How do you set farm heirs up to lead if they lack respect from the team?

Can their problem be solved?

The Problem (submitted by D.M.) 

Our son came back to farm several years ago, and we couldn’t be happier. He’s young and has a lot to learn, but he works hard and has good instincts. My goal for 2021 is to start transitioning more leadership over to him. I typically run our morning meetings with our crew, but after watching him lead several meetings, I feel some employees (who’ve been here longer than he has) do not respect him because of his experience level. He stuck with it though, despite getting knocked around with last year’s challenges. How can we set him up to win this year as we transfer leadership?

The Solution

Respect is a tricky thing. It can be slow to earn and quick to lose. Respect is ultimately about humble confidence; both within himself and mutually between the team. Confidence grows through experience, clarity of purpose, effective communication, and solid planning. Let’s look at some ways to help him build on that this year.  

  • Win the morning meetings. Good coaches do pregame and postgame analysis. Do the same for your morning meetings. Review with him what went well, what didn’t, and prepare for next time. Also, avoid being “the answer guy” during the meetings. That steals respect from him. You’ve modeled how to lead. Have you modeled how to follow? He can ask you for advice before or after the meeting, but not during. Otherwise, their respect skips over him and goes back to you. It may be helpful for the team to observe you seeking his guidance occasionally.
  • Design the game plan. How will he know if he’s advancing in the farm transition? Try to identify the major roles of your business (e.g., marketing, selecting and purchasing inputs, finances, employee management, etc.). Then identify who currently manages each role. Next, prioritize the sequence of roles your son should start taking over, the associated time frame, and how to equip him to succeed in that position. This creates a measurable growth track, and growth builds confidence. Without a structured plan, every day just feels like a game of whack-a-mole.
  • Build the winning team. Is the lack of respect something your son can overcome? Or is it something systemic within the team? Personalities mesh differently. The combination of team members who worked for you might not work for him. Maybe the team, or their roles, must be changed to be successful. 
  • Fail small, win big. Mark Twain said, “Good decisions come from experience. Experience comes from making bad decisions.” Let him fail sometimes so he stays humble and learns the bigger lesson of how to get back up when you’re not around. Respect isn’t lost by getting knocked down – it’s earned by how well you can get back up again.
  • Win the end game. Sometimes the star player gets pulled out of the game at the most critical point. Will your backup be ready? If you were incapacitated or passed away, your son would have to win on three different fronts: managing the daily farm decisions, navigating the family dynamics, and leading his business team while missing his parent/partner. Be sure to get the estate and farm succession plan locked down. It will build his long-term confidence and show the faith you have in his farming future.

Experience is important, but it’s not the only factor in gaining respect. Everyone got knocked around in 2020, regardless of experience level. We respect those who maintain integrity in the moment of their decisions. That takes confidence, humility, and faith. Maybe we all need that to win in 2021.

Mark McLaughlin is an associate with Farm Financial Strategies in Ankeny, Iowa. For the past 14 years, he has helped farm families across the Midwest develop their farm succession strategies. He grew up on a family farm near Defiance, Iowa, and shares in the fifth generation of ownership. He and his wife have three children. farmestate.com

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