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A Farewell From Dr. Jonovic

The Problem: How can 32 years of experience with family farms be summarized in a single farewell column?

Submitted by Dr. Donald J. Jonovic

This column is being left in competent hands, but I feel the need to give a final salute. 

Pamela (my spouse and, really, co-columnist) has often said that experience and wisdom can never be transferred – only knowledge can. On that thought, let this, my final SF column, serve as a summary of my four fundamental succession lessons learned.


1. Working partnerships should not be founded on love. Meaningful relationships are fine tapestries, drawing their vibrancy from golden threads of love. Love can be understanding, supportive, and loyal, but it’s also tender. It tears easily under the pressures of poor communication, goal confusion, inequality of treatment, and misunderstanding of motive. As outsiders (in-laws) are added and more generations come along, those pressures, unrelieved, simply increase. 

  • Lesson learned: In any family who shares a business, love is to be treasured and protected, but it cannot – and should not – be depended upon to hold the partnership together. That’s the role of trust.

2. Trust is fragile, too, but it can be strengthened to provide the unifying core of a partnership. The growing pressures mentioned above can tear love apart – unless a family in business together focuses on building structure: clear communication, written agreements, open accounting, defined responsibilities, performance measurement, fair compensation, etc. Anarchy leads to suspicion. Suspicion destroys trust. Without trust, love will fade and partnerships will fail.

  • Lesson learned: Discuss, define, and reduce to writing any agreement or decision that is essential to understanding among partners.

3Teaching successors should be 10% about how and 90% about what. Each of us needs the nurturing of teachers, but eventually students must begin to learn from – and apply – the hard lessons of their own experience. Training successors is less a matter of transferring rules about what to do and more about conveying the ability to decide which alternatives are best. 

The older generations learned the hard way, by making mistakes, so it’s natural to want to pass along rules that say, “This is how you do it.” There’s value in that, sure, but tomorrow’s problems will be different from yesterday’s. The best transitions provide successors with the education and experience necessary to deal with tomorrow’s very different challenges. 

  • Lesson learned: The guidance of the older generation is necessary but not sufficient. Today’s successors must have outside education, training, experience, and the opportunity to learn from their own mistakes.

4. Reasons for preserving the family farm should go beyond wealth and career opportunity. Inevitably, a successful operation acquires off-farm stakeholders. With them come differences in quality and intensity of attachments to the farm and even to the extended family itself. 

Wealth and a great career are excellent goals, but the dream of preserving the farm can benefit from a much deeper rationale.

Successful multigeneration families have taught me what that higher goal is. It is preserving the growing farm business as a focus for family gatherings by using meetings both for family communications and defining the family’s shared values. Wealth and careers are a plus.

  • Lesson learned: The most important reason to believe a farm should continue “forever” is its power to help ensure the family stays unified “forever.”

Your Transition Team Members

Don Jonovic is founder of Family Business Management Services in Cleveland, Ohio. He focuses on management, growth, and ownership transition issues. His farm partnership planning tool, “Ag-Planner/IV” ($68.45); a two-DVD set on farm management and succession ($48.95); and other books are available at

Jolene Brown is a speaker, author, and family business consultant. Her tested business tools provide leadership and management solutions for people who feed, clothe, and fuel the world.

Myron Friesen is co-owner of Farm Financial Strategies in Osage, Iowa. During the past 15 years, he has worked exclusively with farm families across the Midwest to develop farm transition strategies.



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