Determining the future of any business involves planning, especially if it’s a farm business. There are no shortcuts. And it can’t be done without facing the prospect of potentially uncomfortable meetings. Conversations about the strategic direction of the farm are critical.
For family businesses, this can be tricky. No one wants to have actual discussions about the farm’s future or to talk about the fact that, maybe one day soon, the matriarch or patriarch will no longer be willing or able to run the business.
It’s becoming clearer and clearer, though, that avoiding these conversations almost always results in conflict.
Country Guide spoke with three certified family enterprise advisors to help us better understand how to host the most effective family meetings.
“The most successful families are ones who have trust and respect for one another,” says Holly Simmons at Ontario’s Golden Lasso. “When families value the uniqueness of each person and their point of view, family members are more open to the process and have the courage to discuss the difficult topics.”
Simmons has been working with family businesses for a decade and helps to strengthen communication throughout the business and family systems. “The most successful families approach meetings with a growth and learning mindset,” she says. “A healthy sense of humor also helps.”
Of course, many farm families have successfully run their operations for decades without anything that looks at all like a formal family meeting. That includes many of the farms that Farm Life founder Darrell Wade works with. “There’s a fear of having tough conversations, or sometimes they have tried and they have not had a good outcome,” Wade says. “It can take a while for families to build an environment where everyone feels safe sharing exactly how they feel.”
So how can you create a space where everyone is encouraged to have their say? Look beyond the farm, Wade advises. “Having a facilitator is important, an outside party who can encourage all voices, ensure everyone has a chance to speak and can best understand the unique personality differences.”
Other early decisions can help too. “Sometimes using smaller breakout rooms can be less intimate,” says Brent VanParys with BDO Business Transition Services. With some farm families he has worked with, VanParys uses props or “talking sticks” to ensure only one person speaks at a time. The person holding the stick gets to finish their thoughts without interruption. “It is about having a safe environment that is non-judgmental and prohibits personal attacks,” VanParys says.
Best practices for family meetings
Some common practices do help families set the stage for successful outcomes from family meetings. The first is establishing processes and guidelines.
“The act of discussing meeting process and documenting it is a wonderful way for a family to practice setting governance structures,” says Simmons. “Just by having this seemingly simple conversation, questions arise such as, who will document the process, where will it be kept, how will we know it is working, and how often do we need to review it. Answering these questions starts to build the collaborative and ownership muscle of the family.”
Another effective tool is soliciting input for an agenda and circulating it before a family meeting is held. “The agenda item should clearly state the purpose or what the initiator is hoping to accomplish,” says VanParys. “There should be no surprises,” Wade agrees. He also says having guidelines around communication during the meeting is useful.
“Families should have a communication charter established in advance so they know when and how they can speak during the meeting,” Wade says. “It can be as simple as no interrupting one another, going around the table to ensure everyone has a chance to speak, and no raised voices allowed.”
By having the family agree in advance as to how they will communicate, boundaries are established and are more easily respected.
How to set recurring themes and meetings
There are usually similar elements for families to discuss at each meeting but one danger many farm families fall into is discussing the same things over and over, which can lead family members to view the meetings as predictable or irrelevant to them.
“There should be a process for feedback following the meetings to gauge success and generate ideas for improvement,” VanParys says. In families he has worked with, this has allowed the members to continually bring new ideas forward and keep the meetings fresh and applicable to most around the table.
“Themes can provide a good framework to structure a meeting, help inform the agenda, and support collective learning,” says Simmons. They work best when they are developed collaboratively by the family. “A specific theme may carry over for several meetings until it has been sufficiently worked on. It can also be revisited in the future when it makes sense to the group.”
Having a planned meeting schedule is also a key to having successful family farm communication. “Routine is important and so is accountability for a deadline,” says Wade. How frequently family meetings should be held depends on the family dynamics, he explains. A good practice is setting meetings around recurring themes, ie monthly for updates, quarterly for financial reviews, and annual general meetings (AGMS) to set the direction for the season.
At a minimum, each family business should be hosting an annual family meeting to measure success and look ahead to the coming years. “Along with reviewing financials and measuring the success of the year just ended, it’s important to look forward and make strategic decisions,” Wade says. “This is the forum to make change and have those conversations.”
The value of annual planning
“When done well, annual meetings allow family members to share their perspectives, get to know each other at a deeper level, collaborate and get stuff done,” says Simmons. “Over time, meetings will build the capacity of the family to work through challenging topics, create transparency, develop family governance, and ultimately strengthen the glue that keeps the family together.”
The primary purpose of having a meeting annually is to intentionally prepare the family for the future in a structured way.
VanParys says the structure for an AGM needs to include a multi-faceted agenda. “It looks at the business of the family, individual updates, personal development/education, and a good measure of fun.”
Impactful family meetings involve trust, respect, openness to the process and a commitment to shared values. “The most successful families are ones who also have the courage to navigate the unknown and tackle difficult topics,” says Simmons. “They are self-aware, have balanced communication skills — both listening and speaking skills. But they also place a high value on the uniqueness of each individual and their point of view.”
Approaching AGMs or family meetings with these in mind helps to establish the outcomes of many families are looking for. “An ideal outcome is to have clear next steps, lots of notes and outcomes with purpose,” says Wade. “It’s ensuring the vision is aligned and allows for driving both the farm and the family towards that vision.”
VanParys adds that the meeting has likely been a success if everyone feels their voice has been heard. “It’s important to build authentic family harmony on significant matters,” he says.
There’s another crucial yardstick too. “We want people to leave engaged and knowing their contribution added value to the process,” Simmons says. “The most ideal outcome of a family meeting is everyone wants another one.”