Woodbury: Farm Family Business


By Lance Woodbury
DTN Farm Family Business Adviser

Several nights ago I attended a dinner to hear about the Dale Carnegie training courses in Kansas. Carnegie was of no relation to Andrew Carnegie but changed the original spelling of his name -- Carnagey -- to match that of the famous businessman and philanthropist. Andrew was best known as a successful salesman who began teaching others how to speak in public. In 1936 he published the business best-seller, "How to Win Friends and Influence People."

As I read through Carnegie's "Golden Book," which is a short version of his guiding principles, I was struck by how much better some of our family business interactions might be if we tried to play by Carnegie's rules. Here are a few to consider and some thoughts on how they apply to family business.


This is Carnegie's first rule, in the section on "Become a Friendlier Person," and I was told this is the only rule framed from a negative perspective (i.e. "Don't" do something). As we talked about the rule, the speaker asked us to think about people who do a lot of complaining and who are always negative. Are they fun to be around? Do we enjoy their company? Do we look forward to interacting with them? Usually, we don't.

Partners in a family business have grown up together and are often comfortable sharing their concerns and frustrations. The danger is that they begin to always start with their frustrations, talking primarily about what's not working in the business. There is no counter-balance with conversation about what's going well, where you are making progress and what you appreciate, which are all the things that contribute to a better feeling about the future, not to mention a better felling about the person with whom you are talking. So in your time spent with family members, if you (or they) spend most of your time criticizing, condemning or complaining, don't be surprised if other family members don't want to spend time with you.


This principle, number 18 in the section, "Win People to Your Way of Thinking," can be really hard to practice with family members, particularly if they are persistent in presenting their ideas. I often observe younger family members who return to the farm or ranch after college or other work experiences with a hunger to improve the operation. Or I see in-laws and spouses with ideas based on their outside experiences that could benefit the business. Those ideas sometimes clash with the way things have been done for decades and the result is conflict between or within generations.

Sympathy, however, does not necessarily mean agreement with the other person's ideas. Both generations can acknowledge one another's interest in making the operation better. Both generations can appreciate one another's ideas by fully exploring, or hearing out, the thought process on why a change should be considered, or the rationale for keeping things the same. Both generations can demonstrate respect by debating the pros and cons of certain ideas. But too often, the effort behind the idea is never acknowledged, or the idea is dismissed without apparent consideration. The unfortunate result of not following this rule, over time, is a culture in which one person is always against the other person's ideas, regardless of their merit.


Principle number 24 comes from the section, "Be a Leader." There are several timeless rules on how to be more effective as a leader in any setting, but this idea of acknowledging your own mistakes builds relationships in several ways. First, it conveys a sense of humility, creating a more responsive mindset with the listener. (Think about how "open" you are to a blow-hard who berates everyone they see.) Second, it shows you are vulnerable, which leads to building trust. Third, it reinforces the idea that making mistakes is normal, and some of our best lessons come from our mistakes.

Over the years I've seen some very powerful changes in family dynamics come about because a family member admitted their own mistakes before pointing out or requesting changes in others. The act of sincerely admitting your own faults before indicating someone else's creates an opening for a different conversation than what has occurred in the past.

Someone said in our dinner meeting that Dale Carnegie's rules are "common sense." The speaker agreed, but pointed out that sometimes we need reminded of the basics, and that by focusing on some really simple principles, we can quickly improve our relationships with others and increase our own confidence. Consider the basics of how you treat your family business partners. Try applying some of Carnegie's principles. And watch some of the relationships take a turn for the better.


Editor's note: Lance Woodbury writes family business columns for both DTN and our sister magazine, "The Progressive Farmer." He is a Garden City, Kansas, author, consultant and professional mediator with more than 20 years of experience specializing in agriculture and closely-held businesses. Email questions for this column to Lance@agprogress.com. Find all of DTN farm business columnists online at https://www.dtnpf.com/…