Farm Family Business

Avoid Costly Regrets

Lance Woodbury
By  Lance Woodbury , DTN Farm Business Adviser
Many family business owners wish they'd shared succession plans earlier, even if it caused discomfort within the family. (DTN/Progressive Farmer photo by Thinkstock/iStock)

A benefit of facilitating hundreds of family business meetings over two decades is the chance to observe behaviors leading to successful family enterprises. Perhaps even more interesting, though, is the opportunity to hear the regrets of family members. Below are three of the most common regrets I hear as I travel around the country. Do any of these apply to your family business?

I REGRET NOT STARTING SOONER

When helping family business members talk about their goals and plans, or leading them through difficult conversations, a common refrain is, "We should have started this process sooner." Several reasons usually account for the late start. Some fear that having the conversation might expose conflict or differences and harm relationships. Other family members feel it isn't their place to encourage the conversation, and often aren't sure how to get the discussion started. And many business owners were raised by a family, or during a period time, or in a culture, where they simply didn't talk about difficult issues. So they sweep them under the rug, hoping they will fade away.

But even when the conversation is difficult, or results in a less-than-happy ending -- an ending which is going to be unhappy regardless of whether people talk -- the process at least opens up what family members are thinking. Instead of assuming people's intentions or expectations, we confirm the opportunities or challenges faced by a family working together. In many cases, starting sooner could have prevented frustrations from festering and creating more emotional distance between family members.

I REGRET NOT CLARIFYING THE PLAN

This often occurs from family members who have operated for years without a plan to transition ownership and management. The general statement that "someday this will all be yours" is assumed to be good enough. Later, when the farm is unexpectedly split between on- and off-farm siblings, or the management transition drags on for decades, people become visibly upset. In some cases, family members say that if they had known how it would turn out, they would have done something different. In other cases, a sense of entitlement emerges. Without a sense of certainty about the plan, and with a growing feeling that it may not happen as they expect, those on the farm begin to feel they deserve some reward. Or they come to resent the business and the senior generation's control.

Clarifying the plan doesn't mean divulging all of the details. Talking about ownership goals and time frames, and outlining the general transition of management duties, provides a common set of expectations -- a benchmark -- the family can use to evaluate progress.

I REGRET NOT GROWING PROFESSIONALLY

Many family members who have returned to the family business from the college or the corporate world say they miss professional development opportunities, and they regret not staying focused on their personal growth at the farm. Networking, workshops, classes or conferences are replaced with the work demands and multiple hats worn in a small agriculture business. Pretty soon, family members in their 40s or 50s feel they've grown stale and that it may be too difficult to learn different strategies or skills. Going to meetings, taking online classes, applying to your state ag leadership program, joining a peer group, or even listening to audio books and podcasts offer ways to stimulate your thinking, creativity and professional growth.

In his iconic song "My Way," Frank Sinatra sang, "Regrets, I've had a few, but then again, too few to mention." By learning from the experience of others, perhaps you too could sing that song.

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EDITOR'S NOTE: Lance Woodbury writes family business columns for both DTN and our sister magazine, "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. Email questions for this column to Lance@agprogress.com. Find all of DTN farm business columnists online at https://www.dtnpf.com/…

(MZT/CZ)