Dr. Val Farmer
Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

Family Business Meeting Key To Success In Family Farming

June 21, 2010

Formal business meetings are a standard feature of corporate America that many family farms would do well to copy. Regularly scheduled meetings promote financial planning and thoughtful decision making. Conversations by the barn, in the shop or over the dinner table are no substitute, especially when several families farm together. A business gains a lot when people pool their thoughts and look at where their farm is headed.

Schedule the meeting. One of the hardest things about holding a meeting is finding a time when everyone in the family can attend. Without a scheduled family business meeting it is too easy for the family to avoid the disharmony that may arise from discussing differences in opinion about business issues.

The first rule for a successful meeting is that everyone be there. This is serious stuff. Meetings should be held on a set day at a set time. For example, the meeting might take place the first Tuesday of every month from 7 p.m. to 9:00 p.m. If anyone can’t make it then, an alternate date should be set in advance and everyone should plan to attend.

Establish an agenda. Monthly meetings can effectively address a broad scope of questions. These include management decisions regarding crop and chemical schedules, equipment needs, finance issues and marketing strategies.

It’s also appropriate to consider other matters, such as: Where does the farm stand at this point? What are its strengths and weaknesses? Are resources and talents being used in the most effective way? Have any problems cropped up that need to be addressed? Delicate issues such as time off, compensation, fairness in work levels and difficulties in communication can be ironed out.

Phone calls can be made to the person preparing the agenda. Sometimes a clipboard is posted at a certain spot or space reserved on a blackboard so everyone coming to the meeting a chance to write down issues they want discussed.

An agenda should be made up a day before the meeting, after which no new topics are accepted. This gives everyone a fair chance to prepare for the meeting. All but extreme emergencies can be handled this way. Establishing an agenda in advance of a meeting makes sure that important matters get attention.

The role of the moderator. Family business meetings can easily get bogged down without a skilled moderator. Discussions can veer off the subject of agenda items and personalities clash. The role of a moderator is to promote calm discussion of agenda items, to clarify issues, and to help participants reach reasonable conclusions.

A good moderator encourages others to speak up at the meeting and reserves his or her own comments until everyone else has spoken. A moderator acknowledges at least two sides to every issue and helps individuals define problems in terms of issues, not personalities.

If the moderator has a vested interest in a topic, a new moderator can temporarily lead the discussion so that fairness can be preserved. The most powerful or most opinionated person in the family shouldn’t be put in the role of moderator.

Once the meeting begins, there need to be rules about interruptions so that everyone’s time is respected. Phone calls can be returned later. If someone becomes emotional or angry, for instance, the meeting can be recessed for to allow that person time to calm down.

Keep a record. Someone at every meeting should be assigned to take notes. Those notes are the official summary of a meeting. This forestalls any questions about agreements the family reaches or assignments it makes.

One reason families get into trouble is that everyone starts remembering things a different way. Summarizing results of the meeting on paper helps everyone keep track of what was said. Notes also symbolize the business nature of the meeting. In a family business meeting, issues are discussed, conclusions reached and recorded because they are important.

Not every decision can be postponed until a family meeting. Some members of the farm have been delegated specific responsibilities and make decisions in that area routinely. They report at the family meeting about their area of responsibility. The family responds with suggestions or approval.

The best idea wins. An attitude of give and take helps make meetings successful. Say one person reports on animal health problems, and someone responds with a suggestion for handling the veterinarian bills or changing feed rations. Outside of the meetings, those suggestions might seem like meddling, or criticism. In the meeting they should be treated as part of a free wheeling discussion. People will stop making suggestions if they’re always taken as wrong or meddling.

Many times, family members talk about items on the agenda before the meeting, and they arrive with well considered opinions. Decisions to buy land or equipment evolve over time, not in a single meeting. The meeting serves to bring everyone closer to a consensus.

We don’t do anything without a unanimous vote," says one South Dakota rancher whose family meets regularly.

When the family meets in regular business sessions, the thoughts and ideas of all family members contribute to the success of the farm. Teamwork and morale improve. Everyone learns to take a management perspective. Conflict is handled constructively. The farm business and relationships benefit from the open communication and business format.