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Can Succession Planning be Forced?

By Dr. Donald J. Jonovic

Submitted by J.Z., via email:

On our farm, my father is now majority owner of farm ground. He was in a partnership with my uncle and my grandfather (both minority landowners) until my grandfather passed this last spring. There was always a basic struggle for power between Dad and his father, and Granddad was always trying to “catch up” (his words, not mine) my uncle’s land ownership and income to Dad’s through backroom land deals or cash from the farm.

I now find myself in the same position with my father as he was in with his. Dad refuses to talk about succession, and now he has started hinting that he would like to bring my brother on to work for the farm and our seed business after my brother graduates in two years. While my brother is smart and a good worker, he’s never shown any interest in either business, and he never filled in labor gaps like I did growing up. I have shown strong interest in our farm since I was very small, always tagging along with Dad, learning the ropes, and dedicating long hours and countless weekends to help out. I have a degree in ag business and hold numerous certifications for the farm, including as an associate seed rep with my father in our new ag services LLC.

I feel like a chess piece in some poorly thought-out plan where I have no say. This has led to some rather heated disputes with my parents in which I am usually portrayed as someone trying to make too many changes, or as a brother who is tying to take advantage of another family member. At the age of 26, I do not plan on going through turmoil for the next 50 years.

Where do I go from here?

Dr. Jonovic's solution:

J.Z.’s grandfather and father are alike in two important ways: Both exhibit a love of control, and both seem driven by a need to treat their children equally (which they equate with fairly). Powerlessness is fertile soil for the drive to control.

J.Z.’s father learned that from Grandpa. Now, J.Z. is studying from their textbook.

Those heated fights with his parents about his wanting to “change too many things” are likely rooted in his elders’ battle habits, which required control to win.

That same standard has put J.Z. squarely in opposition to his father’s need to be fair to both his sons. Worse, the equality drive that Dad learned so well from Grandpa not only threatens to dilute J.Z.’s control, but also seems unfair, since J.Z. has worked harder and longer.

Little wonder that conflict between generations seems to be the family farm norm.

J.Z. needs to break this negative cycle. Hand-to-hand combat with the King (his father), paired with demands that his brother (Dad’s flesh and blood) be deprived is not a winning strategy. His is a suicide charge, not a negotiating position.

Instead, he could use the two competing drives toward control and fairness as focal points for compromise.

Control, absolute in dictatorships, has to be balanced in democracies. Defining who has how much authority to make which business decisions is more productive than demanding “my way or the highway,” and it is more sound.

Equality is wonderful in theory, but it is extremely rare in practice. Fairness, however, is achievable. In this case, it is through a careful balancing of productivity and responsibility with pay.

J.Z. should take the best from his parents’ example and reject the worst. Absolutes provoke argument; accommodation promotes agreement.

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