By Greg Wolf
According to American Heritage Dictionary, "brand-new" means "being in a fresh and unused condition; completely new." There is nothing quite like experiencing something that is brand-new. During 2008, my family welcomed a brand-new baby boy into our home. We enjoyed the first brand-new snow of this winter. Even this monthly column is brand-new, a first for myself and Kennedy and Coe, LLC in the pages of High Plains/Midwest Ag Journal. Something brand-new is the antithesis of the tried and true, because you just don't know for sure what to expect. Even though we sometimes hear that "the past is prologue," which places today in the context of our history, a year that is brand-new still presents far more questions than answers. Even a brief look back at 2008 reveals some events that I could never have imagined just one year ago, both personally and in the world around us. And so, we enter this brand-new year, and this brand-new experience with uncertainty, but also with anticipation and hopefulness.
The majority of the services that our firm provides are to multigenerational, closely-held businesses. Since I work in the Ag Group, the largest industry representation within Kennedy and Coe, LLC, that means farm, ranch and other ag-oriented family businesses. One of the strengths of many of those businesses is their longevity and resilience through multiple generations and business cycles. However, that same strength can also represent a challenge, as years of experience do not in every case translate into lessons for a brand-new year. Some clients come to mind that are first-generation farmers or ranchers who have appreciated not having had to sort through past paradigms that they perceive would have slowed them down. This is not to suggest the superiority of one or the other, but rather to focus on a few concepts that all businesses should keep in mind for a brand-new year, regardless of what the prologue of the past may be. Among many, following are just three to think about.
First, keep the big picture of your business in mind--past, present AND future. In other words, today stands in the context, not just of our past, which is a given, but our future, which is yet unknown but can be envisioned. Each month I enjoy the editorials in the Stockman Grass Farmer and, in December, Allan Nation quoted a business owner as saying that "you build a business with the end in mind, not the beginning." That owner wasn't pretending he knew what the future held, or even what decisions he might make in the future, but rather with a view toward the big picture: purpose and possibilities of being in business. In consulting we sometimes refer to this as "the big WHY?" Why are we in business? Why are we in this business? Why am I in this business? Why are we doing the things we are this year? And so on. These are tough questions to answer objectively, but those willing to give them a good think and share some responses to them benefit as they experience another year of business.
Second, don't forget the distinction between the end and the means. Even when we can't define objectively what the particular "end" will be, we can envision broadly the possible outcomes we are moving toward, and then choose what seem to be the best means for getting there. For example, in production agriculture one of the big picture outcomes of our industry is translating sunlight energy into edible food sources for the world's people. That worthy end is often beyond our direct sight, but it nevertheless gives a good context for the many decisions that are required in a business day to day, month to month, and year to year. Making crop and rotation choices, managing grazing programs, choosing to run stockers or cow-calf, all represent some of the means of achieving that end of feeding people. Of course, there are financial and marketing considerations as well, but none of these stand alone. Rather, they are only part of the means our business uses toward bigger and better ends.
Lastly, evaluate the ability of your business to adapt. Business environments, and production agriculture as much as any other, are dynamic, not static. A brand-new year presents circumstances that are perhaps similar but yet a little different than we've ever seen before, both internally and externally. Success requires good information to inform our progress, good communication to share it, and good decision-making processes to renew and adapt our direction. Certain milestones are especially appropriate for all three. The beginning of a new year is one of them, and provides a great opportunity for renewal. Another that is not quite as well defined, but is just as important, is the succession process among generations. A younger generation has much to gain from the wisdom and experiences of those past, but those lessons have to be personally applied to the circumstances lying ahead to have real value and relevance. Past, present, and future--all are relevant to the year ahead.
Editor's note: Greg Wolf is a consultant with Kennedy and Coe, LLC (www.kcoe.com) and works to help clients of the firm navigate toward better returns in all areas of their businesses. He is based in the firm's Pratt, Kan., office and can be reached at 620-672-7476.