Woodbury-Farm Family Business 08/07 10:41
Focus to Keep Business Momentum
All family operations need the momentum to keep relationships, goals and
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
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 email@example.com.
Copyright 2014 DTN/The Progressive Farmer. All rights reserved.
DTN offers additional daily information available free through DTN Snapshot – sign up