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Family business harmony

There are a number of good expressions of family business harmony. And one I especially like draws from our agricultural heritage here in the High Plains. That is--"pulling together," referencing the importance of all horses in a hitch essentially doing the same thing, in the same direction, in the same way and at the same time. I've always enjoyed reading about horsepower, and I've marveled at the dramatic hitches of bygone days. Teams of two were most common among workhorses, although hitches were also made up of threes, "four ups," "eight ups," and all the way up to over forty horses, which often pulled grain harvesters in the High Plains.

Forty-plus horse hitches have been recreated in more recent years for recreational and promotional events, and have helped give some perspective on the task which is several orders of magnitude more difficult than hitching a simple team of two. A forty-horse hitch, with four abreast, and "10 up," stretches approximately 150 feet from front to back. The driver of such a hitch carries 75 pounds of reins, when slack, in five sets. Those five sets go out to the 10th, 8th, 5th, 2nd, and 1st rows of horses, and the other rows are tied together with bucklines and bit-to-bits. In one such hitch, the driver sat on an eight-foot high platform in order to see out over all 10 four-horse spans. Horses in a huge hitch like that all have different roles--from the "lead" row in front to the "wheel" row in back, and it just goes without saying that "pulling together" is paramount. Furthermore, on the human side of the equation, there is not just a driver involved, but up to 60 people in various roles, including riders on lead horses helping to organize and manage both the hitching process as well as the work of the hitch. Surely, they even marveled at these hitches "back in the day!"

Another significant aspect of these huge hitches was that the difficulty of managing the hitch grew according to the task at hand and the conditions, both externally and internally. For example, turning the hitch was a challenge, as the horses had to learn to stay together through a turn, and the outside horses would have to move much more quickly than the inside horses. And, as speed picked up, so did the difficulty and risk. Another tough task was taking the hitch up and down, or sideways, across hillsides--imagine taking a large harvester through Palouse country. Inside the hitch were additional dilemmas, such as weak links in equipment, and the inevitable differences in size, stamina, speed, strength and surefootedness among the horses.

There is a profound application here to family business harmony. Success through multiple generations of family or closely-held businesses, certainly requires pulling together. And that pulling together is not simplistic or even intuitive, but requires significant effort and experience and exponentially more so as both internal and external conditions grow in size and complexity. The job of the driver is not just one of "holding the reins" but of "harnessing" the immense capabilities of those in the "hitch" to accomplish specific tasks and purposes in harmony with each other and those on the outside that are, in some fashion, involved in the hitch. Parallels between family business and huge hitches could go well beyond the scope of this column.

So how do family businesses remain in harmony and pulling together? There are four tools that are used in business--and, they are invaluable--not just in corporate businesses but in closely-held ones, perhaps even more so. They are the definition of a business's mission, vision, values and goals. I use the word definition rather than discovery or creation, because in many cases these things already exist and in others they need to be developed. But, in all cases, they need definition. Unity around collective definition of these four areas is what joins the "together" with the "pulling."

Our mission is "what we do," and it only sounds easy to define it. It is worth asking the members of your organization, in private and through a third party, just what your business mission is. The range of responses from the "driver" to the young "wheel horses," might give a clearer picture of how hard this often is. Defining a vision is more forward-looking, and speaks of "where we are going." Parallels to the hitch are obvious. Again, it only sounds simple, but in actuality defining a vision involves a lot of long, hard, and ongoing work together (which is not to say it can't be fun, or fulfilling).

Defining values includes sharing together and establishing some sense of "who we are"--what we believe and how we live out that belief. This is not a shallow or superficial exercise, and pays dividends to a family through both the outcome as well as the process of discussing and defining values together. Lastly, goal definition is more about "where do we go from here"--a practical application of what we do, and where we are going, consistent with who we are, in measurable steps.

This is quite a brief overview of a very complex subject for a family business, and levels of formality vary widely. But every family business that is effectively pulling together in harmony will, like a huge hitch, be essentially doing the same thing (mission), in the same direction (vision), in the same way (values), and at the same time (goals). Gitty up!

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.



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