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Building a family culture for farm business success

Jon Wilcox Published on 31 December 2012

A family with energetic boys raised cattle on a hobby farm. A well-intentioned neighbour, with decades of experience in cattle production, was critical of the “results” he saw and often shared his wisdom.

One evening, as the neighbour chastised the father, the mother stepped in and said, “You don’t seem to understand. We’re not really raising cattle on this farm. We’re raising boys!”

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Farming has become more competitive. However, many dairies still have a family component – husband and wife, parents and a child or multiple generations. Perhaps it’s even a multi-family corporation as spouses marry into the business.

Family relationships can complicate an already complicated business with another layer of intimate experiences, expectations, differing ages and shared history. This can have subtle or blatant effects on how decisions are reached.

The effects can be deeply satisfying and a source of pride for all involved. But when they are dysfunctional, it’s like watching a car accident in slow motion.

At our recent Vita Plus Chick Day, I facilitated a breakout session about “working with family.” To prepare, I sent out a short survey to get a feel for the issues these women bring to the table.

Attendees were mostly farm women from dairy operations in the upper Midwest, including co-owners, daughters-in-law and employees. Almost all had experience working with family members.

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I asked for feedback on the pros and cons of working with family as well as practices and procedures that helped them be successful. I asked about how non-family employees were affected. And then I asked them to rank the following eight principles in order of importance, with 1 being not important and 5 being essential.

I tabulated and averaged each person’s response. Here are the results in order:

1. Communication – 5.0

2. Attitude, commitment and accountability – 4.8

3. Fairness in problem resolution – 4.6

4. Job descriptions and clear roles – 4.4

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5. Opportunities for advancement – 4.4

6. Evaluations and performance reviews – 4.1

7. Balance between work and personal life – 4.0

8. Unique culture and values – 3.2

I was surprised to see that culture and values ranked last and considerably lower than the other concepts.

Defining culture
After almost 30 years of working for the same company, I’ve watched its growth from a small business to an organization with more than 360 employees. I worried about how the organization might change as we grew.

I became obsessed with team building, employee engagement and personal development – critical areas for any business.

A team’s culture is dynamic and fragile, requiring proactive management. Cohesive cultures can play a huge role in business success. A sick culture will drive the best talent away.

Although “culture” tends to be a hot topic these days, many farming operations may not have much exposure to it. When you’re dealing with the pressures of daily issues, crops and weather, labour and feed prices, it’s understandable that a concept seen as “warm and fuzzy” doesn’t get much attention.

So what is culture?
Whenever two or more people align together, it creates a culture. Families, teams, neighbourhoods, churches, ethnic groups, businesses and nations all have unique cultures.

The “culture” reflects shared values, beliefs, attitudes, history and goals. The ways individuals interact, communicate, make decisions and perform flow out of the group’s culture.

Women’s role in culture development
Some will label this as paternalistic – but my perception is that women often have a stronger influence in stabilizing a family and its values. That happens at home and on the farm.

Compared to 30 years ago, today’s livestock operations are larger and more women are involved in production agriculture in all facets, including leadership roles.

They help define the values and mould the culture of these businesses. It’s rare to find a successful farm with a healthy culture that doesn’t have women in key capacities.

Still, we sometimes default to the stereotype: Men are strong and visionary leaders while women are more social and more affected by “feelings.”

I experienced a paradigm shift when my wife began working at the local hospital’s physical therapy department, organizing the bookkeeping and clerical functions. After about a year, she came home and announced emphatically, “You men are such a bunch of wimps!”

I took the bait and fired back, “What do you mean?”

She explained, “I’ve watched patients come in after joint replacements, reconstructive surgeries and serious health events. The little old ladies have a quiet determination and they just buckle down and work.

Sometimes you’ll see a couple tears but they rarely complain. The men, on the other hand, whine and moan, complain constantly about every ache and pain and accuse the therapists of being ‘physical terrorists.’ You guys are just a bunch of wimps!”

It’s hard to argue with proof like that. Women have unique, inherent strengths that, often in very subtle ways, define and nurture the culture of an organization.

Culture does matter
Famous business guru Peter Drucker said, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast!” The point is that a visionary leader can develop a brilliant strategy – but it likely won’t succeed if it doesn’t fit the culture of the organization.

A farm can have good genetics, the finest parlour, great cow comfort, strong health protocols and a sound nutrition program. But, if the management team doesn’t “click” and the culture is characterized by bitterness, distrust, disrespect, fear, high turnover and employees feeling abused, well … good luck. The farm won’t reach its potential.

On the other hand, we’ve all seen operations with older facilities, mediocre equipment and ordinary cows, but most everyone gets along and feels included. On tough jobs, managers and owners pitch in and employees feel they’re listened to and rewarded for caring.

They go the extra mile for each other and they treat the cows the same. On those farms, production is almost always higher than you’d expect at a first glance.

Let’s finish where we started by going back to the hobby farm story. The objective wasn’t to build a business to support the family – it was to provide a place to raise boys based on the family’s values.

The culture sprung up around those values. The parents recognized that maturation is a process, mistakes are part of that and growth occurs with effort and time. Their strategy was to provide an environment where the boys could learn. The strategy fit the culture.

In any business, leaders must identify core values and consciously build a culture around those values. All stakeholders must be accountable. Only then can a strategy be implemented that capitalizes on the most important resource – people.

If and when family is involved, you’ll need to learn to love unconditionally, forgive like you’d like to be forgiven and surround yourself with the best women you can find to nurture that culture. If you do that, it seems happiness and success will find you; you won’t have to go looking for them.  PD

Jon Wilcox

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