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How to Lead When No One Wants to Follow

Can Their Problem Be Solved?

We’re losing our leader. Dad’s health has taken a turn for the worse, and my two siblings and I are so sad and very concerned. Not only will we soon lose our respected and loving father, we will be losing the leadership and glue of our successful family business. The three of us have worked for Dad for many years. My oldest sister runs the cow/calf operation; I take care of machinery, marketing, and book work; and my youngest brother manages the crops. At busy times, we all work together on what needs to be done. Dad told us the farm business is willed to the three of us in undivided interest. Last night, we siblings met, and it was clear not one of us wants to be bossed by another brother or sister or have one declared the business “leader.” Can we survive? – P.M.

The Solution

I sense the wonderful roles your father has played in your lives. It sounds like the four of you have worked well together building on his investment and leadership. Don’t underestimate what you each have learned and who you are. You already work well together, each with leadership and management skills in one or more areas of the farming operation. I’m sure that means you’ve had practice working through challenges. It’s important that you don’t make hasty decisions and that you remember everyone may grieve this transition differently.

It soon will be business soul-searching time. Please, talk independently with your spouses, as they may have personal opinions, as well. Then, the three siblings need to decide if you all sincerely want to continue to work as one business with coordinated entities and responsibilities. Do you want to have assets appraised, split, and individually titled with options to buy each other out or perhaps contract between each other for supporting needs? Do you independently want to go separate directions?

If you choose to remain as one operation, you may survive, but leadership is needed. It keeps your vision and overall goals forefront, anticipates needs, coordinates work, addresses conflict, evaluates performance and results, and celebrates achievements.

If you vote to stay as one unit, each of you may continue to manage your area of expertise. I, then, suggest two leadership options. 

  1. Create a paid advisory team to help you with communication, coordination, idea exploration, conflict management, and decision making. The advisory team would also be on call for individual conversations. 
  2. Hire a nonfamily manager who is onsite with a defined leadership job description.

Either way, do your best to gather each morning to touch base and to coordinate necessary work. Be open with your goals for the day and don’t forget to ask, “Do you need my help with something today?” 

I also suggest you use an agenda tool for monthly management meetings, rotating the chair between the three of you (or invite an adviser to sit in). Stay on topic and be honest with your needs and achievements. Then, have your quarterly meeting with all members of the advisory team who will work to assure that goodwill and positive results of the business continue.

Most of all, I believe you may increase the probability of a positive outcome if you each keep this question in mind: What would Dad do?

Your Transition Team Members

Jolene Brown is a professional speaker, author, farmer, and family business consultant. She shares her passion, experience, and fun-filled spirit with farmers and ranchers across North America. Her tested business tools provide leadership and management solutions for the people who feed, clothe, and fuel the world. jolenebrown.com

Dr. Donald J. Jonovic is founder of Family Business Management Services in Cleveland, Ohio. He focuses on management, growth, and ownership transition issues. familybusinessmgt.com

Myron Friesen is co-owner of Farm Financial Strategies in Osage, Iowa. During the past 17 years, he has worked exclusively with farm families across the Midwest to develop farm transition strategies. farmestate.com

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