Farm Succession: How to get out of the way… but not go away

Dick Wittman, Wittman Consulting

One challenge that many farmers face is how to pass the reins of an operation to a successor and how to get out of the way, but not go away.

Dick Wittman learned plenty of valuable lessons managing a family-operated 20,000 acre crop, cattle, and timber operation in northern Idaho. He now heads Wittman Consulting, specializing in farm business management and transition planning.

RealAg’s Bernard Tobin caught up with Wittman at Farm Management Canada’s annual Agricultural Excellence conference last month. The pair discuss Wittman’s insights from the process of transitioning from CEO to chair of the family operation and agricultural consultant.

“Even when you know the right processes to follow, it can be emotional — change occurs in life and so, that does invite some difficulty,” says Wittman about his transition.

Wittman says it’s important in the strategic planning process to look long-term to when a good time is for the baton hand-off. Two factors are involved: at what point was the maximum energy contributed to being a CEO or general manager; and has talent been mentored to start assuming roles, without the risk of premature failure?

Listen to the full conversation with Tobin and Wittman, story continues below: 

So how does one prepare an organization for the transition? Business culture and governance of the organization are key.

Wittman says that if you want to be viewed as a professionally-managed business, the organization needs to define professional for them.

“In my opinion it starts with saying, you need to have a professional business culture, where there’s a clearly defined mission, vision, and core values. There’s clearly defined job roles with written job descriptions and clearly defined policies on how you operate. If you have that culture in place, the role of the CEO is already clearly defined,” says Wittman.

As well as the defined organizational parameters, the skill sets are laid out, so if someone should need to step into a role, they can do that with confidence, Wittman adds.

Not putting the whole CEO role on the plate at one time helped Wittman’s daughter take the administrative duties off of Wittman’s plate as the exiting CEO.

Often times a CEO might be exiting a role, but not exiting ownership of a company. Wittman’s advice is to be transparent about that ownership, and to keep that person on, but to “change their hats” from CEO to chair. The ideal scenario is for that transitioning CEO to enter a coaching or mentorship type position, so that they’re still available but not appear to be micro-managing.

“It’s been a very delicate balance to intentionally disappear,” says Wittman.

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