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Woodbury:Farm Family Business 09/04 07:07

   Time for Your Systems Upgrade?

   Polish the skills of self-awareness, vision and organization for a more 
effective family business experience.

By Lance Woodbury
DTN Farm Business Adviser

   Although agriculture has been practiced for thousands of years, only in the 
last few decades have a significant number of large-scale production operations 
emerged. To cope with the changes brought about by recent growth, many farming 
and ranching businesses are trying to become more professional in their 
approach, while at the same time implementing new forms of decision-making that 
involve multiple siblings, cousins or even non-family members. 

   New approaches to business management -- what I consider "system upgrades" 
-- include human resource policies and strategies, access to capital, risk 
management tools, establishing a board, technology platforms and accounting 
systems. But often overlooked in this process of system upgrades is a "personal 
upgrade" to take your skills to the next level. Consider the following in your 
own development.


   Awareness of how effectively you interact with others is a key to your 
success. Whether hiring and managing people, working with land owners and 
neighbors, providing leadership in the community, negotiating with vendors, or 
governing the business with family members, how people see you has a direct 
connection to your effectiveness. For example, one family member I know is 
perceived as a difficult boss with poor listening skills, and his reputation 
limits the level of interest by prospective local employees. Another business 
owner is seen as humble, hardworking and attentive to detail. He is continually 
asked to farm more ground as his neighbors retire.

   If you were to ask your staff what they see as your strengths and 
weaknesses, what would they say? If you asked your family members to identify 
the one skill you should most improve, do you know what that skill is? How 
would the vendors you negotiate with describe you to their colleagues? Most 
importantly, is the answer to these questions the answer you want? Being aware 
of your strengths and weaknesses can motivate you build on your assets while 
managing your negative impact.


   Another important skill, particularly in tighter economic times, is a sense 
of where you want to go, both personally and with your business. What does 
success look like three or five years from now? Less debt? Increased 
profitability? Better work-life balance? More or less land or livestock? More 
family in the business? More diversification of assets? Answers to these kinds 
of questions provide a foundation for goal-setting and can lead to a better 

   There are varying ways to build your vision-generating capacity. Interacting 
with other successful business owners through mentoring or peer group 
relationships gives you a sense of how other people have approached the future, 
and what might or might not work for you. Conferences and educational 
workshops, both inside and outside of the agriculture industry, can spur 
creative thinking. And focused discussions with your trusted advisers, who see 
how other businesses approach the future, can prod you to develop a clearer 
picture of what you want.


   You may have the greatest ideas in the world, but without some system to 
identify and take the next immediate steps, it will be difficult to make 
progress. A system to organize your efforts can take many forms. It can be a 
person who implements your ideas, like an administrative assistant or an 
operations manager. It can be an accountability partner, like an advisory board 
or executive coach that forces you to outline and take specific actions. Or it 
might be a self-led planning process that offers a useful framework and thus 
provides clarity and direction. Whatever the tool, you need to feel accountable 
to crossing action steps off the list; otherwise, your great ideas will never 
move beyond the conceptual stage.

   Knowing your strengths and weaknesses is critical to your effectiveness. 
Having a vision for where you want to go helps establish your path forward. 
Organizing your efforts ensures you make progress. You likely had some 
combination of these skills that got you to where you are today, but an 
investment in upgrades will help you reach the next level of success in your 
family business.

   EDITOR'S NOTE: To further your management education, consider applying for a 
DTN scholarship to attend TEPAP, the mid-career management course for 
agricultural producers modeled after a Harvard Business School short course 

   Lance Woodbury writes family business columns for both DTN and our sister 
publication, "The Progressive Farmer." He is a Garden City, Kansas, author, 
consultant and professional mediator with more than 20 years experience 
specializing in agriculture and closely-held businesses. Subscribers can access 
all of his archived columns under News search. Email ideas for this column to 


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