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Seeing eye to eye

Part one in a five-part series on successful farm leadership

There are shelves full of books and articles on leadership, yet it can still be a struggle to apply their principles on our farms and to decide who leads and how.

Even so, today’s farmers must recognize that fewer than one third of family-owned businesses succeed to the next generation, and we must learn to be leaders in training our own successors.

The family farm must be treated as a business. We need continuity, and we need to develop an interplay of knowledge across generations rather than comparing how we are different. We have to move beyond thinking “he doesn’t work like I used to,” or “when I was his age, I would do twice the work for less than half.”

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Famer and His Son Standing Side by Side Leaning on a Gate
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Our young farmers are educated and eager to succeed. We must give them the chance to lead.

The most successful leaders on our farms are the ones who possess key traits that set them apart from others. They are collaborative and participatory. They mentor the next generation to succeed, and they build a strong team and have an attitude of gratitude. They understand where they came from, what it took to get here, and that they want that legacy protected.

Over this series of five columns, I will share with you my observations of how successful leaders use these skills to leave a lasting legacy because I am a firm believer that leadership is a skill that can be learned.

The first and arguably the most important skill is being collaborative and creating an environment where people feel comfortable sharing their own strategy and vision.

In my day-to-day work with farm families, I hear the same things from owners about the next generation. They say they aren’t ready and don’t get the big picture, but that’s where we need to accept our responsibility to lead, taking time to transfer our knowledge, creating an environment where the next generation feels comfortable sharing their ideas with us.

I worked with a family several years ago on transitioning the farm, and I always think of them because the leadership shown by the father was exemplary.

Already they want me to come back in 10 years and work with them on the following generation.

An environment exists in this family where all ideas are shared. Importantly, each generation is confident in speaking about the direction they have for the future of the farm because they work in a participatory culture that is comfortable and encouraging.

When I first started working with this family, I was surprised right from my first phone call with the dad. He was so clear about what succession would look like. This is rare, and we usually have to help with that clarity. This man had not reached 60 yet and during this first phone call he made it clear he didn’t plan on farming a day past 60 years old.

This family had been the beneficiaries of a successful business and continuity plan that had started two generations ago, where the father intentionally guided and mentored the next generation at a young age. For them, succession started in their 20s and was completed by 30.

Once I met the son, I understood how the dad could be so confident. They had the same vision and were on the same level with all business matters, field to financial. When I asked the son about the history of the farm, he began to explain how his dad gave him opportunities other dads wouldn’t out of fear of their child making a mistake. His dad would show him once, sometimes twice, and then say it was time for his son to try.

He learned to read a calving cow’s signs at 10 years old, and would either decide to leave her or help her. By 14, he was the lead herdsman on this farm, doing the breeding, feeding and milking all on his own.

That summer when Mom and Dad were away a tractor broke down. He told his dad they needed a new one and Dad said they just needed one that worked. The next day he took the time to explain the financials to his son. And the following week, there was an auction sale and a used tractor was bought. He educated and then let his son lead.

If we want to grow good leaders for the future of our farms, then we need to consider how we mentor farmers today. We need to create an environment where they can gain confidence. We need to appreciate and be grateful for our children’s interest and ideas for the farm.

How do we make good leaders? We believe in our children and provide them with opportunities to lead.

Leadership signs of successful farmers

  • Collaboration
  • Empowerment
  • Focus
  • Integrity
  • Intuition

Darrell Wade is a certified family enterprise adviser and a CAFA-certified farm adviser. He is the founder of Farm Life Financial Planning Group www.farmlifefinancial.ca and can be reached directly at [email protected].

About the author

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Darrell Wade is a certified family enterprise adviser and a CFA-certified farm adviser. He is the founder of Farm Life Financial Planning Group and can be reached directly at [email protected]

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