Friday, July 3, 2015

A change of command
(Part 2 of 2)

April 1998

Like other events that only occur once in your life, farm succession can be hampered by a feeling of “Where to begin?” or, “Now what?”. My early career training in the military gave me a different model that might help. Farm succession has many similarities to a military change-of-command. The actual process could proceed as follows: 

Step 1: “I am ready to relieve you.”

You think so? It has been my experience that sons are born ready to replace their fathers, and frequently learn later that they weren’t quite as prepared as they thought. 
  • Relief is initiated by the oncoming watch, or the son. Many mid-career farmers feel they are ready to take over, and share this conviction with everyone in the community except their fathers. Perhaps their situation is perversely logical. If you cannot steel yourself enough to declare your own self-confidence to your predecessor, you may not be ready for control.
  • Are you really ready to relieve this watch? Can you make decisions? Have you a record of meeting responsibilities and fulfilling commitments? Are you willing to be held accountable as the one in charge?
  • Are there things that the father alone knows? Can you deal with a crisis? A quick test is if you can run the farm while your dad is on vacation without calling him. 
  • Are you established professionally? Have you always depended on Dad for “contacts”, information and public relations? Do you have any professional identity other than “John’s  oldest boy”?
Step 2: “I am ready to be relieved.”

This statement is the reply to the oncoming watch from the watchstander. It doesn’t merely mean “I’m tired”, but signals a number of preparations have been made:
  • The successor is ready. One of my submarine captains told me his highest duty was to train future captains.  
  • Pick a time of relative steadiness. Obviously the middle of harvest is not a good time, but neither is during a divorce, an audit or family feud.
  • The paperwork is up to date. For a farm, records are becoming critically important. You aren’t ready to be relieved if you can’t find the top of your desk.
  • An accounting has been prepared. If the transition involves financial transactions, they should be executed now, not at some vague date in the future.
  • This statement means a decision to step aside has been reached and will be followed through. It implies a commitment to the change and satisfaction with your successor. 
Step 3: “I relieve you.”

With these words, the successor lifts the burden of responsibility onto his own shoulders. No longer can he think only of himself, but of the good of the farm, until he is relieved in turn.

If you are the oncoming farmer, make sure you understand the nature of your agreement. This moment will change your life and your predecessor’s. The privilege to farm in America in 1998 is desperately sought by many. Even when taken seriously, farms often struggle to compete today. When treated lightly, a lack of commitment will hasten an unfortunate decline.

There is an implication here that can be overlooked. When you take command, you also take responsibility, which means, painfully put, everything is now, by definition, your fault. Don’t relieve the watch and then complain about the shape of the farm or blame mistakes on the “previous administration”. Authority and responsibility are two sides of the same coin. Especially in public, griping about the situation you have assumed, is both mean-spirited and self-destructive.

If I had my way, this step in the ritual would be accomplished in front of witnesses and family - like a wedding or baptism. I have attended naval changes-of-command and am always moved by the power of public promises to add depth of purpose to our lives. Not only the two participants, but all present can feel renewed by the triumph of the human spirit over time. 

Step 4: “I stand relieved. _____ has command.”

These two statements bring the process to a full and satisfactory conclusion. The first statement is an acknowledgment of a new status as former commander. It is an expression of, well, relief. More than a few times I was glad to make this statement after a particularly difficult watch.

But the most important part to me is the announcement of the new commander. When a son replaces you as the “farmer” make sure everyone who has any connection with the farm knows and respects the change. Tell the landlords, salesmen, customers, grain dealers, neighbors, etc. and then don’t slip back into old habits of operation.  Your replacement must be immediately and fully confirmed in status by your actions. 

Above all, remember the new operator has the same rights to select business associates as did you, even to the point of altering some long-standing relationships. Any working arrangement that is based solely on personal ties will now necessarily be exposed as such, and cannot be expected to survive.

This then, is my paradigm of succession. We have been privileged with lives of astonishing personal freedom. If for no other reason than to show our gratitude, we should be determined to make the most graceful and efficient exit possible.

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