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How to start the farm transition conversation

Jupiterimages/ThinkstockPhotos Two Men Talking
Delaying the initial conversation is one reason why many farms don’t make a successful transition to new leadership.

Starting a transition plan isn’t easy. It’s not only hard to know where to begin, but how do you even begin the conversation?

The stakes are high, and many farms don’t make a successful farm transition for many reasons. Delaying the initial transition conversation is one of them.

The younger generation doesn’t want to start the conversation because they may appear greedy or ungrateful. The older generation sometimes believes the younger generation needs to “step up” and start the conversation. Unspoken stalemates are often the result.

To break the stalemate, someone has to broach the subject. But how? How do you start the conversation and not create problems?

A four-step plan

Don’t wing it!  All too often, this first conversation is ad hoc and off the cuff. I call it a tailgate conversation when the two parties happen to pass each other. What happens is that someone wings it and hopes for the best. Winging a crucial conversation is risky. The words aren’t right, and the whole discussion usually catches the other person entirely off guard.

Instead, think this conversation through and follow a four-step plan.

1. Ask for a small yes – Get a small yes to even have the initial conversation. No one likes surprises, and asking to have the conversation alerts them that you want to talk about transition planning.

Probably the biggest reason for asking to have the conversation is that no one can force a good discussion. If someone doesn’t want to have one, you can’t force them. It’s that simple and forcing the issue will probably not go well.

Here is an example of how to work towards a small yes.

“The other day I was thinking of the future of the farm and transition planning. I have a couple of thoughts on how to get started, but I want to hear your thoughts. Would you like to visit sometime next week?” 

One of two things will happen. Either they will say yes or they will not commit. They will hedge and not commit with either a no or an excuse. The upshot is that they are not ready for this conversation. You’ve heard the adage, you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink?  If this happens, give it some more time and ask again.  

2. Cut out Fog Words – When you do have the conversation, cut out fog words. Fog words are nonspecific words or words that can mean different things to different people. When we get uncomfortable, we often hedge our words to hide our real thoughts and speak in generalities. Foggy words.

When you have this first conversation, be clear. For example, you may be talking about transition planning but meaning estate planning for asset transfers (keeping the land in one piece for future farmers). Meanwhile, your Dad is thinking you are talking about getting him to retire so he will not come to the farm any longer.

Show the impact that you see a successful transition plan will have on the farm, family dynamics, and legacy. Their views may differ, but the important thing is that you have the first clear conversation.  

3. Don’t Solve it All: In the first conversation, you may want to jump in and start solving challenges. Instead, success is having the first conversation. Keep it light.

4. End with a Question – After you have explained some initial thoughts of your own, ask a question. An open-ended question that lets them give their views.

An example might be, “This is what I am thinking, but I’m interested in hearing what you are thinking.”  Then listen to what they have to say. Sometimes allowing the other person to talk is all it takes. Don’t try to solve anything in this first meeting except hear each other out and come up with a time for another meeting.

When broaching the conversation around transition planning, the stakes are high and it is easy to procrastinate. But please don’t. Waiting seldom fixes anything and often makes things worse. It takes time to work through a transition plan, and those first conversations set the stage for everything. Choose your words wisely, don’t’ wing it, and you’ll be well on your way to starting a successful transition plan.

Tim Schaefer is an executive management coach and succession planner for farms and agribusinesses. Read his blog, Transitions and Strategies, at FarmFutures.com. If you have a management or succession planning question, contact [email protected] 
 
The opinions of the author are not necessarily those of Farm Futures or Farm Progress. 
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