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July 1, 2010 06:06 AM

coversation-startersIt is a beautiful morning in late summer. A farmer wakes up and walks out into his field to check if his crop is ready to harvest. To his astonishment, there is no crop. Even worse, he discovers weeds have taken over the field. The farmer scratches his head and then remembers he forgot to prepare the ground in the spring and never got around to planting.

While this is a silly story, it serves well as an illustration of what often happens with farm succession plans. Just as a farmer wouldn’t think of trying to plant seeds into ground that hasn’t been prepared, so must a family prepare the way for succession to take place.

REGULAR FAMILY MEETINGS. Successful family farms "prepare the ground" for succession by establishing healthy patterns of communication while seeking to eliminate the gaps in understanding.

Holding regular family meetings where stories are shared and goals are established will help prepare for succession. It is important to create a safe environment where family members can express their concerns and questions without fear of reprimand. Many families use a third-party mediator until they have established effective communication patterns.

One factor of a fruitful family meeting is to be intentional and thoughtful about how this communication takes place. Families might choose to talk about finances, business challenges or estate plans at different times; the goal is to be deliberate and prepared for these conversations.

Just as too much water at one time will have lasting effects on harvest, so too with communication. Many times, family members are thirsty to learn about the senior generation’s vision, only to be drowned in a flood of information. Issues involving communication and expectations are best confronted quickly and frequently. Consistently working on your family’s business continuity plans will help you prepare for the ultimate harvest.

Dave Specht is a family business lecturer at the University of Nebraska. 

Keys to Good Communication

For a farm to accommodate more family members, management must adopt a formal communication structure. Construct a consistent communication strategy using the five keys to good communication:

  1. Schedule meetings on a regular basis, at a time that is convenient for most participants.
  2. Use a location that is not "home" for anyone.
  3. Distribute an agenda in advance, encouraging each participant to offer modifications and/or additional concerns.
  4. Robert’s Rules of Order may be a little stiff, but it will help with mutual respect.
  5. Always conclude with some form of action and agreement for follow-up.

—Kevin Spafford 

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