Leadership surrounds me in my daily work with farm families across Ontario. One thing our succession conversations always circle back to is leadership, both in theory and in practice (and as we all know, the practice part is the difficult part.)
We are still learning to wrap our heads around what collaborative leadership looks like across multiple generations on the farm. For me, leadership in action has become a big “aha” moment, both in my extensive farm experience and my education in coaching farm families through these courageous conversations. My “aha” moment has compelled me to keep talking about this issue and share the wisdom I have accrued in my lifetime, and through the hundreds of family conversations I have facilitated in my career.
In last month’s column I spoke about collaboration, which to me is arguably the most important leadership quality one can possess. In part two of this series, I want to expand on that. While collaboration starts the process and sets the stage for the next generation to develop leadership skills and get involved, if we are not empowering our young people with meaningful responsibility, the failure falls back on us and our own lack of leadership.
Some of the most successful multi-generation farm families I work with have adopted an approach of fostering and mentoring these young farmers as they grow up alongside the farm’s current leaders. In most cases the younger generation is eager; they are wanting a chance to showcase their leadership abilities and the ideas they have.
Our role is to empower them and help them develop confidence in their decisions.
I’m encouraged when I see this happen on the farm, with families empowering the next generation to take on responsibilities others would be more cautious to relinquish, or to make decisions they normally wouldn’t. These families work together and discuss the logic behind the work they do; why they planted what they did this year and why now may be the right time to expand capacity as opposed to a one year from now.
I have one family that gets around a table weekly with their son and daughter to debrief on the decisions that were made that week, with the father sharing stories of similar decisions he made at that age. This family is supportive of one another, and the current generation is given exposure to the same opportunities to take risks that he had when he was working under his father.
Arguably, that leadership shown by the previous generation is what is setting this family up to succeed in the future.
Empowerment comes in many different forms but some of the most practical ways to utilize it fall under the idea of letting go of control and being willing to accept mistakes. It’s about the father that allows his daughter to go out and work the ground even though he knows she is too anxious and will end up miring the tractor. The real test in our own leadership comes from letting this decision be made and having the supportive and constructive reaction when our child makes mistakes.
It cannot be viewed as a failure by the daughter, but rather a celebration by the parents that they raised a child who felt confident enough to take this risk in a safe and supportive environment. I watched this unfold one night when I was with the family. And instead of this man getting upset, he explained to his daughter that he did the same thing when he was that age, and then spoke of how some drier, higher ground would work up nicely while the other piece of land dried out further.
I see leadership shining in a dairy farming family who had their three children involved at a very young age in various roles on the farm. They empowered their children by exposing them to good opportunities for growth. This family let their children grow up and find their place on the farm by giving them complementary but not overlapping roles. One manages herd health and leads discussions on the impact of changes to cow comfort. The second focuses on feed quality, leading the field and decisions and monitoring milk production. The third is focused on genetics, making good choices when selecting new breeding to bring into the herd.
This is rare on a family farm, but important because it allows for clear focus on the strengths of each individual.
I now see these young farmers in their mid-twenties and I am proud to have watched them grow up and find their place within the family business. They are bringing their parents great ideas for growth and they are building opportunities for further success.
This next generation is empowered, and each time they bring an idea forward, they are showcasing their own leadership. And when their ideas are implemented, that empowerment grows even stronger.
Practising leadership takes time. It takes patience. And it takes a lot of courage to let them try, but it can be a positive experience if you are alongside them and cultivating growth of the next generation.
Much like our farming business, we are the ones who need to plant the seeds of encouragement. It isn’t supposed to be easy, it is supposed to be difficult. If it was easy, everyone would have done it.
Darrell Wade is a certified family enterprise adviser and a CFA-certified farm adviser. He is the founder of Farm Life Financial Planning Group www.farmlifefinancial.ca and can be reached directly at [email protected].