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Transition planning: Who talks first?

Mixed signals and silence between generations leads to frustration. Who moves the discussion forward?

When the topic of a farm transition plan comes up, Mark, and Jeremy, father and son-in-law, were frustrated with each other -- and it showed.

Mark wanted Jeremy to “step up” and show he has what it takes to lead their farm operations. Mark believed Jeremy didn’t put in enough time in the office learning the business side of things. Jeremy confided, “I don’t know what I am supposed to step up to. I get mixed signals from Dad. Sometimes he says he wants to pull back but the next day he is running the show. So I just put my head down and do my own thing.”

Common elements

This kind of discussion plays out each day on farms across North America. The thought of transition planning is uncomfortable, so each side waits for the other to lead the process. More often than not the first move is made out of frustration and doesn’t go well. But there is a better way. that tips the odds in favor of a successful transition.

Who should lead the transition planning process? In many cases, the senior generation needs to make the first move, then lead it.

Why should the senior generation lead the process?  There may be many reasons but power and respect are two main reasons. Often the senior generation holds most of the cards in terms of ownership, money, experience, and loyalty of the employees. Without the senior generation leading the way and fully supporting the transition, it often fizzles out when the topics are difficult.

The junior generation must also play their part. They must show leadership traits that make them worthy and ready to receive the proud heritage many farms possess. They need to spend time honing their management skills in addition to their technical skills. In other words, they need to embrace things such as accounting, employee coaching, strategic planning, and mundane paperwork.

The junior generation can also show maturity by getting the work done before taking time off to play.

When transitions are best, the senior generation views the transition plan as an act of love and respect for the farm and their families. They realize many farms will not successfully pass between generations and are determined to beat the odds. They throw all of their energy into securing a farm legacy and having crucial conversations around difficult topics. They lead from the front.

The junior generation must view the transition as an opportunity, not a blood right. It is a privilege to lead a multi-generational farm so they build the skills, attitudes, and traits of a leader.  

Mark knew he had to do something but didn’t take initiative and direct the process. In Mark’s eyes, Jeremy wasn’t ready to lead when he wasn’t accountable for his actions during the day, would go home early, and not show up for the daily 10 minute huddles. They were able to break through the impasse when each was able to own up to how their actions were hampering the process. Mark tackled his transition planning with gusto while Jeremy worked on the skills of a future leader instead of a farm hand.   

If you would like your question answered in a future column or discuss your question, write Tim at [email protected]

The opinions of the author are not necessarily those of Farm Futures or Farm Progress.

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