Taming The Elephant In The Room

What has drawn you into the role of facilitator?

It wasn’t until 15 years ago that it really started to get a name. “Succession planning” – people really knew what that meant and that was largely because of a woman here in Dubbo by the name of Lyn Sykes, so I trained under Lyn. I believe I’ve had the life experience with my formal training to actually make me as effective as I am through a skill set but also intuition is probably the biggest thing.

When you’re in a group situation facilitating a meeting – and there’s a clear process that you go through – just sensing when someone’s holding back and drawing them out is important. So, it’s understanding personalities: the extroverts and the introverts in the room. Extroverts will be clearly telling you their side. It’s my job to then draw out the introverts and make sure they feel that they’ve had their say.

What’s your elevator pitch?

I’m the person who facilitates the tough conversations.

Succession is just one of those conversations. For instance, I’m working with a large employer who’s working in this region and has used me before. They had a team of six employees who were dysfunctional. The employer had brought other people in to help; there’d been unions involved, private investigators, and the HR person was pulling her hair out.

I spent a day with them and we did the get result they wanted so now they are employing me for another team in another town.

How do you help people identify what they want?

In a nutshell, I capture the now, and that takes time, because people have different views on really what that is so we have to come to an agreement in the room on what the ‘now’ looks like.

Then I get them to think of what is possible. I don’t jump straight away with them thinking what’s possible. I’ll actually draw on their positive experience. I’ll ask them to think of the best experience they’ve had in a commercial sense.

Some might mention the butcher or the hardware store and I’ll draw out from them what made it good. I park their business and them in it, and get them to think externally. Then we’ll draw out the qualities. So they’ll say things like, “I love my butcher because he knows my name; he’s got a great smile, he’s engaging”, and things like that.

Then I ask how you can have that in your business and suggest there’s no reason why you can’t have that here in this business. Because they’ve thought about how they experienced it, I’m half way there with them, going okay it’s possible, I know that feeling – let’s transfer it over to here.

What holds people back from moving forward?

I ask my clients what would be the ideal future for them. We create that in the room. Then I look at the blockages. Between the now and the future is the how. We look at the transition.

We talk about the fact that from today their team will be stronger. They’ll know what they want but society – the group they work in, the external group – will only know them as the old way, and they’ll interact with them in the old way, so they’ll approach them with an attitude of, ‘oh, here we go again’. They need to accept that. They need to be strong as a team and through their behaviour. It will then change their way of interacting. That’s been the most effective. Finding out what they want, what are the constraints and how to over come.

Why is it important for them to practice what they learn outside your consultancy?

It makes it real. It takes it outside the safe environment I create and they get to share it externally.

Is succession planning with farmers similar to working with business teams?

Every farming family has to deal with it. Whether succession is that the whole business ceases to exist and we all move off or we transfer assets from one generation to the next. It’s been happening for generations.

When dealing with the person who’s asked me to come in – it’s usually the matriarch or patriarch of the family – I insist they have all their children there even though they’re not always in the business. If you don’t, Chinese Whispers within the family start and there’s resentment. Everyone in the family needs to have the opportunity to say what they feel should be happening. External members sometimes have their eyes opened to what is happening within the business because perhaps they’ve been told different things.

Succession infers discussions about money. What does that look like for farming families?

Farming seems to have to be continually expanding because the economies of scale aren’t here like they used to be. When you pull out the numbers and the family member in Sydney is looking at it, they generally can express what they feel; they will then say I believe what will be fair not necessarily equal.

So with succession it will either be equal value or they’ll come to an agreement within their family. Those that are in Sydney, if they were given $300/400/500,000 then that’s a lovely bonus on top of what they’re doing; to get them into a house in Sydney and their lifestyle changes dramatically. The one on the farm, when things are signed over from one day to the next, nothing’s changed. So it’s working out what will work for each family. I don’t go in with a formula that will determine it. I have a process where everyone will be heard and explore options and an option will be chosen by the family.

You give each participant an action to follow up. Why?

At the end of it I have actions: who’s going to do what. It’s really important that members of the family are assigned to speak to the accountant and someone else is to speak to the lawyers because otherwise, some families just mull over things and it will sit within the family. For instance, when I was working with the business that was dysfunctional, we brought the general manager in, we took the new skills externally. That’s really important to see progress and that actions have been taken.

Do you draw from your personal experiences?

I was very fortunate that in my family we had succession and it was straightforward. There are different models and even though mine was really positive I can’t go in and say that will suit every other family.

What are some typical areas that hinder discussions or progress?

A lot of the blockage is around change. If you think about it, a lot of farmers who own the asset, they’re probably in their late ‘60s or ‘70s. They’ve been farming for 30 or 40 years or so and in that situation they’ve been the decision maker. They probably didn’t have to consult all that widely, and suddenly they’re having people question their decisions, so it’s about change.

It’s important for me to create a safe environment for exploring options for change.

Some of those options include “what would you do off farm?” and “how does retirement look for you?” “Is it a transition?”; “Is it that you want to agree today that in five years time you’ll go or that you’ll go to town and still have some sort of management of the farm?”

I’ve found that having scenarios presented to them makes people feel like they have options. They can pick and choose what’s right for them, but the biggest blockage is around change and fear, so they need to feel supported that they can do this.

I find if people have a plan they’ll work towards it and often finish it earlier than anticipated.

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