How to Start the Succession Planning Conversation

Authored by Elaine Froese

(Source: Canola Digest October 2020)

Farm families are stuck when it comes to getting folks to the kitchen table to talk about timelines for transition of labour, management and ownership of the farm. As a farm family coach over the past 8 months of the Great Pause, many young farmers have reached out looking for tips to get their parents to talk about what the future holds for generation one and generation two.

Understand that procrastination and conflict avoidance are the root of the issue for farm families being stuck.

  1. Act. Decide that you are no longer avoiding the tough conversations. Are you willing to be the driver to call the family together to meet? The first step is to decide that you will no longer accept silence from your parents or siblings. Listen to Dr. Henry Cloud’s audio book on Boundaries, and his book Necessary Endings. Both are powerful motivators.

  2. Think. Talk to yourself first about what you really want. Then check out the same issues with your spouse. If parents are not in agreement as to what they each want for future roles on the farm, then you will have to work hard to negotiate a more workable vision for generation one. Be clear about your intent, “why” this is so important for you to get talking and discovering your future now. Say…”My intention is….”

  3. Ask more powerful questions to kick-start the conversation.” Do you remember what it felt like when you first owned land? I am curious if we could sit down and explore ideas on how I can get some equity before April 2021 on this farm. I want to be more than an employee.” Dates are targets to aim for; certainty of agreements and timelines is what you really want.

  4. Document. Covid has been a reality check for the farmer who said “Elaine if I get sick and die, the farm will be in chaos.” Get a will, an enduring power of attorney, and guardians for your children. Make sure your executor is fully informed. As you go through the succession planning journey you will change the estate plan (your will), but get a will now! Lawyers can work with you virtually, and witnesses can sign digitally.

  5. Be curious. Stop telling yourself that it’s “disrespectful to your parents” or greedy to ask for what you need for your young family. Come from a position of “I am curious Dad, how do you want your role to change on this farm as you age. I am seeking a way to build my own equity. What are you needing?”

  6. Face fears. Address the bull in the middle of the room, what I call the undiscussabull. Parents are afraid of failure, loss of wealth, conflict with the non-farm heirs, and loss of identity or purpose as they age. Love does not read minds, so ask gently and graciously “What is hard for you to talk about ? I am hear to listen and understand.” Watch “Finding Fairness in Farm Transition“ on my YouTube channel as a great discussion starter. Download the “Key Challenges” part of the Farm Family Toolkit as a checklist www.elainefroese.com

  7. Collect data. Know what you need for family living, and where your income streams are coming from. Have financial transparency between the generations. Share the amount of debt you are willing to service or transfer to the next generation. Do understand how much debt you are willing to sleep with, and what you are willing to buy out. Some assets will be gifted, but young farmers need to be clear about how much debt they can service. Have your accountant, lender or farm business advisor confirm the viability of the operation, knowing cash flow, and the number of families the farm can support.

  8. Prepare your ideal business plan for the farm. What is your vision? On our farm Generation 1 wants to slow down but still be active in the decision making process, and Gen 2 wants to build more efficient systems.

  9. Explore what if? What if we block time once a month for 2 hours to talk about our succession journey? Stress the importance and benefits to all generations. Dr. Kohl’s research showed that farms with regular meetings were 21% more profitable.

  10. Meet. If the thought of meeting scares you, then hire a 3rd party facilitator to prepare each person for the meeting. In 2020 these meetings are done on zoom. Advisors have seen many creative solutions, they can keep the conversation safe and respectful

  11. Buy a flipchart, and find a stuffie toy. You need a visual spot to land ideas and process thoughts. The toy is your talking stick for folks to speak at the meeting without interruption. As you record notes on the flipchart use smartphones to capture the pages when the meeting ends, and you have action steps recorded for the next meeting. Simple yes. Life-changing. Yes!

  12. Explore residence options. Housing is a big source of conflict. Promises are made to switch houses, then things change or a sibling comes to live close to generation one. Be really clear that you understand the timelines and expectations for the residence needs of all generations. If mom wants to move and dad wants to stay put things will be stuck for a long time.

  13. Copy success. Conflict resolution is a business risk management strategy. Share the stories of good transitions knowing you are not alone in your current struggle, but the hard work is worth the reward of a workable succession plan to create certainty for everyone’s future.

  14. Build your binder. Or use Google documents to organize the many plans you need to talk about: lifestyle income, legal, accounting, meeting action plans, business plans, coaching communication, estate, loans, etc. I have created a “Life” binder with passwords info, and Maggie Van Camp’s Because I love you List. The binder is a great place to jot down your dreams, thoughts, and frustrations as you create solutions for the life you’ve always wanted on your farm. Email me elaine@elainefroese.com for binder tabs, and the Because I love U list.

Income streams, housing, fairness to non-farm heirs.

Getting insight on those 3 big questions will keep your succession planning going. Remember, it is a journey, and I am here to help. Talking is the work.

If you want help navigating these tough conversations and circumstances, we should talk. Click here to learn more about my farm family coaching services.

Did you learn a lot from this post on how to start the succession planning conversation? You might want to check these articles out too:

Which Shade of Control is Blocking Your Farm Transition? Farm Transition Planning: 19 Ways to Change Your Mindset Developing the Right Mindset for a Successful Farm Transition

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