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Having farm meetings that work

These strategies can make family meetings a core part of your farm culture

We’re too busy.” If that’s your reason for putting off holding family business meetings on your farm, you’re not alone.Agricultural business advisors hear their clients say it time and again to explain why they haven’t started holding farm meetings.

Except as excuses go, this one doesn’t really hold water.

Too often, in fact, it’s a signal someone in the family (maybe the parents, or equally likely, the younger generation) has thought about having farm business meetings but then decided there was too much risk of conflict.

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Or maybe the family tried a meeting but found it just produced a lot of talk that didn’t really lead anywhere.

Certainly, strong emotions can and do come to the table, says Gordon Colledge, farm advisor and owner of Advance Communications Ltd. based in Lethbridge.

“These meetings are where love and business collide,” Colledge says.

These are also higher-level conversations, not just the day-to-day discussions where immediate tasks and timelines are talked over. Instead, these are meetings to focus on major purchases and expansion, to plan and set goals, and to talk over transition and the long-term direction for the farm.

If that sounds challenging, Colledge says it may be time to ask the question the other way around. Is a farm family that doesn’t meet to talk about the enterprise one whose communications style is up to the complexity of the enterprise they own and operate?

“You wouldn’t find a comparable size business in town being that lax about meetings,” Colledge says.

Again, though, you aren’t alone. Across the board, farm advisors say farm business meetings could and should be happening more often than they do.

As Manitoba certified farm family coach Elaine Froese points out, research undertaken at Virginia Tech in the early 2000s is persuasive evidence of the power of farm business meetings. Researchers there compared 400 farms across six states and analyzed the prevalence of business meetings on them. That work ultimately attributed a 21 per cent boost in profitability for farm families that meet regularly and specifically to discuss the farm business.

Any number of topics can be part of the business meeting agenda — from questions about what contribution each enterprise makes to the farm, to what dividend payments are going to look like, or whether it’s time to bring in the next generation.

But key to keeping the discussions from bogging down or getting sidetracked is the preparation work ahead of time.

“Number one is having an agenda,” says Colledge, adding that the agenda should set out the purpose of the meeting, specify what will be discussed and who will lead what parts of the discussion. It should also make it clear what the meeting is intended to achieve.

“And it needs to be circulated in advance of the meeting,” Colledge says.

Meetings also require careful thought about meeting location, ensuring everyone who should be there is, and deciding ahead of time who should chair it. A code of conduct is also helpful and farm advisors suggest there are a variety of ways to implement it.

In her experience, Froese says the meeting’s location really makes a difference. The site needs to be a place where people feel safe and respected. For some, the kitchen table is not that place. Families can and do default to childhood roles there, Froese says, in which case a neutral location even off the farm can be better.

Some book boardrooms in their advisory team members’ offices, or take everyone to a hotel and use the boardroom there. Other best practices include having child care so children won’t be a distraction. And a good housekeeping practice is to have everyone park cell phones in a basket at the door so they can give the meeting undivided attention.

Those attending should be anyone with a personal stake in the farm and in the outcome of any decisions likely to come out of these meetings.

“If you’re going to significantly change your business plan, that’s going to have an impact on each family member involved,” Froese says. “If it’s a strategic meeting, then you probably want spouses involved, even if they aren’t involved in the day-to-day operations. Because if you cut spouses out of a strategic meeting then there can be too much misinformation or disconnection around what was decided and why.”

Colledge adds that thought needs to be put into who chairs the meeting, recognizing that it doesn’t necessarily have to be a senior partner but the person best suited for that job.

“Sometimes families get into difficulties because Dad may think he has to chair the meeting, and he’s full of anxiety or he may have issues that he doesn’t handle that well,” Colledge says. “And yet his son or daughter would be far better at chairing the meeting and keeping discussions going and keeping things on time, and lightening up the moment.”

Cedric MacLeod, a New Brunswick-based farm management consultant, says an agreed-upon code of conduct for acceptable behaviour is essential.

“Just because it’s a family meeting it doesn’t mean we can’t be professional sitting around the table,” MacLeod says, adding the ground rules can include things like no shouting, and no interrupting so everyone is ensured they have a chance to speak.

Farm families that are experiencing conflict often choose to have professionals from their advisory teams or specially chosen facilitators present at these meetings whose expertise can help manage and mediate these discussions. The Canadian Association of Farm Advisors has an online directory found at www.cafanet.ca listing professional advisors available across the country.

Also, make sure everyone knows that an immediate outcome of a successful business meeting is careful documentation of what’s discussed, adds Froese.

Families now regularly record meetings using their smartphones, but Froese finds that using a flip chart remains a tried and true method of keeping everyone on track.

“I know that’s old-school technology but what a flip chart does is it gives you visual aid,” she says, adding that photos of the charts can then be a simple way to record what was discussed.

And of course, decisions made at these meetings also need to be put into action, which in turn requires discussion about who is to implement the decisions.

“What really frustrates families is when nothing changes (after these meetings),” says Froese.

As for how often these meetings should take place, that varies farm to farm. If larger meetings just don’t work, shorter meetings might.

For example, some families hold them on a monthly basis, starting at 11 a.m. and ending by 12:30 p.m. followed by lunch, notes Colledge. Agendas that gradually add issues over a period of weeks and months will ease this process.

“There’s no formula that you can say this is the ideal number of meetings,” says Froese. “My answer to that would be whatever helps the farm have the best financial transparency and execution of their planning goals.’

Ultimately, what makes these meetings worth having is how they enable key issues to be addressed, says Froese, who has a series of tools for conducting business meetings on her website at www.elainefroese.com.

Those issues are wide ranging, from general policies for conducting business, strategic planning around growing the business, setting policy for sharing business profitability, and balancing business and personal life. Of course, the meetings can also discuss performance monitoring and transition planning.

All three advisors say they’ve witnessed the positive outcomes in families that adopt a habit of meeting — both for the farm and for the family.

“Relationships with spouses are significantly improved,” says MacLeod. “They sleep better. I think they have an overall sense of clarity. And they can get up and go to work and know exactly what they’re working for, why they’re doing it, and what the long-term benefit is going to be.”

The point right now is that these meetings should happen more often, he adds. “What we need to do on our farms is implement a culture of having meetings.”

In fact, that may be starting to happen, and Colledge credits more female farm managers and an incoming millennial generation for making them happen.

“I think with more women becoming really active in farm business, it’s going to tip the balance in favour of well-run meetings,” Colledge says. “Women will be the ones that will be leading the charge.”

About the author

Associate editor

Lorraine Stevenson is associate editor with Country Guide. She has also covered agriculture and rural issues since 1995 as a reporter with the Manitoba Co-operator and Farmers’ Independent Weekly.

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