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‘I’m smarter than you’ and when brilliance becomes a weakness

Andy Junkin for Progressive Dairy Published on 19 April 2021

Bob was a brilliant farmer. The problem was: Bob was a brilliant farmer.

Bob often went and bought equipment without his wife’s involvement in the decision … even though she was the one juggling the bills. (Bob’s wife is a 50-50 partner in the operation.)

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“It’s better to ask for forgiveness than permission,” Bob had often joked. For years, Bob had made decisions fast and rarely made mistakes. He milked 100 times more cows than when he started in 1982. He was a very smart and successful farmer.

Yet this not communicating about big purchases had been a big issue in their marriage. Now it was being amplified as their kids went and demonstrated the same behavior. Bob had two sons and a daughter now farming with him. Bob’s third son, Caleb, had a similar “wheeler and dealer” mentality. Just last week, Caleb bought a farm that touched one of theirs for pennies on the dollar at a bankruptcy sale. The problem was: He never mentioned buying this farm to his partners. When his siblings eventually found out, they disagreed with the decision and couldn’t understand what value it was to the farm beyond a nicely wooded place to ATV with their kids.

In this case, brilliance was this family’s weakness, not their strength. Why? Because each partner was convinced that their thoughts were more important than their partners’ thoughts. Everyone had an “I’m smarter than you” attitude, especially Bob.

As a result, everyone was making purchases independently saying: “If he can buy that without asking, I can buy this because I think we really need it.” Spending was quickly getting out of control. Money was tight, and tensions were skyrocketing.

However, the problem wasn’t the purchasing decisions. Each partner had good intentions, and most of their decisions could easily be justified. The problem was: Each individual was acting like an individual. They might have been partners on paper, but the family wasn’t making decisions together as partners. And if they didn’t change this independent attitude, they were all headed toward a nasty split.

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The biggest advantage of a partnership should be that you have many partners dissecting the same problems in different ways, leading to a better answer than one person could give on their own. That is the theory, but few farms tap into this as a competitive advantage – because pride takes hold.

You probably know of a similar story to Bob’s. Obviously, we are talking about your neighbors, not your farm. But just “asking for a friend,” what do you do when you are in the middle of a situation like this?

1. You’ve got to kill the “I’m smarter than you” attitude. Kill it as if it was your worst enemy – because it is. Your partners might not blatantly pronounce “I’m smarter than you,” but if there is even a glimmer of it, beat it down. Because if you don’t, regardless of what policies your partnership might have, someone will always go behind your back to make decisions without your involvement (until it’s too late).

2. Embrace the word “humility” as a core part of your family business culture. You could print out the definition of “humble” or have a half-dozen motivational posters around the farm office. But the real humbling question everyone should ask themselves daily is: “What does my partner think about this and why?” Put your partners first. Tattoo this question on your wrist if you have to because it is a critical question you should ask yourself daily in order to have a successful farming partnership. If you are constantly thinking from someone else’s perspective and walking in the shoes of your partner, an attitude of mutual respect will set in to your family’s business culture.

3. If you get better at communicating and respecting your partner’s opinions daily, like a reflex you will actually want to know the opinion of your partner before you make a big decision. It just takes practice.

Create a set time every day and every week to overcommunicate. Spending an extra 10 minutes a day and one hour a week will eliminate hundreds of hours of wasted, stupid family drama each year. Make sure to have a phone call around sunset every day with all your key partners (not just one of them) to plan who is doing what the next day. As part of that, if someone (for example) mentions they need to purchase a piece of equipment or improvise to fix an unexpected breakdown, get everyone’s input during that phone call prior to that decision. Do this by stating a few options of what you are thinking about doing and ask them if there is a “different way to skin the cat.” If the decision can wait and needs more time to discuss, wait until your weekly meeting to make this decision.

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When you make this a regular habit of getting everyone’s input on small decisions, then when you make bigger decisions, pride won’t be a factor that skews rational decision-making.

In my line of work, I have seen the reality that the farming partnerships actually killed by external factors such as commodity market swings or unpredictable weather are few-and-far-between compared to the death rate from the internal disease “I am smarter than you.” I have seen some of the smartest farmers do the stupidest things to prove they are smarter than their partners. Smart farmers who don’t listen to their partners won’t have a partnership to even talk about in a decade.

Fix the root problem. Don’t just complain about an unknown purchase showing up in your yard. Eliminate the “I’m smarter than you” attitude. Turn working with family from a weakness into your business’s competitive strength.  end mark

Andy “Bobcaygeon” Junkin’s niche is helping stubborn farmers work better together. Like podcasts? You can listen for free to his audiobook Bulletproof Your Farm on your cellphone while you work. Go to Agriculture Strategy or call (800) 474-2057 for more information.

Andy Junkin
  • Andy Junkin

  • Farm Succession Expert

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