Having guided farm families through some of their most challenging periods, Jolene Brown understands why regular meetings fall by the wayside in many businesses.
“It’s because of the way the last one ended. Nothing got done, someone took over, somebody cried, people walked out, people had so much work to do and the meeting just wasted time, so they don’t want to meet again,” says the self-described professional speaker, author, farmer and family business consultant.
“But we meet for specific purposes, important ones,” adds the Iowa-based consultant.
Karen Laprade of Vancouver-based Lead Family Enterprise Advisors is a mediator, facilitator and family business adviser who specializes in conflict resolution, leadership development and relationship building, but she says that by the time many family enterprises contact her, they have waited so long to tackle issues, they are in crisis.
“Don’t wait,” Laprade says. “Often I get the phone call when someone dies or the conflict is so intense that people are exiting the business and someone has said, I’m leaving, I’m walking away, I don’t want to have anything to do with the business, let alone the family… and it is very difficult to bring things back on track at that point. So do not wait to have that meeting, that discussion.”
Both experts stress that if the first steps toward regular family business meetings prove too daunting, or if meetings continue to fall apart without accomplishing anything, then it’s time to seek outside assistance.
“When it is high stakes in the moment, that is when having a facilitator is really important,” says Laprade. “Because people may be yelling, they may be walking out, slamming doors, which really means that they feel like they are not being heard. So somebody in that room really needs to change that, change the strategy, build those communication skills.”
One of the ways Brown changes the tone and gets people thinking differently is to have them literally change places.
“The first thing I usually do when I’m at a meeting with them, is I make them stand up and all take one chair to the left, so I have the daughter-in-law in Dad’s chair and they become very nervous,” explains Brown. “But then I say, you brought me here because things needed to change, so now we’re practising change and you’re doing a real good job.”
A change of location can also be a big help when it comes to levelling the playing field during family meetings, especially when big-ticket items are on the agenda.
“I would like them to have a safe environment,” Brown says. “So no, this isn’t the Thanksgiving table, it may be a kitchen table at another time, it may be a table out in the shop, it might be a space at a hotel you’ve rented, the location just needs to be one where everyone feels that they all have an equal opportunity and a safe environment.”
Neutrality is key, adds Laprade.
“A lot of people, in the interest of time, say, oh let’s just grab a quick call or have a quick conversation onsite. But we know that when there are difficult discussions to be had, a neutral location is really helpful,” she says. “So go off site, off the farm, don’t do this in Mom and Dad’s living room, don’t do it on any one person’s home turf.”
Neutrality is also in the scales when a facilitator is brought in to assist with family business meetings. It can be tempting to turn to already trusted advisers, like a family lawyer or farm accountant, but Laprade says those choices present another pitfall and could actually set the business back.
“In my opinion, that sets it up for spouses or children, cousins or some family members, or shareholders to feel like it isn’t a fair process, that it’s not objective, that they are just going to be told what to do again,” she says, adding that while it can be hard for a family to bring in an outsider, especially if they expect to air dirty laundry, there are real benefits to having someone without a dog in the fight facilitate a meeting.
“Bringing in an outsider means you’re bringing in someone who doesn’t have a stake in the outcome, so they’re not going to sway any one decision, they are not going to tell people what to do,” says Laprade. “Families are the best people to decide what they need to have happen, they just need some help to get through the process, someone to guide them, to manage communication and keep them on track, keep them positive and keep it fair. So an outside facilitator is good to have at the outset, not forever, but to get things going.”
Facilitators can also work with businesses to help them decide what type of meetings work for them and how often they should occur, but it’s up to the family to decide who participates and what their role in the business is.
Once the first steps are taken to leap into regular business meetings, Brown says there are some steps to follow to see the practice through.
“Set aside time for meetings, say, the first Thursday morning every month, say, at 10 a.m. that day we do not intentionally schedule anything else,” says Brown. “Now calving and planting, these things happen, you have to know these things may disrupt a schedule, but plan ahead when you can, stay on track, use the agenda.”
Between meetings, Brown recommends hanging a draft agenda in a neutral place, one that people can add items to or circle template items that they want discussed at the next meeting. If an item not on the current agenda is raised during a meeting, Brown advises it be added to the agenda for the next meeting.
And while some meetings must be chaired by a company’s CEO, she stresses that chairs should be rotated during other meetings.
“The person who is leading a meeting also has to be real clear that we don’t personalize things and we don’t dredge up the past, you know all the inequity, all the inequality, that’s all in the past, and we’re here to talk about what we’re doing today and look ahead to what we are doing in the future,” Brown says. “And then anyone can call a time out at a meeting, if things get too hot, if people start to personalize, if there are attacks, then the chair has to call a 10 minute break.”
Beyond the family meetings, business decisions and day-to-day management issues, it’s also vital that farm families remember what is really important to them.
“If families break bread together, if they like to eat together and do things together, then when conflict is high, sometimes taking a break (to enjoy a family activity) is helpful,” says Laprade. “You can often forget the family aspect of things… and really, the family is why you are doing this.”
Of course, there can be legal reasons for meeting too.
“Some meetings are required by law. So if you want to stay legal and compliant, you need to have them,” Brown says. “For example, if you are a corporation or a partnership, or a limited liability company, you had better take a look at your structure documents, because I will just bet they say that you will have to have an annual meeting and you’re going to have to have a board of directors meeting if you’re a corporation.”
If farm family enterprises don’t fulfil legal obligations, the repercussions can resonate both within and without the family. Citing one American case where a sister with shares in the family farm sued her relatives after they failed to properly inform her of an annual stockholder meeting, Brown emphasizes that the first step to avoiding trouble is to understand and review your own procedures.
But even then, make sure you keep your focus on the broader benefits.
Once family business meetings evolve into a pattern where conflicts can be resolved and business can be improved, there is less stress and the benefits begin to expand, adds Brown.
“It’s so exciting. People truly understand that it can be good, and they see how much can be accomplished,” Brown says. “But if we’re not pulling together towards that common goal, if there are little things that are bugging you or irritating you and you don’t take care of them at this level, we can’t move forward.”