Do you have the perfect family? Do all family members invest the same effort into the business each day and never squabble or get jealous of one another? Does everyone have the same vision for the business and want the same things from it? If so, please contact me, because I want to meet you.
My daughter is 13 and probably gets tired of me warning her that “people are messy.” Families are no exception, possibly the worst. We will say things to family members that we wouldn’t say to a stranger — just think of the last time you worked cattle together.
So, if all families have issues, how can we protect our family legacy?
The key to a successful marriage is communication. It’s no different for a family business. However, because most of us hate to deal with conflict, we often avoid the difficult discussions, which only makes things worse. The key is open and honest communication.
Create meeting times
I recommend families consider three separate types of meetings: farm operating meetings, family business meetings, and family council meetings.
Farm operating meeting. These meetings occur regularly, usually in the shop or at the breakfast table to cover the goals for the day or the week. While important, operating meetings are very different than family “business” meetings, which are to cover strategic issues of where we want our business to go.
Family business meeting. This meeting includes everyone involved in the day-to-day operation of the farm, such as key employees and on-farm family members. But it may also include others such as a nutritionist, veterinarian, lender or others helping with decisions on the farm. These meetings are for the 30,000-foot-level discussions that are necessary to keep our business growing and ensure our future.
Most families only conduct these meetings when huge decisions are needed, like whether to purchase the farm next door or when a family member is about to exit the business. But they should become a regular habit, so we create a culture of communication and group decision making. The more natural they become, the better chance of our business and family being successful.
Family business meetings should not be conducted at the kitchen table.
When the board of directors of Casey’s Convenience Stores is trying to decide where to locate a new store, they don’t set up chairs in the aisle between the soda machine and candy bars. You should find an appropriate place to have your business meeting.
Reserve the meeting room at the local cooperative, library or bank. Going off-site helps us stay focused and block out the day-to-day distractions. Plus, it keeps us from lapsing back into family hierarchy roles.
Family council meeting. The purpose of family council meetings is entirely different. They provide an opportunity for all family members to learn what is going on in the family business and how it will ultimately affect the family. These meetings involve everyone, including off-farm heirs, spouses, in-laws, grandparents and grandkids.
Schedule one of these at least once a year. Family council meetings are the least-used tool because many families fear the conflict that may arise, but these meetings are the most important mechanism for open communication within the family.
Communicating is not like taking orders at the drive-thru window of McDonald’s. Everyone is not going to get what they wanted. But working through those issues and moving on is the best chance of everyone staying a family.
Set meeting ground rules
Any type of family meeting should always include ground rules, such as these:
Write an agenda. The agenda for each meeting should be created ahead of time, letting everyone know what will be discussed and what decisions need to be made. There should be no surprises.
Time for talk. Everyone should get a chance to speak. No one should be allowed to dominate the discussion. If necessary, use a timer to limit each person’s turn. When someone brings up something that is not on the agenda, stick it in the parking lot, which is just a flip chart piece of paper for items that can be considered at the next meeting. But that will help keep the group on track.
Learn to listen. You’ve probably all heard “we have two ears and one mouth.” Too often when others are speaking, most of us aren’t really listening, but rather formulating a rebuttal.
Active and reflective listening is a learned skill that requires you to give your full attention to others. “What I heard you say was X, can you tell me more about that?” It shows you want to understand where the other person is coming from.
Separate family from business
Running a family business is hard. Families are messy, and we all need to communicate and work through difficult situations. The more we can separate family roles from business roles, the better.
While you may not think you need family meetings, families that use them have a much greater chance of successfully maintaining the business beyond the first generation.