How to hold effective meetings in a family business โ€“ Part 1

Family farming businesses in Australia is a big deal.

A large proportion of people we talk to are involved in a family farming business in some way, whether directly on-farm, or in a support capacity off-farm.

While this conjures up some fairly evocative and ‘warm’ imagery of a harmonious family environment (which by the way can be leveraged to position your business differently with consumers), in reality a family business comes with its own unique set of circumstances and issues.

Many people join our business development programs with the express intent of improving their business skills (often the ‘hard skills’ – such as financial management). However, more often than not, the ‘soft skills’ such as managing family dynamics and communication become the major discussion point.

“When you live and work with the same people, it’s often difficult to separate work and family life.
Patterns we have in our personal lives and relationships often spill into our business, and vice versa.”

Sisters might not communicate well in the business because growing up, they never really got on. Or a father might not want to relinquish control of the business to a son and his wife, because he can’t move past the father-son dynamic.

Fundamentally, most difficulties arise in family businesses because of a break-down in communication. Sure, there may be challenges that won’t go away (e.g. Mum just can’t seem to find common ground with the new daughter-in-law that has just come into the family), but most of these can be managed effectively if there is good communication.

One of the most effective way of communicating and connecting with others in the business is through family meetings. For this reason, over the next few weeks we’ll be exploring this in a little more detail, through the following main areas:

  1. How to set up a family meeting
  2. How to run a family meeting
  3. How to maintain change after a family meeting

Each week will deliver the next topic, so keep an eye out for them.

This week we explore “How to set up a family meeting?”

Part 1: How to set up a family meeting

1. What’s the purpose?

The first step is to be clear on the purpose the meeting. Too often, meetings are held just because it seemed like a good idea or the accountant suggested it.  Meetings may also often get derailed as operational issues always seem to take over the meeting, or personal issues get in the way of business decision making.

Meetings or get-togethers are organised for a variety of reasons, and it is important everyone is aware of the intention of the meeting.

These include:

  • Operational meetings – where you will discuss what needs to be done that day or that week, and is very focussed on practical detail. An example might be a weekly toolbox meeting, where tasks are discussed with operational staff.
  • Management meetings – these will generally be more focussed on management concerns such as sales performance, marketing activities and customer management, business performance against budget, product direction, human resources concerns, how the business is tracking against its 5 year goals. An example might be a monthly or quarterly Advisory Board Meeting.
  • Strategic meeting – discussing strategic planning issues such as overall business direction, business plans for the coming year, diversification options, etc. These might be held 6-monthly or annually, and generally have the express intention of keeping a ‘helicopter view’ to avoid getting bogged in the detail.
  • Succession planning meetings – while broader discussions about succession should be had at the strategic meetings (after all, this is a huge factor in identifying business direction), and in some instances succession concerns might be discussed at a management meetings, dedicated meetings for succession should be established, particularly in the planning phase because of the intensely personal and emotional nature of succession. 
Meetings may also often get derailed as operational issues always seem to take over the meeting, or personal issues get in the way of business decision making.

2. Set a time and date

This sounds pretty obvious, but too often in family situations, we say things like “let’s get together next Friday”. Then next Friday comes and something else has come up, or someone forgot, and we defer, and defer again, and often the meeting doesn’t ever happen.

In a formal work environment, this would not be tolerated, because people’s time is important! To make sure meetings actually happen, set a date, as well as a time, and make sure it is in everyone’s diaries.

These days, email accounts come with a calendar, so set the appointment up and send it to everyone. Then there are no excuses for people not being aware of it.

In a formal work environment, not attending or always delaying a meeting would not be tolerated, because people’s time is important!

3. Choose a location

Often a meeting is convened around the kitchen table, in some cases over a meal. In order to create a degree of separation between business and personal life, it is preferable to choose another location. The best-case scenario is doing it somewhere off-farm, though this isn’t always possible.

This helps people shift into a different state of mind, and helps separate personal matters from work.

4. Give it the degree of formality it warrants

This might sound impractical, however we advocate people getting dressed in a way that is befitting something such as a management meeting. Not only does this force an emotional and mental reset (“I am no longer in the paddock”), it helps separate operational concerns from management concerns.

5. Circulate an agenda and papers beforehand

A meeting is always more effective when it is a discussion, not a discovery. If there are important topics to be discussed, people need to be forewarned. This way,  they have time beforehand to process and consider their thoughts. This also helps avoid the emotional responses and discussions that often derail meetings.

And where people have to report on progress at these meetings, they must have created the associated documentation beforehand. This will be really difficult for many people, but will always make for a more productive meeting.

Circulating an agenda and papers beforehand also helps avoid the emotional responses and discussions that often derail meetings.

6. Someone must take ownership over making this happen

This is perhaps one of the most important elements. The above things will only happen if someone takes charge and drives the process. It will often require a cultural and behavioural change amongst others in the family, so be prepared for some push back, and acknowledge it will take time to get it right.

But the benefits of a more orderly, structured and focussed business, where everyone feels they have input, will definitely be worth the short term pain.

Keep an eye out for Parts 2 and 3 over the coming weeks!


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