Recognising and accepting the responsibility of stewardship

The owners of the most successful family agribusinesses understand that their enterprise is not a possession. Instead, it’s a legacy they are obliged to take care of for future generations, says Trevor Dickinson.

Recognising and accepting the responsibility of stewardship
Stewardship is the most important value in families who are successful in passing agribusinesses from one generation to the next.
Photo: FW Archive
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Family agribusinesses who successfully negotiate conflict over family wealth are able to do so because they have adopted a special perspective about what they own. These thriving, multi-generational family agribusinesses live by the principle that their enterprise is not a personal possession but rather a trust given to them for safekeeping and for which they have great respect.

Put another way, these owners don’t view themselves as proprietors of their businesses, but as stewards.

Of course, members of these families occasionally have their differences. But even though they may argue at times, their sense of stewardship brings them back to unity of focus and effort. It tempers proprietary interest, which typically revolves around viewpoints such as

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“What’s in it for me?” or “It’s mine, and I can do with it what I want”.

Stewardship-orientated families appreciate the business as a gift: a family heirloom and legacy that they accept and treasure with respect and gratitude. They share a sense of attachment to, and personal investment in, the purpose and values of business.

Their allegiance and loyalty are to the business itself more than to the individual managers. In other words, these families know why their agribusiness is worth all their trouble, and their answers are bigger than their individual proprietary interests.

When Bertrand Puech, owner of the family-owned Hermès luxury goods company, accepted the prestigious Family Business Award from the International Institute of Management Development, he told the audience: “We in the fifth generation do not view ourselves as owners of the company; we are merely taking care of it for our children.”

This compelling statement exemplifies the sense of sacred trust shared by business families who have developed a stewardship paradigm.

Paradigms encompass our prejudices, values, beliefs and perspectives learned from our experiences over the years. They filter our view of the world and inevitably shape our behaviour. Although no two families in business have exactly the same ownership paradigm, their actions and attitudes reflect some combination of the stewardship and proprietorship orientations.

The proprietorship paradigm 
Family members who approach ownership primarily from a proprietorship orientation view their business as a possession they are entitled to exploit and consume. The proprietorship orientation can easily fuel conflict as family members vie with each other to use the agribusiness for their own purposes.

In some business families, greed and a self-serving attitude masquerade as claims of rightful reward and return on investment.

Conflict occurs when interests clash, and self-defence inevitably emerges when parties are polarised and win-lose patterns are established.

Business owners with a proprietorship orientation hold beliefs such as the following:
Business ownership is my right, and I am entitled to the benefits.

My family agribusiness exists for my best interests, and I expect it to adjust to my needs.
Every day brings a new threat by those wanting to destroy what I’ve built and worked hard for. I will at all costs protect my rights. I intend to take as much as I can out of this agribusiness.

The stewardship paradigm
Families who emphasise stewardship view their business very differently: as a trust to be preserved and nurtured. Promoting the welfare of the agribusiness as a whole, above the special interests of the individuals, is considered to be a primary obligation of ownership.

These families relate to each other and their agribusinesses in a spirit of gratitude for their perceived abundance as opposed to a sense of entitlement. There is a sincere and workable balance between self-interest and the common good. Behaviours and interactions are characterised by trust, confidence and optimism, respect and affirmation, sharing and openness, and a sense of well-being.

The stewardship orientation nurtures attitudes and actions that help these families bridge differences and re-negotiate expectations. While they may differ about what to do or when and how to do it, their sense of stewardship always brings them back to the centre and enables them to recognise the purpose behind their decisions and actions.

Families who deal successfully with conflict tend to hold the following perspectives and values:

1. They treat the agribusiness as an opportunity that has been entrusted to them and consider it their mission to ensure its well-being.
2. They take to heart their commitment to long-term success, going beyond mere lip service, offering quality products and services rather than cutting corners to make a fast buck, and attending to the real wants and needs of their customers as opposed to selling them short.
3. They feel a genuine sense of love, loyalty and caring toward the family as a whole and toward each other individually.
4. They live their lives with a spirit of gratitude and abundance rather than entitlement and scarcity.
5. They recognise that they are not islands unto themselves; when appropriate, they ask for outside help.
6. They see the importance of being a ‘relationship-first’ family agribusiness. They spend time, money and energy on opening up communication, developing a process for sharing information, building consensus, analysing and solving problems, and creating
policies and procedures that keep family and non-family employees working together. In short, they understand that relationships are the language of family business.

The principle of stewardship
Stewardship springs from the ancient idea that the wise management and passing on of property and privilege is an honourable role that brings meaning and pride to the steward.

To be a good steward is to take personal responsibility for leaving resources better than they were when they came into your care.

An entrepreneur or owner who values stewardship believes it is his or her duty and privilege to pass the agribusiness on to others, for them to build and serve in similar fashion, creating a process of multi-generational improvement and progress.

This central principle of stewardship explains more about the success of family agribusiness than any other single value. Many agribusiness leaders who see themselves as proprietors see little reason in continuing to grow the firm, take risks or look for opportunities once they have taken all they need or want from the business. In contrast, agribusiness leaders who value stewardship tend to remain committed to the ongoing growth of the business.

They continue taking risks, looking for opportunities and working extra hard, and they find meaning in doing so.

Agribusiness owners who embrace stewardship are motivated to submit to the difficult process of succession. Stewardship encourages them to prepare a successor or successors.

It helps them over the hurdle of giving up power in the agribusiness and taking that difficult step of relinquishing control. And it helps them teach younger family members to lead the way.

An attitude of stewardship empowers business owners as parents, too. Families that believe in proprietorship risk creating a sense of entitlement in their children, because the perspective that the children see at work is a self-centred one.

Families who believe in stewardship, on the other hand, have an opportunity to pass on a more generous, future-directed perspective. This equips the children of successful, wealthy agribusiness families to cope better with inherited wealth and privilege.

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