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Can this partnership be saved?

Getty/iStockphoto two farmers in a field talking
Sometimes farm business partners need to decide if the behavior of another partner can be overlooked.

Much of my work is equipping farm family partners to work better together. That often includes learning new communication skills, reconsidering long-held assumptions, adapting to others’ styles, and making commitments to each other. I’ve seen many people make huge progress in addressing discord in their family and their partnership. I contend it’s always worth trying even if it is an investment of time, emotional energy, and money.

Yet, I’m also a realist. I know that sometimes, in some situations, after a good faith effort has been made, some people are not going to change. Whether it’s due to life stage or unwillingness or deeply embedded behaviors or the influence of others, there are times you should acknowledge this reality.

We have a saying that “Certainty can be as valuable as agreement.” While agreeing to certain actions or behaviors is ideal and usually the first goal, sometimes there is no agreement — or there is no follow through on an agreement.

If you’re the person who desires change, when you reach that certainty point — that it’s just not going to happen — the ball is in your court. You decide what action to take on your own behalf.

A hypothetical example

Let’s say a Next Gen daughter and son-in-law joined their family’s farm ten years ago in partnership with her parents. Dad loves equipment and has repeatedly bought “good deals” without asking his partners. At times it has been annoying but not consequential. Other times it has put a financial strain on the farm or prevented investment in a different area of the business.

Over years this issue has grown to become a wedge between partner relationships. Next Gen is wondering if they want to set their own destiny and are considering separating their business. The family uses a facilitator to help Dad appreciate how significant this is. They create a process to set equipment spending goals each year and a process to jointly discuss variations from it when a good deal comes along.

Some family friends Dad trusts help him see the value. He understands and agrees. Things go well for a few months and then it happens again. They calmly talk about why and recommit to their goal. They adjust the process to allocate some “good deal” money that Dad is free to spend on his own. All want to honor his years of work and that searching for deals is fun, that he should enjoy.

A year later, a large purchase is made that is controversial. Next Gen is at a breaking point. They see this as Dad not valuing their opinion. The family has some tough conversations but ultimately recommits to each other and a new process for making financial decisions above $X as a group. Things go well for over a year. And then, it happens again. In the discussion this time, Dad concludes, “I’m not going to be told how to spend my money! I’m just not.”

What happens next

After several good faith attempts to address the conflict, Next Gen now has certainty that Dad’s behavior is unlikely to change. Regardless of whether Dad is right or wrong (and the readers may think either), it is clear that he is not going to adhere to their requested process. Next Gen must decide what their action is going to be. Is this issue significant enough that they should separate financially? Or can they look past the disagreement to continue the partnership? Either choice could be the right answer for Next Gen. But the key is that they make a choice and move on, rather than let it continue to erode relationships and business cooperation.

Certainty has arrived. There is no agreement. They are certain Dad is unlikely to change.

Whatever the situation you’re trying to change, assess the probability of success based on what efforts have been made previously. Then act accordingly. I realize, easier said than done!

Davon Cook is a family business consultant at K Coe Isom. Reach Davon at [email protected].

The opinions of the author are not necessarily those of Farm Futures or Farm Progress. 

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