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Woodbury-Farm Family Business 08/07 10:41

   Focus to Keep Business Momentum

   All family operations need the momentum to keep relationships, goals and 
capital aligned.

By Lance Woodbury
DTN Farm Business Adviser

   You need to answer one question to get everyone to work together, think 
about the future and take action.

   Working together in a family business is no easy task. Multiple roles, 
complex relationships and conflicting histories merge to form what 
meteorologists call a perfect storm -- a difficult state of affairs arising 
from unpredictable causes -- in your family's interaction. The concepts of 
fairness and equality become so muddy that any attempt at principled 
decision-making goes awry. And finding the time to work on succession and 
estate planning, when even the daily business decisions seem overwhelming, is 
as elusive as rain in the drought-stricken west.

   When you seem stuck and are trying to arrive at some consensus with your 
business partners or family members, I propose you ask yourself and then your 
partners the following question to focus the conversation:

   What do you need to see and hear from your business partner or family member 
to feel better about your future working relationship?

   I like this question for several reasons:

   --It provides a focus on the future. How many times have you been in a 
family meeting and you can't get past an event or decision that occurred years 
ago? I recall a conversation with a family where the decision to sell a combine 
20 years ago was still being discussed. It was symbolic of the broader issue 
about who could make decisions, but they couldn't let it go and it kept rearing 
its head at our meetings.

   The key question focuses on what you need to move forward. It doesn't negate 
what happened in the past, and it isn't asking you to bring up or critique old 
events. It's looking out the windshield at the horizon, not the rear view 
mirror. In the case of the combine, the question would target the future 
decision-making structure, not the past. 

   --It encourages a focus on action. The question asks you to name what you 
need to hear or see from the other person. It calls for action, for something 
to be said and done. The request for action is clear, and action helps get you 

   In many instances, the requests of others are manageable. It may be a 
request of a family member to acknowledge something they said or did. It may be 
a request for a business partner to include others in certain decisions. It may 
be a request to handle employee situations differently. Whatever the request, 
it makes the parties say "yes" or "no" and achieves some level of commitment.

   Now, if your family members decline your request, if they fail to do what 
you need to feel good about working them in the future, or if they tell you 
things you don't want to hear, at least you know where you stand. Then you can 
take action. 

   A family member I know recently told his parents he needed to hear whether 
they intended to have him manage the ranch. Their answer was no. As hard as it 
was for that conversation to occur, it kept him from investing more energy in 
wondering whether he would run things, and allowed him to plan his future.

   --It emphasizes a focus on working relationships. A third reason I like the 
key question is it assumes an on-going partnership. It supposes you will feel 
better about working with your family members if you act on the question. It 
frames the discussion as one focused on moving forward together.

   That doesn't guarantee the family business will stay together. Yet starting 
from a point of hopefulness is important because the odds of keeping the family 
business together are generally more challenging as time goes on. In family 
business we need all the momentum possible around keeping relationships, goals 
and capital aligned.

   The next time your find yourself feeling frustrated or stuck, try using the 
question with your business partners. You will likely change the conversation 
and create positive movement for your business.

   Editor's Note: Lance Woodbury writes for both DTN and our sister 
publication, The Progressive Farmer. He is a Garden City, Kan., author, 
consultant and professional mediator specializing in agriculture and 
closely-held businesses. Over his two-decade career, he has guided many 
families through inter-generational farm transfers as well as mentored 
successors. Email questions for this column to  


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