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How to transition from primary operator to mentor

Elaine Froese for Progressive Dairy Published on 31 May 2022
Mentoring

Dick Wittman, a longtime farm management consultant and farmer, has transitioned from being the CEO of a 22,000-acre Idaho farm to being his daughter’s mentor coach.

His session at the 2021 Agricultural Excellence Conference was “How to get out of the way without going away.”

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Wittman outlined how he came back in 1980 and started putting organizational structure to his farm business with cousins, uncles and other employees. Our farm currently is keen to learn from Wittman, as our new CEO is the next generation and my husband, who has put in 43 crops, is navigating being the mentor coach.

Wittman said every transition can strengthen the business when a clear process is followed. When the mission, vision and core values are put into writing, it can be the place for an alignment of expectations and a chance to operate on the principle of merit versus entitlement. To be clear, Wittman posts the mission, vision and core values statement in his farm shop and the farm office, where his daughter is fourth generation and now the CEO.

Wittman has transitioned to be the chair of the board and will likely move further out to a reorganization and buyout in the future. He believes in the culture of a professionally managed farm business with policies, clearly formalized roles and a commitment to a living governance structure. This includes written job descriptions, standard operating policies, a culture of communication and a transparent process for evaluating performance.

I suspect that setting compensation, family business investment and withdrawal policies and buyout understanding may be hot topics on your transition agenda. Wittman offers a management binder online as a digital tool, which I have used for years to give coaching clients practical resources to get better communication and clarity as they upgrade their management skills.

Wittman suggested farms get into alignment before you need the policies and procedures. With clear roles, you can have better accountability and opportunities to achieve excellence.

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Today, our farms are multimillion-dollar businesses, with some off-farm investment possibly, and two different time cycles – the transition of management and the transition of ownership.

So how do Dad and Mom get out of the way without going away?

Learn to embrace a meaningful role without micromanaging

  • Add an owner board to your jargon.

  • Extend your thinking to a “career path” mindset. You are no longer the CEO; you are now the mentor coach – and not dead.

  • Adopt a co-leader management model with clear, separate roles. Although Wittman’s daughter is the CEO, no one wanted the logging operation duties, so Wittman has retained this as something he loves to do.

  • A board of directors is the governing council that sets policy, management direction, financial oversight, hiring, evaluation and compensation with regularly scheduled meetings.

As David Brooks, author of The Second Mountain, says, “Teach what excellence looks like day by day.”

This month is a good time to look at your strategic planning process for transition. Who is in a labour role? Who is in a management role? Who is ownership on your farm? There needs to be total transparency of finances, meaning all investors in the farm share their personal balance sheets.

Ask yourself: What roles will transition and when? What are the key job duties and skill sets needed as the founders “step away”? Whom do we groom to assume these roles? Wittman said, “When you announce you are retiring, you don’t get to pick who succeeds you at your farm.”

Take time, more than 12 months, to work through the CEO succession.

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Use personality style profiles and leadership profile tools to really understand the skill sets of the people you are hiring.

Millennials want facilitators, not bosses, so perhaps the CEO’s style to focus on people, resources, information and technology, and teamwork are greatly needed at your farm to attract new labour.

When my husband goes out to the yard, he might be asking, “How can I be the most help today?” The employees on our team should not be thinking, “Wait, isn’t he retired?” “He cannot just let go, can he?” “There he goes, being the boss again.” “I just wish he’d let us do our own jobs.” Wittman uses a photo with all these captions to drive home the point: How are you perceived?

Wittman said, “Work hard to not be a micromanager as you let go of your CEO role and transition to mentor.”

Here is some advice for serving as a mentor to your successor:

  • Don’t• be impatient with the successor’s approach and their timetables. I like to say, “Different is not wrong; it is just different.”

  • Try not to push your way of logistics (think harvest) and planning. Things may get done in a different way, and each leader needs to learn how to be proactive.

  • Trust and respect the successors; remember the trust your parents provided you.

  • Have clearly defined roles.

  • Give difficult feedback when boundaries have been overstepped.

  • Block time for quality mentoring and invite the ask for mentorship from your successor.

  • Schedule evaluation time to assess how the transition process is working and adjust behaviours.

  • Find peer groups and business coaches to help you navigate your new role as mentor coach.

  • Be intentional about building your culture of accountability.

  • Let your new team perform and do the farm business their own way.

  • Ask permission to make advisements on process improvement.

  • Communication is everything. What are you personally doing to be a better communicator?

  • If boundaries are crossed, make repair in a professional manner.

  • Grace for all. Extend grace to each generation, who likely has some fear of failure.  end mark

Getty Images.

Elaine Froese and her coaching team invite you to get clarity of expectations. Schedule your free discovery call today at Elaine Froese.

Elaine Froese
  • Elaine Froese

  • Certified Farm Family Coach
  • Email Elaine Froese

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