Family footsteps? Treat the farm like a business

Family footsteps? Treat the farm like a business

“You can’t run a business on unconditional love,” says expert

Working with family members on the farm can be quite enjoyable – or not.

That’s because in many family businesses, when emotion and logic collide, emotion usually wins. And those emotions can run from resentment to frustration, and even joy. You might not see any of that in a typical non-family business.

One way to get beyond emotion is to see what you do as a ‘business-first’ family farm, says Jolene Brown, Iowa-based farmwife, mediator and business consultant.

In fact, most of the problems Brown tries to help solve come from ‘family-first’ businesses. They make decisions based on the family, not the business.

If you don't get the business part right, "you could end up with neither family nor business," says farm family consultant Jolene Brown.

“That can sometimes work out, but it’s just luck,” she says. “That approach is okay if you want your business to be a hobby, but don’t count on it for the future.”

Becoming a business-first family must be an intentional choice you make, says Brown. “It means we honor the family so much, we had better get the business part right because at the end of the day, you could end up with neither family nor business.”

What are some of the differences in the two approaches? Start with the key players. In family, acceptance is unconditional; not so much in a business. Your son is habitually late, you still love him. But if you hire him and he is habitually late to work, you should fire him – even as you unconditionally continue to love him. See how that works?

Working in the farm business as a family member is conditional, not a birthright. And don’t try to ‘fix’ the problem child. Hiring that person doesn’t ‘fix’ them – it more likely enables them to continue bad habits. “If he or she doesn’t have the work ethic you need, if he couldn’t keep a job somewhere else – he needs to go,” says Brown. “Family-first businesses tolerate things in business that no one else would ever tolerate. You can’t run a business on unconditional love.”

Another difference? A family-first business won’t always pick the right leader. And these days, leadership is everything. You must decide ‘what’ before ‘who:’ What education, experience, character, or personality traits should the farm business leader have?

“We don’t do this in a family-first business – usually it’s the first or oldest son, or the so-called ‘golden child,’ who is, for whatever reason, chosen as the future leader, without any qualifications,” says Brown.

Sometimes the best leader is not a direct family member. The best choice might be to bring in someone from the outside because it’s hard to evaluate sisters and cousins.

Brown says the daughter-in-law is often a good choice to lead the farm business. Why? First, she’s motivated, and does not want to make a mistake. And she’ll do the right thing when the parents won’t.

“One daughter-in-law fired the deadbeat son who kept showing up drunk for work,” Brown recalls. “The parents said: ‘we knew we should have done this years ago, but we wanted him to hate her and not us.”

If you’re still not clear the differences between family-first and business-first farms, think about the company you most admire. When it comes to selecting a business leader, hiring a son or daughter, or making a decision impacting the future of the business, what would that company do?

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