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
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
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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