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Missing ingredient in transition planning? Communication

Getty/iStockphoto Communication concept with speech bubbles connected by lines
Owners, spouses, and employees alike all want communication to improve.

The transition plan had all but stopped, and unspoken issues were piling up. Both the employees and the next generation were frustrated. Everyone involved was frustrated, including the advisors and spouses.

To be fair, this is a top-notch farm with really great people. Many good things are happening on this farm, so it's not like there are many major problems. But they do have a bunch of little ones that no one was talking about.

Yet, there is one missing ingredient: Communication.

We have been surveying owners and employees on various topics for several years as part of our Executive Farmer Network peer group events and transition planning projects. Communication is always a top item that everyone believes needs addressing. It isn't just owners that believe this. Owners, spouses, and employees alike all want communication to improve.

Managing large-scale farms is hard. Finding and keeping employees is hard. Working with family is hard. Growing a family farm is hard. Passing on the family farm is hard. But all of this is much harder when communication isn't up to par.

When it comes to transition planning, communication is the foundation.

What makes communication so important for transition planning?

  1. Communication builds trust. Something happens when we set aside time for the right kind of communication. Trust goes up. When we listen to each other's concerns, frustrations and help solve problems together; it builds trust. Coming together to solve problems, even small problems, builds trust.
  2. Decreases conflict. When communication doesn't happen, it's easy to create assumptions about what the other person is doing, thinking, and their motives. Over time unspoken assumptions can become a cancer in your transition planning.
  3. Builds Alignment: Good communication builds alignment around ideas, priorities, and strategies. All of these discussion areas are so important for transition planning. Great transition planning at its core is mapping out the future of the farm and building support for those plans. In order to cement a legacy, it takes all parties thinking and working in alignment towards that shared goal.

We have found transition plans are most successful when there is good communication about the business of farming. When farms have a good track record of “Working On” the business, they stand a much better chance of dealing with the complicated discussions around transition planning. The opposite is also true. Farms that struggle communicating on running the farm on a weekly basis, will surely struggle to have crucial conversations about transition planning.

It makes sense to build weekly communication habits before tackling the hard stuff. Like transition planning.

Get communication back on track

A question we always ask when a client brings up a family dynamic or transition planning concern is:

  1. How often do you meet?
  2. What do you discuss?
  3. What are the results?

Let's break down the questions a bit more.

How often do you meet?  

Meetings that only occur during a rainy day or "when there is time" don't cut it. People's memory gets fuzzy on what was discussed, and minor irritants can grow if too much time passes between meetings. Meetings that have a consistent time and day of the week allow everyone to anticipate and plan. Farms that meet at the same time every week have better results than those that meet only a couple of times a year.  

Ideally, weekly meetings are held to cover what is happening that week and answer immediate questions; and quarterly meetings are held to focus on the overall direction of the farm.  But the main point is, it is important to have frequent, consistent meetings.

What do you discuss?

Are important matters discussed, or are there things that are too sensitive to discuss? At the heart of this inquiry is this question, "Can the team face and discuss topics that are important, even if they are sensitive?" Often good transition planning discussions have little to do with the actual farming and much to do with business, family interactions, and long-term planning. It's a good sign if there are no taboo topics.

What do you solve? 

Are there action items that come from the meeting? Are the challenges getting solved or just talked about with no resolution? It's important to have actual progress being made. Solving problems, even small ones, is what really separates great meetings from poor ones. We have all been in meetings that discuss the same topic for the tenth time, and it's not fun.

We are proponents of creating an Issues List. This lists all of the concerns or challenges that need solving. Measurable results are when every week 1-3 issues are solved for good. If the issues list has the same items on it week after week, it’s a sign communication or team dynamics are off. The opposite is also true. Accomplishing things and solving problem is invigorating.

Transition planning is best when trust is high, difficult conversations happen, and alignment is built. The key ingredient in all of this is communication. It seems so easy, and yet experience shows good communication is hard, and it takes a plan. Just like growing a crop, it just doesn't happen by itself.

Schaefer is an executive management coach and succession planner for farms and agribusinesses. 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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