Family, Farming and the Farm Family Business
Ships that pass in the night, and speak each other in passing,
Only a signal and a distant voice in the darkness;
So on the ocean of life we pass and speak one another,
Only a look and a voice, then darkness again and a silence.
“Tales of a Wayside Inn, “Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
Although these lines written by Longfellow in 1863, in the middle of the American Civil War are meant to describe the relationship between two regions of a nation, they also describe the relationships within a family business where there can be many instances of similar passing “in the night”.
Unspoken assumptions between generations often include thoughts like: “If they’re interested they will ask and take things over”; “If they want me to know they will tell me”; “They will ask me if they want me to do it”; “I don’t want them to think I’m pushing them out”; “I don’t want to say something that might create conflict.” Unfortunately, these assumptions often live in the dark shadows of a family and can go on for years, resulting in communication that is reduced to the bare necessities of day-to-day operations and/or polite discussion in-order-to keep the peace and avoid conflict.
As written by author, consultant and professional mediator, Lance Woodbury, “when it comes to family businesses, management, succession and estate planning, the conversational dance that occurs between generations can be downright frustrating”. In addition to creating a time and space for safe and open discussion, consider these discussion topics to help get the conversation flowing, create clarity and dispel some of the myths, fears and misunderstandings that may be lurking in your family and business.
Gaining clarity around the Three Circle model is a great place to start discussions. Knowing where everyone fits now and what the thoughts and opinions for the future structure are, takes the assumptions and the guessing out of the equation and lays the foundation for constructive communication and forward planning.
It’s vitally important that every family member has the opportunity to clearly identify and communicate their personal, family and farm business goals, and have these understood and respected by the family. Not only can it create an environment of understanding, but also creates a baseline for designing the right solutions within the family business for the individuals and the business.
Within a farm family business, it’s important that members understand where they agree and disagree. Understanding the perspectives of others, promotes tolerance and accommodation. Recognizing differences in personal values between the family management team will set the tone for how you will:
• make management and investment decisions
• manage together as a group
• allocate tasks and responsibilities
• deal with conflict
The conversations that flow out of the above discussion topics, can be risky, but are essential. Without them, people make assumptions, which often lead to conflict that the silence is intended to avoid. When it comes to family business decisions regarding ownership and management, don’t let your family “pass in the night”.
Denise Filipchuck,consultant associate at Backswath, is a Financial Management Specialist, a Certified Financial Planner (CFP) and a Certified Agriculture Farm Advisor (CAFA).