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Me, myself and I

Yes, it takes self-confidence to run a farm. But every farmer also knows a neighbour whose ego is always getting in the way. Could it be you?

The business of farming is a constant battle with weather, prices, weeds, diseases and much more. It means identifying the risks, learning how to measure them, learning about all the tools to counteract them… and maybe it should also involve buying a mirror.

Ego by itself is neither good nor bad. It’s simply a Latin word that means “I.”

“Everyone has an ego,” says Len Davies, principal of Davies Legacy Planning Group which has clients throughout Ontario and the Maritimes and over 40 years of advisory experience with farmers.

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While ego issues are usually associated with an inflated sense of self, Davies adds that low ego brings its own issues, such as the inability to make decisions.

“A good strong ego with good management is actually the very best,” says Davies. “You don’t want to be arrogant, but if you can get the two together, you’ll be very successful.”

Davies likes to compare farmers to a hockey or ball team. On paper, a team can have the best and most expensive players. They put all their faith in the fact that they’re a great team.

Another team, meanwhile, may know it doesn’t have all the all-star players, so it works even harder at strategizing. It practises harder, and when the big day comes, it beats the supposedly best team.

“Ego is just like that,” Davies says. “You can think you’re wealthy, you’re from a great family, but if you don’t do your homework and things go bad, you’re going to suffer… I have one successful farmer with a huge ego. He plans all the time and he’s got an open mind. Another farmer with a huge ego thinks everything is fine but he’s just going backward. For one farmer the ego works, for the other it doesn’t.”

The wrong kind of ego, Davies believes, has the attitude that “The neighbour isn’t doing it right, my son isn’t doing it right, no one is doing it right but me.”

It could help to look at the ego as a risk just like any other in the business. Stuart Person is national director of MNP’s Primary Producer Agriculture Niche. While the lack of confidence that comes with a poor ego is definitely problematic, it’s the overinflated ego that has the potential for the most damage, especially long-term, Person believes.

Such an ego can cause cash-flow problems, missed opportunities, poor debt management and safety issues, and it can slow or stop farm growth.

Both Davies and Person believe the most detrimental effect of an oversized ego is seen within family relationships, where such an ego can frustrate succession negotiations and cause dissension among family members, and also be a cause for breakdown both for the farmer’s and for the successors’ marriages.

Ultimately, it can cause the loss or sale of the farm.

The guilty signals

So what are the indicators of an overactive ego? “There’s always a big resistance to change,” Person says. Many farmers have a tendency to think, “We’ve always done things this way, and it’s always worked for us.” Or they’ve tried something new in the past that failed.

“You can’t base your decision on one event that went wrong,” Person says.

Today’s farming environment is fast-paced, with new technologies, farming practices and policies emerging daily. “You have to be willing to change and adapt. You can’t get stuck in old ways.”

Especially on generational family farms, he sees a lot of pride and legacy built into the farm, but he also sees situations where it can lead the older generation to be unwilling to change. This is turn creates frustration in the oncoming generation.

“One sign is if you’re not always trying to improve your business,” Davies says. “If you go to farm meetings and someone puts something out there, always be looking for the good in it.”

Some farmers listen to a speaker and then go home and say how stupid the speaker was, scoffing at their ideas. A farmer with a right-sized ego takes a more balanced look.

That doesn’t mean farmers shouldn’t be critical listeners, but a healthy ego is open to new ideas while assessing their usefulness for their farm. It looks at the pros and cons of something new, and then make a decision.

“If you don’t even bother to weigh the pros and cons you have a big ego,” Davies insists. “You should always be picking people’s brains.”

Another sign is making fun of professionals and advisers in the agriculture industry. Person says many farmers call them “pencil pushers,” and say they’re out of touch compared to the guys in the coffee shop. They don’t want an outsider telling them how to farm. “A lot of these guys that are running with the old mentality are going broke or falling out of the picture,” Person cautions. There’s a greater level of sophistication required to operate today’s farms compared to the past. “We’re trying to give farmers tools,” he says.

Hanging on to control of the farm also highlights an ego problem. Davies strongly cautions against picking on and micromanaging children and employees, and he warns farmers of the cost of not listening to the next generation.

“If you’re always consciously nickelling-and-diming everything they do, you’ve got a big ego,” Davies adds. “You’ve forgotten that you made some big mistakes too.”

An oversized ego has a general unwillingness to listen to and openly communicate with others. “Many farm families tend to be poor communicators,” Person says. They aren’t good at dealing with issues or discussing the future with their family.

Historically, there was a presumption in many farm families that Dad is the boss. He knew what was going on and made all the decisions. He didn’t ask questions of his family or advisers.

Often, though, that kind of independence comes out of a sense of fear. Listening to and involving family members would mean the farmer, most often the father, couldn’t just do as he wanted. Others could turn out to be also capable.

Both Person and Davies see this fear in many farmers they have worked with. Davies experiences farmers sabotaging the succession planning process. Whenever the successor comes close to fulfilling the father’s stipulations, the father changes the parameters again.

Youthful arrogance

Ego is not just a problem of the older generation, Davies says. There are children who don’t respect or appreciate their parents for their role in providing the foundation to the family farm. The 25-year-olds were young teenagers when crop prices began to improve, Davies says. They don’t remember the really hard times in the 1970s and 1980s with the inflated interest rates.

Often they don’t understand the reluctance of their parents in purchasing new land or expensive equipment. “All they see is the success and they don’t understand what’s wrong with Mom and Dad,” Davies cautions. “They might not be getting 40 litres of milk per cow but they bought all that land and paid for it and came all this way.”

Working on solutions

The risks are identified and the indicators assessed. What are the strategies and tools to manage that ego?

“Communication is No. 1,” Person is sure. “Talk to your spouse and your kids. Be open and honest about where you are going.” Good communication means listening more than speaking. Person admits he catches himself here too. Someone is talking to him and instead of listening he’s preparing his next sentences. Later he’ll realize that person had something important to share with him.

Learn to be more humble. Humility and a strong ego are a powerful partnership. Humble egos know who they are and where they have come from, and they don’t need to prove it to others. They can admit a mistake when they make one.

Develop empathy, says Davies. When in on-farm meetings, he emphasizes the importance of taking time to put oneself into the other person’s shoes and consider why they think the way they do.

“He’s not a stupid boy or a stupid man,” he states, and quotes Stephen Covey from his book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: “Seek first to understand, before being understood.”

Then, never stop learning.

“My goal is to be the best farm succession planner there is in this area,” Davies says. Over 70 years old, it would be easy for Davies to think he has enough experience to achieve his goal. Yet he still attends seminars and seeks to stay on top of new developments in his area of expertise.

“As long as you are always updating things, trying to go from good to great, you’ll be very successful,” Davies maintains.

Also, delegate authority.

“Allow other people to make decisions,” Person advises. “Let the kids make mistakes and try things.” While letting go is difficult for many people (not just farmers), it’s essential for the grooming of the next generation to successfully manage the equity that has been built up, often with much sweat and sacrifice.

Healthy egos have their children sitting at the table with them when farm advisers come. “They’ll drill me and turn to the son or daughter and say, ‘Do you understand what he said?’” Davies says. It is important for those parents to have their child understand what the business is about. “Those kids are going to have big egos like their parents, but they’re going to be very successful farmers,” Davies claims.

And always make the family a priority.

There are three important components to a successful farm, Davies says — the business management, the ownership, and the family. He describes paying attention to only two of the components as a bicycle with a bent wheel — it’s not going anywhere. “I can have a great farm. I can buy more land and be a good owner. But if my wife is going to leave me, I’ve got a problem!”

Farmers usually know they have to work on their management skills. They work hard at building equity. Sadly, the last thing on their mind is often their family. “I married my wife, I have the kids… I don’t even pay them any attention,” is a mindset Davies often encounters. “You have to spend time in the family,” Davies cautions. “You can improve a business, but it’s hard to improve a broken relationship.”

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