The older I get, the more I have come to realize the importance of communication. Failure to communicate or communicating the wrong message, whether intentional or not, is the root of many problems.
Consider this statistic: 65% of all family businesses fail after two generations and 90% fail after three generations.
I have seen survey results that ask people reasons for family business failures and overwhelmingly people think that failure is the result of poor financial management along with estate and financial planning errors.
However, a study of more than 3,200 families whose business failed in the second or third generation found that 65% of businesses failed due to a breakdown of trust and communication within the family.
Estate and financial planning errors caused less than 5% of family business failures.
Holding regular, consistent farm business meetings are a tool to promote and facilitate communication and build trust within the farm business.
Successful farm business meetings require planning. Begin with setting an agenda. Write down topics and discussion points.
If possible, let meeting participants know ahead of time what is on the agenda.
The element of surprise is not an effective strategy to get a thoughtful discussion on difficult or contentious topics.
Set a beginning and ending time for the meeting. Start promptly and end on time, even if you don’t get through the entire agenda.
Over time, you will gain a feel for planning an agenda that matches your allotted meeting time. Very few people like to attend open-ended meetings that end “whenever we get done.”
An important decision is how often to hold farm business meetings. Will it be weekly, bi-weekly, or quarterly?
Is it better within the rhythm of the farm to hold short meetings more frequently or block off longer chunks of time less frequently?
What day of the week and what time of day works best? What is the purpose of the meeting? Is it to discuss the milking schedule or the implementation of a new health protocol?
Is it to choose the hybrids and select varieties for planting? To make a decision about the repair or replacement of a piece of equipment?
Is the meeting about family matters and relationships? Is it about estate planning?
The farm manager needs to make a decision about what kinds of topics the meeting discusses and how the meeting is structured.
It is important to have ground rules or guidelines for communication.
Several articles I read about conducting farm business meetings provided suggestions for these communication ground rules that included:
- Only one person talks at a time.
- Each person gets up to a pre-determined maximum time limit to talk, for example, 5 minutes, before someone else gets an opportunity to speak.
- There is no blaming other persons or personal attacks.
- Keep the discussion professional and on topic. One article suggested that when the meeting involves family members, one way of keeping the meeting business orientated is to leave family titles like “mom” and “dad” aside. Address and respond to everyone with first names, as you would in any business relationship.
- What is said in the meeting stays in the meeting unless the group decides otherwise.
- Everyone’s opinion is valued. There should be some agreement about decision-making.
Is it majority rule? Is it a consensus? Is the purpose of the discussion to provide advice and suggestions to the farm owner and/or manager with the intention that they ultimately decide?
It is a good idea to have a written record of decisions, including some of the important discussion points that lead up to the decision.
Notes of the meeting are useful to participants who may not have been able to attend. Notes or meeting minutes can save time so that business items from past meetings don’t have to be discussed again at each new meeting. The person who runs the meeting has to be able to keep the discussion on topic, enforce the communication ground rules, be a good listener, and not get too emotional about any of the agenda topics.
In some cases, the farm owner or the farm manager is the right person to conduct the meeting but not always.
It could be another family member or someone on the farm team. Depending upon the agenda, there may be a need to bring in a facilitator from outside the farm, someone who has the respect of the farm family, to conduct some of the meetings.
A final consideration is who to include in a farm business meeting.
In general, farm business meetings should include everyone who is involved in the day-to-day operation of the farm. On some farms, that is the entire family. On other farms, it may be a mix of family and non-family farm employees.
I know some farms that will even include their nutritionist, veterinarian, lender or other agricultural professional depending upon the agenda item. Nonfarm family members might be invited when farm transition and succession is an agenda topic.
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