Why your farm transition plan should be a living document
What if no one got sick or injured, if no one’s marriage fell apart, if no one decided to try a different career, if the markets were predictable and if the graph showing land values was a straight line?
If all this were true, then maybe you could tuck the farm transition plan you just completed in a file folder and forget about it until you needed it.
But life isn’t like that. People and situations change.
A transition plan is like a snapshot. It reflects a point in time and is entirely relevant and true for the conditions that exist when it was created. But no one’s situation and aspirations stay the same forever.
The next step in the journey of writing and executing a farm transition plan is to acknowledge and embrace the idea that it’s an ongoing process. View it the same way as financial planning, reviewing production practices and tweaking human resource strategies are essential management responsibilities.
Some corporations post the company vision statement and list of core values in the lunchroom and have the CEO talk about them often so employees will internalize the concepts. That way, the vision and values can affect behaviour and decision making.
It’s the same thing for your farm transition plan. Creating a comprehensive transition plan requires time, thought and effort, but it has great value beyond just laying out what will happen to the business as it shifts to the next generation. If you keep talking about the important aspects of the plan and reinforcing the key concepts, it can shape how everyone views the business and their role within it.
Eventually, both big and small decisions are seen through the filter of the business plan and transition plan. It’s so much better than everyone plowing ahead blindly without knowing what the future may hold.
Schedule an annual review of the plan with family and employees. If it’s a yearly event framed as a positive exercise, people are more likely to approach it with a good attitude. If you only have meetings when there’s trouble, it creates a negative vibe by default.
You may need to adjust the plan as the transition progresses:
Is there agreement to include the new son-in-law or daughter-in-law in the business?
Is it time to expand? How does this affect the transition plan?
Do we need to review everyone’s wills to make sure they match the transition plan?
Is the plan being followed? Are roles and responsibilities shifting as designed?
Has the business plan changed? If so, how does it affect the transition plan?
Sometimes there’s wisdom in waiting before making a big decision to address a complicated situation, choosing instead to observe what is happening to see what plays out. But there’s a big difference between choosing to wait and choosing to ignore. Ignoring something bad won’t solve the problem - if tensions are brewing under the surface, start asking questions early and find a way to let everyone talk through the issue.
Consider how other life changes will affect the farm transition plan, whether it’s a marriage breakup or the unexpected sale of nearby property. If you’re regularly reviewing the business and transition plan, it allows the business to be agile. The better you and the family know the plan, the faster you can move to address challenges or opportunities quickly.
One thing you can’t ignore is your will. The older generation needs to have their wills completed, and the younger generation, especially if they have ownership, needs a will.
You’ve started becoming a farm CEO – whether you’re the senior generation or the younger generation. Keep pushing yourself to think strategically about the medium and long-term goals for the business, find great advisors to work with and hone your communication skills.
Use these two tools to gauge your personal growth and how well those around you are doing:
Roles and responsibilities template: If new people come on board at the farm or if family members’ abilities or desires change, it’s time to go back over your roles and responsibilities.
Transition assessment tool: New technology, new markets, a shift in the full-time team on the farm, a new opportunity - these all may require new knowledge. Refer to this tool to see if any knowledge gaps have emerged on your team.
Use your annual financial statements to determine which parts of the plan are working and which aren’t. Comparing yourself to industry benchmarks can be humbling, but it’s important. Make it an annual practice to sit down with your team and challenge yourselves to become even better. The older generation should be motivated to ensure the business is succeeding to facilitate their exit strategy, and the oncoming generation must monitor financial viability. Tweaking the business transition plan may be necessary if financial statements and ratios are heading in the wrong direction.
If you are transitioning out of the business, keep your retirement goals top of mind. It’s easy to put off your plan for another year or defer the buyout to make it easier for your kids as they take over the business. Stay the course. If the realities have changed, adjust your plan, but don’t waffle on following through. It can help to work with a financial advisor who can tell you how much you need to meet your retirement goals and build a realistic plan to make it happen.
Finding the balance between business and family is one of the hardest parts of farm transition. Family harmony is what everyone wants. Just because you have a plan in place does not mean this is addressed forever. Ongoing communication and following a process to allow everyone to share their feelings or comments is key to resolving issues and keeping them from blowing up into a major dispute.
Refresh your memory. Watch this video on how to have a stressful conversation.
The values and guiding principles of your farm and the future vision that you’ve agreed upon can help focus the family and business decisions. If you haven’t done this work, it would be worthwhile going back to Family values, vision and goals and working it through.
Values don’t change. They are fundamental to how the family and business operate.
People’s vision for the future might change. Illness and divorce can throw a wrench into anyone’s dreams. Physical or mental health issues can change things too. The farm transition plan needs to be a living document that can be tweaked to address new situations as they arise.
Revisit the goals you’ve set regularly. Mark and celebrate the successes and adjust the goals when situations change.
If you’ve made it through the various steps on the pathway to transition, you’ve made a genuine commitment to your family and farm business. It’s not easy, but it’s the right thing to do.
No farm transition plan is perfect, and no situation is the same. Get help when and where you need it as the plan evolves. You will grow too, both as a farm CEO and family member.