September 19, 2018
It was easy to see the problems the business was having and who was to blame. The whole town could see it. It was the alcoholic nephew. If only his behavior was in line, then all would be well with the business.
In reality, it wasn’t so simple.
Often we are quick to fix the blame on outrageous behavior because it’s easy to see. We tend to fix the blame on one person. That person then wears the scarlet letter of shame for all the ills of the family business.
Problems in a family business do not just happen; they build up over many years, and often many people play a role.
Eventually, cracks appear from the pressure: heavy drinking, violence, silence among family members. These are just a few of the symptoms. But what are the root causes?
In this case, the pressure had been building since the business started in the 1970s. Two brothers didn’t communicate well with each other, but they stayed out of each other’s way and built a highly successful business.
Without much thought or communication, they automatically brought in their children as summer labor. As soon as the children graduated from high school, most of them joined the business.
The second generation watched how their fathers worked together, which included simmering disagreements and unspoken expectations. Those traits are now ingrained in the business culture.
The operation never had any sort of business or transition plan, or regular communication about its direction. The second generation just worked hard and kept their mouths shut, because that’s what they learned from their fathers.
And still, the business barreled along at full steam without much of a rudder or defined course.
Finally, the cracks began to show as pressure built up. One in the second generation started drinking enough that it affected his work performance. Tempers flared, and sons didn’t feel they could talk to their cousins or fathers.
These problems are not unique to this business, and it isn’t fate that brought them to this point. They have been working toward this point for years. The problems aren’t that people are drinking too much or fighting. Those are symptoms of a larger, long-term problem.
Is there a solution?
In order to solve the problem, those involved need to have open minds to the following:
Realize the symptoms of the problem (booze, fighting, etc.) are easy to see, but they aren’t the root cause. Ask questions and search out the root cause, realizing that your first impression is often wrong.
Realize that everyone plays a role in the conflict, including those who remain silent. Pinning the blame on one person is seldom the answer. Everyone built the problem, and everyone needs to be onboard to fix it together.
Have difficult conversations about emotional topics before white-hot emotions (or failed marriages, addictions or verbal violence) take over.
We often get caught up in the daily whirlwind of tasks, and planning gets shoved aside until a crisis erupts.
Transition planning, strategic planning, compensation and work roles are not something we wake up excited to talk over and work on. We would rather feed the livestock, market the grain and drive tractors. I hear it often from clients, and I get it. But my heart aches when seeing good people in tough places with their businesses and families. Make the time and be intentional about your business planning. Get help if you get stuck.
All successful people get stuck, but it’s your choice to stay stuck.
The opinions of the author are not necessarily those of Farm Futures or Farm Progress.
About the Author(s)
Founder, Encore Wealth Advisors
Tim Schaefer guides large, successful farm operations, helping them get and keep a competitive edge. His tools are peer groups via the Encore Executive Farmer Network, transition planning, business growth planning, and executive coaching. His print column, Transitions & Strategies, appears regularly in Farm Futures and online at FarmFutures.com. He is a Certified Family Business Advisor, Certified Business Coach and Certified Financial Planner. Raised on a successful family farm, his first business venture was selling sweet corn door to door with an Oliver 70.
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