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The prodigal son returns

By Dr. Donald J. Jonovic

Problem submitted by J.M. , via email

I’m planning to rejoin my father on our family farm in the
spring, but I have a big concern.

After college graduation, I wanted to experience the world,
so I joined the Army. It was a good experience, but it was something I didn’t
want to repeat.

The concern is my brother, Aaron, who’s three years younger.
He’s now working in the energy industry (currently offshore oil, but talking a
lot about shale and fracking these days). He says he’s never coming back to the

He means it now, but I know him. It could be five, even 10
years, but after he sows his oats, he’ll be back.

And I want him to come back. He’s a great guy – smart,
hardworking, and a good friend. But I’m very worried about all the investment
of time and effort I’ll put into the farm before he finds himself and decides
to come home and claim his half of the farm I helped to build.

I want to raise the issue with Dad before I join the farm,
but I really don’t know how to bring it up or even how to describe my concern.
Dad doesn’t like to talk about these things in general, and I know he’ll be
upset with me for raising the issue. Is there a good way to get this  in the open without the negatives?

Dr. Jonovic’s Solution

Clearly, J.M. is concerned about the right things. He just
needs a shift in perspective to get a better handle on the underlying question
and the fundamental problem he must solve.

It’s likely that his father will want to treat him and Aaron
equally. But it’s just as likely Dad will fail to recognize and fairly
compensate J.M.’s significant contribution to the farm whether or not Aaron
eventually returns.

J.M.’s real need is to define and to assure equitable
treatment of his own future. The best way to do that is to trade the successor
hat with a job-candidate hat when setting terms with Dad.

When joining your family’s operation, negotiations are
automatically hobbled by inaccurate assumptions, bone-deep emotion, overblown
expectation, and vague promises on both sides of the generation divide. Wearing
the successor hat, J.M. is right to be worried.

A job interview in the outside world is different. Facts
behind the decision are taken seriously by both parties, and discussions are
almost by definition readily frank and direct. The focus is on mutual benefit
and understanding.

The farm is not just J.M.’s alternative to the Army. It
represents a potential lifelong career, emotional support, and financial
growth. Further, J.M. is more than his dad’s natural successor. He’s a
potential strategic employee, with vastly greater value to Dad than someone
hired off the street. Both performance and reward are essential variables in
the equation and the discussion.

Fortunately, J.M. and his dad haven’t had their interview.
Dad should respond positively to a request from a responsible, Army-trained
J.M. to take the terms “father,” “son,” and “family farm” out of negotiations
and to focus on defining responsibility, performance expectations, reward,
plans for equity, and time frame.

If/when Aaron returns, it’s a script that’s written and
ready for replay.

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