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Family Business Matters       01/27 17:56

   Five Habits to Support Your Succession Goals

   To move succession and estate planning ahead, resolve to improve your 
relational skills.

By Lance Woodbury
DTN Farm Business Adviser

   In a recent column on goal setting, I suggested three areas of focus for the 
New Year: improving relationships, increasing family communication and 
capturing and sharing major life lessons or stories as part of your legacy. The 
idea is to take something a little more difficult to measure (versus 
quantifiable goals like losing weight or reducing debt) and creating a set of 
objectives that have a long-term strategic impact on your family and business.

   Here I want to offer more support for accomplishing these "soft" kinds of 
goals. I say they are soft because they involve a set of skills and attitudes 
that are less technical and more relational. Family improvement goals can evoke 
deep emotions, require awkward conversations, call for forgiveness, include 
interaction way outside of your comfort zone, and elicit both difficult and 
cherished memories. 

   Furthermore, progress in the areas of communication, conflict resolution, 
estate and succession planning often comes in fits and starts, where some 
improvement is offset by unexpected family problems or challenges that make you 
feel like you've taken three steps back. These kinds of goals are also 
difficult because there often is no clear finish line. You can always improve 
family communication and relationships -- the work is never finished. And you 
can always find more life lessons to impart -- they keep coming!

   In the spirit of moving forward, here are five useful techniques for making 
progress on the "soft side" of your family business:


   Dan Sullivan, a coach for entrepreneurs, observes that there are two kinds 
of successful people: happy and unhappy. Unhappy successful people are those 
who, despite significant blessings and success, always feel disappointed that 
they didn't achieve more. Happy successful people, on the other hand, are those 
that every now and again reflect on how far they've come. Sure, there are 
possibilities to achieve even greater goals, but they feel a sense of gratitude 
for what they've accomplished. And they tend to be happy about their 

   My point in mentioning this happy/unhappy dichotomy is that one key to 
progress is "turning around," looking back and reflecting on how far you've 
come. From growing the farm to becoming more profitable to improving the land 
to raising your kids, you have achieved much. Spend some time writing down your 
accomplishments, as you will find the effort provides the fuel to tackle the 
next round of improvements.


   Sullivan advocates developing a vision for your progress over the next few 
years. He encourages entrepreneurs to consider the following question: "If 
we're sitting here three years from now, looking back over that three years, 
what would have to have happened for you to feel good about your personal and 
business progress?" 

   We've all heard that writing down your goals portends some level of success 
in their accomplishment. In this case, visualizing and writing down "what has 
to happen for you to feel good about your progress" achieves a similar result. 
Imagining those results helps keep your mind's eye focused on the future, both 
consciously and subconsciously. The imagined future pulls you into those more 
difficult family conversations or ambiguous succession discussions. And even if 
you don't achieve all your benchmarks, there is a high degree of probability 
you will make significant progress. 


   A growing body of research and literature is focusing on gratitude and its 
positive effects. For example, the "Harvard Mental Health Letter: In Praise of 
Gratitude" ( notes: "Gratitude helps people feel more 
positive emotions, relish good experiences, improve their health, deal with 
adversity and build strong relationships." If you start your communication and 
planning efforts and meetings with a focus on those things for which you are 
thankful, the chances are that you'll not only feel better, but you will make 
more progress. Consider such expressions of gratitude a "warm-up" exercise to 
your meetings over the next year. And if one of your goals is improving a 
relationship with someone, mentioning why you are grateful for them is likely 
to open a whole new direction for your discussion.


   Family business communication, including discussions involving succession 
and estate planning, elicit deeply rooted feelings. The emotional ties to the 
land, the sense of obligation to one's vocation to feed others, the transition 
into retirement and the course of your family's history create, at times, some 
incredibly unpredictable conversations. 

   The key to progress in the soft areas is not that you accomplish a checklist 
of activities, but that you keep moving forward. It is hard to map out which 
issues you'll tackle three meetings from now, as much could change, including 
your feelings and ideas based on other family member responses. Instead, make a 
promise to meet again. Keep talking. Commit to an ongoing dialogue and through 
the process you will gain clarity about the next step.


   Several family business partners I know ask their close friends or business 
associates to "nag" them about their communication and planning efforts. An 
even better idea is to find someone who is also going through similar family 
endeavors, and agree to hold each other accountable to staying the course. 
Commit to talk monthly about what is working, where you are struggling, and 
what your next step should be. A business owner or family friend that you trust 
can often provide as much accountability, if not more, than your professional 
advisers. With mobile phones, email and text messages, an accountability 
partner can easily nudge you to keep moving.

   Improving relationships, defining the contours of your future management and 
ownership transitions and capturing elements of your legacy can undoubtedly 
feel overwhelming. But some simple habits, practiced over days, weeks and 
months, can create momentum and lead to significant progress in your family 
business improvement efforts over the next year.


   Editor's Note: Lance Woodbury is a Garden City, Kansas, author, consultant 
and professional mediator with more than 20 years' experience specializing in 
agriculture and closely-held businesses. Email questions for this column to For more on this topic, see DTN's Minding Ag's Business 
blog. Find Woodbury's past columns online at 


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