It’s that time of year when discussions on family succession are getting going in full gear. There are many seminars offered and lots of advice floating around. I always find the discussion interesting and enlightening and appreciate that experienced family guides are talented leaders in the process.
For us, farming is our business. We love it and have no intention of passing it down to anyone at any near point in the future. We are young, in our 50s, and plan to keep ourselves in business for a least another 25 years — not because we have too, but because we want to. To be fair, all our family members needed to know this so there were no grand illusions of us departing from the farm. Although we would embrace children as business partners, they too were honest about how they viewed their life path and chose independence. The discussion was frank and honest and all the family units thrive independently.
The road to hell is paved with good intentions and that road is often cluttered with farming families. Parents who make promises they will or simply cannot keep, children hanging on the skirts and shirts of mothers and fathers waiting for the big day of taking over, children with a misguided sense of entitlement, in-laws who are tired of being treated like hired hands and employees who do not know who the boss is. It tends to wear down relationships and drive invisible wedges into family units. If you don’t know where you are going, you are sure to get there. To avoid a seemingly endless journey, every party needs to be honest about their goals and their feelings.
At the end of the day, it really is not about the technicalities of farm transfer or succession planning. Those can be taught or bought. It is really about the feelings of those in the family. As Dr. John Fast, president of Family Enterprise Solutions, reminds us, each family member needs to feel loved, competent and in control. There is no doubt that love is a constant in most families — it’s just expressed differently in some and downright oddly in others. For families to work together, love and appreciation have to be known and expressed.
The old tale of, “I told her I loved her when I got married, why should I tell her again?” just won’t be tolerated in silence anymore. All jokes aside, there are many adults in families who wonder just how much they are loved, appreciated and valued in the family relationship.
Feeling in control
A cloud that often shadows those feelings of love is control. We all need some element of control in our lives. Without it, how can we possible determine the next steps in everyday decisions or develop long-term goals? Control of your life does not mean being antagonistic. Think of driving. Do you want a car and control of the car? Is it fair to let someone else drive your family to the destination, or should you drive? Should you be the teacher who encourages your children to drive? When we give away the keys to our car, we can expect that the new driver will enjoy the control.
A classic example is a story of a friend with a large family who lived under the control of Dad with the arm’s-length promise of the family farm. One day it was game on! The issues were finally on the table, and rightfully so, the son was 45 years old. It became clear that the father truthfully had no intention of giving up control but did enjoy having a hired man and someone else’s money going into the upgrades. Sonny left with his large family, is successful and very well known in agricultural circles.
To realize his dreams, he needed to take control of his life. When he had the keys to the car and the loving support of his wife, his future knew no boundaries. Not only was the couple intelligent but they were more than competent in creating new solutions for agricultural challenges.
Competence varies among individuals and that has to be appreciated. If we want our children to be competent, we need to give them control while being a respectful guide. That is the nurturing process. When there is a very strong element of control there is little nurturing and children are consequently seen as incapable. Children who are told they are idiots, slow or simply stupid have a struggle to believe themselves as competent.
Ironically, the same child may be encouraged and expected to stay on the family farm. This highly dysfunctional relationship may even work until the son or daughter brings in a life partner. And then, life gets complicated, as the “out-law” who also seeks unconditional love, control over their lives and a belief in their competencies starts to challenge the world in which their family unit has to survive.
As Pinball Clemons says, “family is the foundation for our existence.” We can write books on the family units that fail, but the slim volume on successful family farms is truly enlightening. When the principles of the operation, be they parent or other owner, truly love and appreciate the members in the business, value their contributions and allow them control of their lives while nurturing their skills we create happy, independent farm families. And that is what it is all about!