In the middle of a family feud
PROBLEM SUBMITTED BY D.U., ARKANSAS
I need advice on how to do the right thing for myself and for a family I love like my own.
I've worked since my teens for Mack, who owns a 2,000-acre+ farm that he operates with his three sons. The boys will inherit the farm when Mack dies. I'm in between Mack and his sons in age, and I've been his right-hand man since my early 20s.
It's been a great job. Mack is the best boss anyone can have, and I owe him a lot. But now he's asked me to do something that pushes the limit.
His three sons are smart, hardworking, and bring a lot to the operation. But they've just never been able to get along. After Mack had his second heart attack last year, he confided to me his worry that the boys weren't ready to take over the farm and work together. He thinks (and I agree) they'll spend more time fighting than farming once he's out of the picture.
Mack probably would sell the farm to get some peace, except he has two grandchildren now working there and another saying she's interested.
He's tired and has asked me to become farm manager, which puts me in authority over his sons. He says he needs me to help them do the right thing for the farm, do their jobs (which they do well), and stop the constant fighting that depresses everyone. I want to do this, and I know I can help. It would be a great job and a natural next step. But I'm worried about my future if something happens to Mack in the short term and the boys inherit.
How can I help without getting in a no-win position and ending up out in the cold?
DR. JONOVIC'S SOLUTION
The opportunity offered to D.U. is as great as the potential threat to his career. Loyalty is a good foundation for working together, but even a good foundation is meaningless without a structure. For this to work, clear commitments are necessary on both sides and must be clearly defined and enforced by contract. (Any important agreement that isn't in writing simply doesn't exist.)
At the least, Mack and D.U. need an employment contract between them (with full disclosure to the sons). D.U. could commit that he won't leave after the first storm without losing some guaranteed amount. Mack could guarantee both a term of employment and a significant severance if things don't work out during that time frame. Defined performance expectations of D.U. (with reasonable methods of measurement and review) should be part of the contract.
A contract like this is a commonsense idea even without the potential issue with Mack's sons. But given this additional wrinkle, Mack also should provide protection for his interregnum manager, since D.U. would be exposed to all sorts of mischief if Mack's sons gain control.