for the better when we discovered, through a meeting, that the presumed next generation leader wanted to do something else with his career. The resulting discussion led to a different estate plan than what was originally outlined.

In short, incorporate anyone who can throw a big wrench into the implementation of your plans. Include them in meetings so that your ideas, directives and plans are not filtered, and potentially misunderstood, by others in your operation. You may be surprised by the solutions that also emerge.

MAKING THE DECISIONS PUBLIC

Meetings also provide a forum for people to publically commit to a behavior or course of action. If a participant agrees to do something in a meeting where others have witnessed that commitment, peer pressure becomes part of the mix. You are more likely to tie in to someone's need to not let others down, or to their desire to exceed expectations, or at least their interest in not being shamed the next time your group is together.

Not everyone fears the disapproval of their peers, so a commitment in a meeting doesn't guarantee their support or follow through. But it does allow for some level of accountability. For example, if family members agree to behave a certain way with one another, and commit to that standard in a meeting, then a deviation from that standard becomes a public discussion. (Facilitators often use this strategy in potentially contentious meetings by having a group discussion of "ground rules.") Similarly, if a meeting participant commits to a certain time frame for an action plan, there is now an opportunity to hold them accountable for that commitment at a future point. In short, meeting provide an accountability vehicle, and if structured right, can do so rather efficiently, as running around to get individual commitments can consume significant time.

Meetings can always be improved. But don't let the frustrating elements of your meetings get in the way of the necessity of face-to-face group communications. All good teams need some time to huddle before a play or during a time out, or else confusion and chaos reign. Group alignment, clear understanding of the organization's direction and accountability are hallmarks of any great family business, and meetings have an integral role to play.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Lance Woodbury writes columns for both DTN and our sister publication, "The Progressive Farmer." He is a Garden City, Kansas, author, consultant and professional mediator with more than 20 years experience specializing in agriculture and closely-held businesses. Subscribers can access all of his archived columns under News search. Email ideas for this column to Lance@agprogress.com

(MZT/SK)

Lance Woodbury