How do we perpetuate legacies and generations in family operations, especially in times when they are so focused on the day to day grind of the farm/ranch. With these families, there doesn't seem to be time allocated to look ahead and prepare for the future and in some cases, limited concern for how transition will take place. There are chores to do, shelter belts to fix, crops to plant. Then there are cases where family members don't see eye to eye and may not want to talk about the future of the ranch.
Because of these challenges, Dave Specht, family transition expert and founder of Advising Generations, has heard just about every excuse from families as to why they don't want to discuss or prepare for the next generation. Specht, a former professor of family business management with UNL, says he knows getting a family to open up and have a discussion that doesn't end in arguments or hard feelings is very difficult to accomplish. That's why, Specht of Connell, Wash., developed, "Ten Inspired Questions for Perpetuating Generational Ranches."
"An inspired question is one that causes self-reflection and facilitates conversation and sharing in an open and sometimes vulnerable way," he says. With these inspired questions, Specht's focus is breaking the ice with ranchers and ranch families to will allow them to open up, have self-reflection and create a comfortable environment for a discussion across generations. "If we are going to stop the family conflicts and breakdowns with family transitions, we need to address these 10 inspired questions to help with legacy operation transitions," he says. His 10 inspired questions to spark discussion are:
1. What does it mean to be a (insert your last name)? Farms/ranches can be legacies in communities, being in families for three and four generations. Starting the discussion with this question, gives a good basis for families to see where there is common ground and where there are differences.
2. What is the biggest unknown regarding the future of your ranch? Different generations will answer this differently so this is a way to start discussion and learn about common views and differences.
3. What is or would be the hardest thing about being a parent and an owner of the ranch? The younger generation has the opportunity to learn about the concerns and challenges the senior generation worries about. It may be debt, who will take over the ranch, or how will they let go when it is time to turn things over.
4. What do you perceive as the biggest challenge regarding shared ownership in a family ranch? If the senior generation suddenly passes on and leaves the ranch for example to all three children--the son who is home on the farm and the two daughters who left after college and live in the city-- how does the next generation sort this out? The parents were trying to be fair to all their children but the children may have different expectations, goals and interpretations of sharing.
5. What is your comfort level with having to personally guarantee the debt of the family ranch? Owning a ranch, especially a legacy ranch, is a huge responsibility. Is the next generation comfortable with the debt level? Everyone needs to know the debt level and the profitability of the operation. Some family members may express they want to come back to the ranch, but don't want to own it, how does this fit with the others family members.
6. At what age do the decisions in your personal life influence how people look at the ranch? You now find yourself the son taking over the ranch, but you were known in the community as the troublemaker in high school or for making some poor decisions in your early adult years. How does this influence how your family ranch is viewed in the community?
7. If you owned the ranch, what do you think would keep you awake at night? Ownership is a lot of responsibility. An open discussion of what will keep you up at night whether it is debt, lack of access to more land to expand and family issues--all these all need to be voiced.
8. What innovations will the family ranch have to make it stay competitive? As the next generation takes over new technologies may need to be infused into the operation. Is there money for this? Does the senior generation support these changes?
9. What responsibilities come with owning a ranch? A great question for each generation to discuss and answer. The younger generation may not be aware of some of the responsibilities of owning a farm/ranch.
10. Complete this sentence: The best thing about being a part of a family ranch is? Most often families enjoy the flexibility, setting their own hours and working with family (which can be best and worst), but overall it's leaving a legacy. Answering this question is like discussing the mission and values of the ranch operation.
"Great conversations start with inspired questions. You just need to take the courage to ask these key questions and discuss them," says Specht. "There is no right answer, but not discussing the issues is a huge problem and will prevent your family from committing to do something about the future of the farm/ranch business.
Gordon writes from Sioux Falls, S.D.
How to find more 'questions'
Advising Generations LLC, has released an app for iPhone, iPad and iPod touch which provides100 Inspired Questions that can be used as dinner table conversation starters, family meeting facilitation questions, and a social media component that allows sharing on Facebook, Twitter, Messaging and E-mail. For more information go to www.inpired-questions.com