Family businesses: When parents and children clash

Parent and child can work together on the farm, love each other, state their needs, be heard and learn to negotiate their differences. It starts with respect and compromise, says Trevor Dickinson.

Family businesses: When parents and children clash
The road to successful succession planning is seldom as straight as the rows of trees in an orchard, but undue nastiness can be avoided.
Photo: FW Archive
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Long gone are the times when it could be taken for granted that only sons would follow in their fathers’ footsteps and take over the family farm.

These days, daughters often grow up to play leading roles on the farm. Other families choose to hire from outside the family to ensure that the operation is run by people with the appropriate training and skills.

However, where succession on the farm follows a more traditional pattern, it is not uncommon to see conflict emerge, especially as the next generation starts to have families of their own.

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When children return to the farm to join the family business, conflict can often arise between the older generation and the younger one – the latter will be eager to implement what they’ve learnt at college or university, and to modernise the way the farm is run by implementing new technologies that may not be familiar to the previous generation.

The parent, who more often than not is head of the business at the time, might be intimidated, insulted or just plain stubborn, causing him/her to resist new ideas. This might not be without reason; the farmer has decades of experience.

So how can the two generations learn to work together and benefit from the skills and expertise both parties can bring to the table? The answer lies in mutual respect and effective communication.

Strong allies, fierce enemies
When families work together as a single unit, there’s little to compare with the strength of their connection and the singularity of their focus. When they cannot come together as a unit, the battle can be fierce.

Yet it’s too simplistic to describe most relationships between parents and their children as either loving or combative. The business created by parents, or the multigenerational business they successfully steward, becomes part of their identity. It is therefore not uncommon for a farmer to feel a sense of loss when the time comes to hand over the reins.

This inner conflict may manifest in the form of small gestures in a parent’s simultaneous promotion and subtle sabotage of the child’s efforts. The project he/she hands over and then critically micromanages is explained away as mentoring, and the child in turn suffers a crisis of self-confidence.

Both parents and children take their family business personally. The son or daughter is not merely an employee. What happens with the business can have a direct effect on the sense of harmony felt within the family. The power of this connection must be acknowledged. The contradictory dynamic of unconditional love and competition must be addressed.

Resolution can best be achieved through communication and compromise.

The parents must mentor their children in the way they would have wanted to be guided and taught when they first started working on the farm. He/she must want to not only impart knowledge but also help develop essential qualities in his/her successor.

Above all, the farmer must believe that preparing his/her child for succession will establish their legacy, and not their demise.

Children, on the other hand, should open themselves up to being mentored, and value the knowledge and experience of their parents. They need to honour their parents while finding their own way.

Trevor Dickinson is CEO of Family Legacies, a family business consulting company.