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In a recent conversation with a family business member about an upcoming meeting, he skeptically asked me, "What are we going to actually accomplish at the family meeting?" He was a man of action, and was frustrated that some family meetings had not resulted in specific or significant group decisions.
My hunch is that he's not alone in wondering what, at times, gets accomplished when family members are talking around the table. While indecision is not a good meeting outcome, neither does every meeting need to be about making a grand pronouncement. Consider these benefits beyond the actual resolutions that might or might not occur:
In most closely held agriculture businesses, family members are responsible for different areas of the operation. Someone may be in charge of planting and harvesting, someone else manages spraying and technology, another family member might run the livestock business, and someone else might be in the office working on accounting and risk management. In family businesses with a diversified portfolio, there may be off-farm siblings that bring other industry or functional expertise in finance or human resources to the table.
With such diversity in roles, family members are exposed to different topics, viewpoints, vendors and networks. Daily they have different experiences that shape how they see the business. Consider how a production-focused family member might be frustrated with weather delays, while a family member working in the office might hit a home run with a grain marketing strategy. Or the supervisor might have a great day with staff while another family member sits at the Farm Service Agency office for hours, getting nowhere. Their feelings about business success might be opposite, but a meeting to talk about progress (or lack thereof) helps keep both appraised of the current state of affairs. Being on the same page is incredibly important in preventing assumptions, which are a major contributor to conflict.
Speaking of conflict, disagreement is a part of every family business -- and it should be. Family members have different ideas and opinions, and when in management or ownership roles, they will occasionally clash. Most families achieve some level of consensus on their different ideas, with consensus being defined as "what you can support" versus "getting everything you want." But there are times when consensus is hard to achieve, and a decision gets made with which you are not in agreement.
Communication -- even when it is not what you want to hear -- can help you understand where someone else is coming from. Knowing where someone stands on a particular issue or decision is much better than either assuming or guessing what they are thinking. If you know how the other party sees the situation, you can consider the appropriate response.
For example, in one family, the retirement timeline and buyout of a senior member was longer and more costly than the younger generation wanted. But by knowing his plan and thoughts, the younger generation was able to better manage their expectations and interaction with the retiring member. Without the meetings -- even though they weren't always pleasant -- we might have had people leaving, or worse, suing one another. Their commitment to keep meeting got us through rough waters.