Do you worry that conflict might arise if you and your children discuss the future of your family business together?
Worse still, do you worry that conflict within the business could harm both family relationships and the operation of the company?
You are not alone; many senior-generation leaders like you have sleepless nights about this issue.
The media and entertainment industries tend to accentuate the bad news about family businesses. Their stories about feuding heirs suggest that every family business is headed for disaster, so it’s reasonable to think that your own will suffer the same fate.
Unfortunately, the good news about family businesses is seldom told. When they work well, these companies are often amongst the most efficient and competitive around. And family-based agribusinesses are no different.
Strong family businesses leverage unique the trust, love and loyalty that don’t exist outside the family. Families in business together have their differences, of course, but in general they learn to manage these differences.
What if you think your own family members may not be able to sort out their differences?
What if you fear that family dialogue will uncover conflict between your children and their spouses, or even between you and your spouse?
After all, your differences in the past may have generated arguments and unpleasantness, and tension may smoulder beneath the surface, ready to flare up when the discussion commences. Naturally, you’ll be concerned that family meetings might provoke yelling, tears, or someone storming out of the room, any of which could alienate you from one another.
Again, you are not alone. Most agribusiness families who haven’t yet sat down and talked share the same anxieties.
Sharing your dreams
In former generations, agribusiness families avoided conflict by submitting to a strong leader who was obeyed without question or quarrel. Few families today would put up with such dictatorship.
A more modern, and far healthier, approach would be to first ask yourself questions such as: do my dreams for the business match those of my children? And should we not strive to have a family conversation as a way of creating a shared dream?
Other questions to ask might be: if we keep our family business, will my generation be financially secure? Who will own shares? Who will be the next CEO? If I sell the business, how will family relationships change? And how will family members find fulfilling careers elsewhere?
Some in your position might say: “I’ll keep my plans secret. If they fight about what I’ve done, at least I’ll be dead and gone.” That sounds harsh, and it is. If your planning process doesn’t include your children as active participants, you must guess at what they want and need, and you may guess wrong.
Learning to plan as a team
Most agribusiness families can learn to plan productively together. These conversations can be strange and even scary at first, but they pay huge dividends. Family dialogue accesses knowledge about your family that you can’t discover on your own, no matter how well you think you know your kids.
Unless you talk with your children, there is a high risk that your undisclosed plans will take them for granted and by surprise.
Don’t delay this process! Start having family dialogues while you are still healthy and influential. Here are some suggestions to get you started:
- Select a neutral meeting site. Your home, office or manufacturing plant is not neutral. Your family holiday home, if you have one, might be appropriate, provided that everyone associates the place with pleasant experiences. If not, choose a resort with a conference centre.
- Reserve a private room with comfortable chairs, good lighting and cheerful decor, with a flip chart and audiovisuals, if you need them.
- At some point, consider including your children’s spouses in these discussions, unless there are strong reasons for not inviting them. However, don’t decide without consulting your children; they, too, may be worried about family conflict. They might want to meet without spouses for the first few sessions.
- Involve your children from the outset in planning family meetings, site selection, dates, meals, menus, and so on. Honour their schedules and preferences. Encourage them to share ownership of the meeting.
- Prepare a meeting agenda well in advance. Invite each participant to suggest agenda items. Everyone should receive the written agenda several days before the meeting. Ask the younger generation to coordinate and prepare the agenda.
- Pay attention to the sequence of agenda items. It’s wise to handle non-controversial items first (this helps build an attitude of productive discussion) and place potentially
divisive items towards the end. Share good news about the company, and help less experienced family members understand the financial and technical matters.
- Strive to create a safe forum for discussion. Encourage questions and comments, and concentrate on listening to and understanding what others say. Let them finish without interrupting.
- Reframe others’ input in your own words, as in “I hear you say … is that what you meant?” When they agree that your words convey their meaning, write them on the flip chart without stopping to evaluate or refute what was said. Then go on to the next speaker.
- Set limits. Family members have different attention spans and levels of interest, so have an hourly break. Also avoid marathon sessions; don’t meet for more than six hours a day. Keep cell phones off at all times.
- Schedule some fun and free time. An overnight stay encourages socialising, contemplation and pillow talk.
- Save the last two hours for a wrap-up. If you make decisions that require action, assign who does what and by when. If you need another meeting, nail down the time and place before you adjourn.
- Spend the last half-hour evaluating the meeting itself. Go around the table asking each person to comment on how he or she thought the meeting went, and how it could be improved next time.
Facilitators or hinderers?
Do you think your family could accomplish all of this on their own, or would it be better to obtain the help of an outside facilitator? Once again, you should involve the children in this decision and in choosing whom to hire. If you select a facilitator without consulting them, they may view the facilitator as your hired gun.
Be careful about choosing a facilitator. Your current outside advisers (lawyer, accountant, financial planner) probably don’t have the skills. They might try facilitating out of loyalty to you, but are unlikely to have the experience or objectivity to be effective.
Be wary of an adviser who seems eager to try. A well-intended amateur might not notice (or simply ignore) all the signs of family tension and conflict.
The best facilitators understand both the ‘hard side’ and the ‘soft side’ of business families; they know business in addition to understanding family dynamics. A highly qualified family business consultant is likely to be your best choice.
The role of the next generation in your family agribusiness will be best determined by harnessing your collective business judgement through productive family dialogue.
Strong agribusiness families don’t let conflict, or the prospect of conflict, deter them from exercising their best collective business judgement. If conflict arises, they learn to manage it, and so can you.
Trevor Dickinson is CEO of Family Legacies, a family business consulting company. Visit family-legacies.com.