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Transition to better communication

How better succession planning can lead to better decision-making and less conflict

Too many times, farm succession planning starts with a series of useless, dead-end and sometimes volatile meetings. Someone erupts into tears, someone else mutters some nasty words in anger and frustration and all our hopes crash in flames.

No wonder we are afraid of stirring up this toxic mess of emotions. We’re supposed to be doing team decision-making. Instead, we’re making things worse.

Yuck.

But it doesn’t have to be that way, even on farms where it can sometimes seem this is the path you’re on.

The process of succession planning requires families to make some big decisions together, and this means learning how to communicate and have meetings.

Even the best communicators have bad days, and some of the closest families and most successful farmers don’t know how to have productive meetings.

But it can be done, and it can really pay off.

Learning how to have regular business meetings can be the switch that changes how the farm is run overall.

Admittedly, there are challenge in terms of scheduling and setting up some kind of agenda. And it can also be a challenge to balance the personality styles and deal with emotions.

But instead of putting it off, the message from long-time family farm coach, farmer and author, Elaine Froese from Boissevain, Man. is, “Don’t wait until a crisis to start the conversation.”

Jeff Davies from Davies Legacy Planning Group based in southwestern Ontario agrees, saying that emotions do come up when you’re dealing with people’s behaviour and their expectations, but it’s still worth it.

Says Davies: “You get from a succession plan what you put into it.”

Just getting everyone to the table to start the conversations and getting them listening to each other can be powerful for some families. Darrell Wade from Farm Life Financial (a farm family succession specialist) based in Peterborough, Ont., usually sees an increase in “familiness” after doing succession planning.

It comes from learning how to communicate, and from sharing stories, he says, and also from sharing the financials and giving everyone a chance to be heard at the meetings.

It’s a time when non-farming members can voice their concerns but also begin to understand that tradition alone doesn’t run a business — it takes smart committed, risk-taking people prepared to adopt change.

Succession planning requires setting clear long-term goals for the business and the family. These goals become very powerful when they’re co-created, says Wade. It is also a time to connect and share information and to come to grips with the stark reality of farm returns and lifestyle. “Create a participatory culture where everyone has a voice,” says Wade. “It builds unity.”

It all starts with being prepared and willing to share, and also with understanding other people’s perspectives while setting some rules of conduct. Here are some ways that three succession planners — Froese, Davies and Wade — have helped their farm family clients communicate better.

Be prepared

For many families, communicating openly is new, scary territory, and it shouldn’t be sprung on anyone without letting them think (not worry) about it ahead of time. So before starting the succession planning process Wade asks his clients (i.e. everyone in the identified family) to reflect and answer the following questions:

Farm Life’s Reflection Questions:

  1. What are our hopes for the family and the business? Do we all want to keep it in the family? Will we all have a role in the future of the business?
  2. How will we make decisions and overcome differences?
  3. How should the family be organized around the business? Roles and responsibilities? Remuneration? Holidays? Homes, etc.?
  4. What are the rules of participating in the farm? How do we select and train people to govern the business?
  5. How do we educate the next generation about ownership of the business and family governance? Who’s going to be part of it?
  6. How do we ensure that these standards (set from the answers to these questions) continue?

The answers to these questions become a set of standards for the family to live by — sort of a family constitution.

It’s a constitution that teaches the family how to work collaboratively and share their opinions, says Wade. Some families even create an advisory board (board of directors) to ensure this set of standards is followed and continues for generations to come.

These questions can also help form a framework for how the family can have succession discussions. “This can be the cornerstone of succession and continuity planning,” says Wade.

Understanding each other

Most advisers have interviews with the individuals ahead of a family meeting. Some want to speak to those involved in the farming operation and others want to talk to the whole family.

The conversations deepen during the one-on-one interviews, says Froese. “As the coaching call interview proceeds, the farmer usually discloses which folks he is close to and who he fights with, and gives insight into personal styles,” she says.

Froese takes that information and using the Ken Keis model (see below) draws a family map. This helps her understand the roles and skills and how people will interact in meetings. She shares the information privately with each person first, and then moderates a group discussion at the family meeting.

If she feels it would be helpful for the extended family to understand the styles of other team members, then they also do online profiles. She’ll share that information in the form of a chart with the name of their style, and their scores for behavioural action, cognitive analysis, interpersonal harmony, and affective expressiveness.

“If the family is highly conflicted, I use the conflict dynamic to identify their conflict constructive behaviours, destructive behaviour and their hot buttons,” says Froese.

Similarly, Jeff Davies initially interviews each of the family members separately ahead of the meeting. His questions are open-ended, usually beginning with what, where, when and how, and he asks about them in way the encourages the family members to share their experiences and give examples.

In other words, he’s looking for responses other than “yes or no” answers. He wants to know the reasons why. “You would also hear me frequently use words like: assumptions, expectations, feelings, perceptions, fears, implications, consequences, hopes,” he says.

Davies only shares this information with his father, Len Davies (who’s involved in the strategy process), so he similarly understands the individuals.

The rest of the family gets to see the high level, overarching themes that emerge in the family’s responses, which are shared in a careful context. It’s not about winning favour with the advisers or trying to prove that they are right or someone else is wrong. This is not about identifying villains or heroes, which many people get stuck on.

“We are not there to be convinced by anyone about who or what is right or wrong within the family and the farm,” says Davies. “Rather, we are interested in what it means to that individual and how it has impacted his/her behaviour and decision-making.”

When he’s given a roadblock, instead of trying to create his own resolution, Davies asks what that person feels they can do, themselves, to create change for the positive. It’s important, he says, that they begin to think about how they can own the problem rather than lay blame.

Usually after Davies’ interview the feedback from family members is that they’re pleased to be offered the opportunity to share and be asked how they feel with regard to the family and farm. “This is the moment when those individuals feel that we are not just there doing Mom and Dad’s bidding,” says Davies.

Communication is rarely a strong point in the families he works with. In this, they don’t score lower than other families. They’re just at a point where it’s critical to tackle the problem.

Davies will ask family members, “What will happen if this continues and everyone doesn’t try to make it better?”

“Not everything is negative,” Davies says. “Sometimes I am stating that there is great leadership within the family core and therefore my recommendations revolve around how to maximize or exploit this.”

To jump-start the discussion Davies might ask what it looks like to individuals when the family is working side by side on the farm, or what individuals expect for the farm ownership down the road. Using their answers, Davies probes deeper to get to their own reactions. For example, what do you think are the implications of Dad reacting that way, or what are your hopes when you hear Mom wants you to take on more of a role in the finances?

Davies uses the Kolbe A system to analyze each individual’s instinctive strengths, much like a personality or attitude test, and he uses the Kolbe Index to accent what they’ve discovered about that person. However, they don’t do Kolbe testing initially because Davies feels that kind of testing early on can be misleading if family members try to influence the outcome by how they respond.

The rules of engagement

One of the first things Elaine Froese does is to get her clients to read and sign a coaching agreement, which says they are basically open to being coached and accountable to the process. Confidentiality and scheduling (a classic evasive manoeuvre is to not show up) are laid out for everyone to understand.

In more conflicted situations she might use the mediation process document referred to earlier to help everyone understand that she’s neutral.

Over the many years Froese has been helping farm families, she has dealt with all sorts of bad situations, from addiction to divorce to stubbornness to rudeness. Honesty can be difficult, but if managed correctly the end result is usually worth it, she says.

Having a skilled, no-nonsense third party help set the time, place and agenda, and then to run the meeting can really help some families. “I emphasize safe, respectful language,” adds Froese.

Froese sets the meeting schedule, taking into account the needs of other professionals to be at the meeting. “Some wealthy farmers seem to think they can boss me around,” she chuckles. “One family had gone through litigation and they seemed to want to tell me how and when to run the meeting, which I will not put up with.”

She has found that some parents think the family meeting was a disaster, but the adult kids all think the same meeting was great, because people actually talked about their true feelings. “The parents couldn’t hear the message,” says Froese.

She says even the closest families can have difficulty with succession and discussing what she calls the “undiscussibles,” and she sometimes uses a talking stick that gets passed from one person to the next around the table so everyone gets a chance to be heard.

Froese also finds it helps everyone relax if they know there are all sorts of families going through something similar or worse, and she can tell them there’s usually a way to get through it and they’ll emerge better for the effort.

Wade helps the family create a code of conduct for the meetings so that it becomes more organized and professional. “… Not at Mom’s dinner table, not talking business on Sunday when the nieces and nephews can overhear,” says Wade. “I show them how to do a good job at the first meeting, with a code of conduct.” Every family struggles with communication — so they need help getting a good start with family business meetings.”

The family meeting code of conduct is based on the ideas from the reflection questions and subsequent constitution, and on what Wade sees as problems that the family needs to overcome to have effective meetings.

Examples for best practices for meetings include things like everyone gets an opportunity to speak, and they go around the table and are limited to five or 10 minutes each. When someone is speaking everyone else is listening, and after each speaker, the facilitator paraphrases and asks questions.

Everyone needs to know that it’s a safe place to speak freely. No one should feel threatened or be interrupted. This can mean including rules in the code of conduct to respect everyone’s styles and there will be no name-calling or other rude behaviour. Or that no one brings up the past, and everyone must commit to the process.

The process of meetings should not only build your farm or your plan but build everyone’s confidence, self-worth and trust.

Some families Wade has worked with even hire him to come back once a year and chair the farm’s annual meeting. It keeps the process ingrained and is a way for the family to stay formally engaged with an outside, informed third party to gain an objective perspective on their operation.

Similarly, when Davies facilitates family meetings, he often suggests they work together to create a “System of Norms” for family meetings. These norms are about day-to-day respect, which is especially important when it is time to meet and be productive in family farm succession situations.

It can take some families less then five minutes to go astray if someone has taken something personally, says Davies.

It will never work if it is being forced on someone, says Davies. He starts by brainstorming to identify issues plaguing the family meeting, and then categorizes these into larger themes to determine how to prevent them from derailing the meeting.

It turns out that if you write it down, it’s taken more seriously and not forgotten. Recording minutes is another part of the meeting equation and improves accountability.

“Naturally anytime you do something like this,” Davies says, “ you get it documented and even signed to provide some accountability to such terms.”

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