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The Fundamental Flaws of an Independent Culture


This article was originally published by The Western Producer on March 5, 2015

Most of the farmers I have met have been proud people who are fiercely independent and resent or reject outside influence. They see advisers and professionals as parasites whose only goal is to rid them of their hard eared money while providing nothing of substance in return.

But as a result of this independence I have seen many potentially successful farm business transitions rattling through from one disaster to another until they inevitably implode, explode or split apart.

Part of the problem is that these farm businesses are still trying to run along traditional lines with no guidance or information to help them understand why things might not be working so well. The idea that what worked in the past will work in the future is simply naïve. Everyone needs to recognize that the game has changed.

A very good family adviser once told me to think of it this way: If we use sport as an analogy for running a business then the founding generation were playing tennis and for the most part they were good at it. They understood the rules, they knew how to keep score and it was a fairly straightforward game between two people. But the introduction of the next generation means that the game has to change. And let’s say that the new game is baseball, with more people, a bigger pitch, a different bat and a different ball. You can’t play baseball with tennis rules. There are different rules and you need to learn them. So this is where you need help. You need a coach to teach you the new rules.

Typically I see farm businesses in transition struggling with the concepts of governance, leadership, strategic planning and decision making. I see them challenged by the idea of creating legal agreements and I see them have difficulty in assigning roles and responsibilities. Communication often remains a major stumbling block and almost always the issues of fairness and compensation remain unresolved. Financial management, inventory management, marketing and human resources all need a greater level of attention than the previous generation had to deal with. This is where outside help can come in.

But perhaps the greatest challenge is in understanding the role of outside help. It shouldn’t try to provide all of the answers because if it does then implementation will likely fail. As with any good coach, they can’t play the game for you but they can guide you. True, there are some things which require an expert opinion but, for the most part, these aren’t the things most family farms struggle with. What most family farms struggle with are the “soft skill” issues and these require a collaborative approach with a skilled advisor who understands the concept.

So, if you are about to transition the farm or you are in a transition that is struggling to move forwards then perhaps it’s time to let go of some of that independence. Perhaps it’s time to get a coach.