Farm succession planning demands that we step up our communication

Everyone knows good communication is important in relationships and business, but throw succession planning into the mix and you’ll discover just how important it is.

At a recent farm succession program held by Michigan State University Extension in Traverse City, participants discussed the importance of good communication during farm succession. It has been said that 85 percent of all conflict is due to miscommunication, and with farm succession planning demanding a lot of communication, it’s also an opportunity to create a substantial amount of conflict.

During succession planning there are several areas that need to be discussed. These include: why you farm, your vision and goals, expectations, logistics and the transition plan itself.

In his book “Start with Why”, Simon Sinek encourages leaders to link about why they are in the business they are in, or put another way, what drives you. As a producer passing on your business to the next generation, you ought to be able to share your “why” with them. You might love the farming way of life, you might love the independence that you have as a farmer, you might love the atmosphere that farming brings to raising your children, etc. Whatever you put at the top of your list should be shared with the next generation, and they should be able to share their “why” with you. Your “why” drives the decisions that you make, especially the “gut” decisions that you have to make. If the successor generation does not have a clue “why” you made a gut decision, they will be frustrated with you and the decision.

Both generations should also be sharing their vision and goals for the farm. While most of these should be consistent between generations, it would be common for some to be different. After all, the succession process is going to lead to a new, and somewhat different business under a new generation of leadership. Things will change, and generations need to communicate what the new business will look like.

Another area of communication is expectations. One important area of expectations to talk about is what roles each generation will fulfill during the different stages of the farm transition. Being clear about what each others expectations are in this area, will help point out areas where there are disagreements, needs for adjustments in expectations, and perhaps point to areas where the farm may need to seek outside help.

The fourth area of communication revolves around the logistics of leadership on the farm. If the successor generation is going to be successful, they need to become the older generations shadow and the older generation needs to move into a coach or mentor role. This means that the older generation has to make their decision making process very transparent. The successor generation needs to see all of what goes into every decision that is made. Only with this degree of transparency can they possibly understand what they will need to know in order to take over the leadership of the business. When the successor generation is able to take over some of these management responsibilities, then the older generation can assume the coach/mentor role. As one participant at the Michigan State University Extension succession program put it “you need to let the quarterback be the quarterback, and you need to support them like a coach on the sidelines”.

Finally, the transition plan itself needs to be communicated on a regular basis. Are you clearly communicating how and when you see the transition plan being accomplished? Do both generations agree on the plan? When and how are you communicating the plan with non-farming heirs? Putting the plan down in writing, with agreement between the generations on how, who, what, and when is critical. Regular meetings during the transition process will then be able to document progress on the plan and develop next action steps.

For more information on communication during succession, visit the MSU Extension Farm Information Resource Management succession page