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Family Business Matters       12/30 05:00

   A Step Up Instead of a Step Down

   Consider the role of chairperson when it's time to let go as the family 
business CEO.

Lance Woodbury
DTN Farm Business Adviser

   Transitions in family agriculture businesses are often focused on the senior 
generation "letting go" and the younger generation "grabbing hold." But the 
people who let go also need something to embrace when they consider their next 
chapter. Boredom, loss of identity and the fear of no longer being relevant are 
common concerns among those facing retirement from the family farm or ranch. 
Who wants to grab hold of those kinds of issues?

   The "what next" discussion with the senior generation often involves 
hobbies, travel, moving to town or serving on boards. Those are great 
activities, but what if the senior generation has no hobbies other than farming 
or working? What if moving to town is depressing? What if traveling is not a 
realistic option or serving on church or civic committees isn't a strength?

   One way to reframe the transition so that it still has relevance for the 
business and excitement for those transitioning away from daily tasks is going 
from "CEO" to "Chairperson of the Board." That may sound like a big company 
title, but the larger point is to focus on a different set of business-related 
activities. Consider these three ways of thinking about the role change.


   If you think about a sports team, the captain is often on the field with 
their team members. They are calling the plays while playing the game -- active 
participants in the march down the field or run down the court. A coach, on the 
other hand, is on the sidelines. They are still active, but they are not 
playing. They are watching the game from a different place, thinking about 
options, planning for contingencies and looking several steps ahead, not just 
at the immediate activity.


   A CEO is often expected to tell other people what to do, keeping people 
focused on the right tasks. A chairperson, however, can work on designing more 
strategic initiatives and conversations. For example, he or she might explore 
how to diversify the balance sheet of the business. That person might 
concentrate on designing an advisory board, developing an employment policy for 
family members, finding new locations in which to operate or researching the 
latest trends in how to retain key employees. He or she is planning for some of 
the long-term opportunities and obstacles facing the organization.


   A third way to think about the chairperson role is to move away from 
supervising people and toward supporting their personal and professional 
development. The farm or ranch can get so busy with work that people lose focus 
of what Stephen Covey called "sharpening the saw," his metaphor for improving 
knowledge and skills.

   Freed from daily operational responsibilities, the chairperson can have 
conversations with employees and family members about the education and tools 
they need to be more effective. He or she can explore potential courses, 
seminars or conferences, and talk to other farms or ranches about how they are 
supporting the growth of their people. A chairperson may be near the tail-end 
of his or her career, but what better way to spend time than encouraging 
younger people to invest in those things that will make their career great?

   A love of the farming or ranching lifestyle, coupled with the demands for 
labor on a farm or ranch, can create a dynamic that makes it hard to let go. 
Reframing the transition challenge so the senior leader can grab hold of a 
chairperson role makes the generational transition easier and gives the 
retiring CEO a vital role in the ongoing life of the company.


   Write Lance Woodbury at Family Business Matters, 2204 Lakeshore Dr., Suite 
415, Birmingham, AL 35209, or email

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