April 27, 2016
I occasionally lead workshops I call Hard Work and Harmony: Effective Relationships In Family Businesses. In it I like to ask participants to explain to the person next to them why they ranch. Some say they love being their own boss, or love working outdoors and with livestock. Almost all of them say something about loving the lifestyle. Near the top of most people’s lists is, “It’s a great place to raise a family.”
I agree. I grew up on a small place. The biology lessons I learned from tending livestock were more influential than any I ever had in a classroom. I learned other lessons too. I learned how to work hard and how to be resourceful. But it wasn’t just about work. Our place was a great setting for any adventure my imagination could conjure up. My mom sold it when I was in college and it just about broke my heart.
A ranch can be a great place to raise a family, but it isn’t always. I worked with a rancher shortly after my son, Jack, was born. When we broke for lunch he asked about my new baby. I told him that when they placed Jack in Kathy’s arms for the first time, I could hardly see him for the tears of joy streaming down my face. Tears welled up in his eyes too, but they weren’t tears of joy. Trying to hold back a flood of emotion, he told me how he had worked sun up to sun down to build a place “for the generations to come.” He said that he hadn’t been as involved in his children’s lives as he should have been. As we sat on the hill, he told me that now he rarely hears from his adult children, who want no part of the ranch. A ranch can be a great place to raise a family, but it is not a substitute for our active involvement in family life.
Many ranchers are addicted to work. I’ll bet you’ve even heard some of your colleagues brag about how long and hard they work, proudly proclaiming things like, “I haven’t taken a vacation in 20 years.” They say it as though it is something to be proud of. When I hear things like that I shake my head wondering, “Are things that bad?” You can’t run a sustainable business on unsustainable effort.
Intentional or not, work can become an excuse to avoid working through the issues every healthy family faces at one point or another. When work consistently takes precedence over family needs, we set ourselves and our families up for trouble. Engaging in what may be uncomfortable conversations when issues first come up can keep them from growing into big problems.
In the last few months I’ve met a number of people who are learning that lesson the hard way. After decades of avoiding uncomfortable family issues they are facing extremely difficult challenges regarding succession. Now, without any experience working with one another to resolve small issues, they are hoping to work through the most difficult challenges many of us will ever face. The conversations are made even more difficult because of the hurts that have gone untended and the resentments that have grown from not taking care of the family in the family business. It’s a tough way to learn that success has more to do with healthy relationships than with conception rates and balance sheets.
I don’t mean to suggest that the physically demanding work that ranches require can be ignored, but it doesn’t have to be all consuming. Many Ranching For Profit School alumni have discovered that the ranch was all consuming only because they allowed it to be that way. After the school they restructured the business to increase profit and liberate their time to put more life in their work/life balance. They still work as hard as anyone, just not as long. Their ranches are great places to raise their families, andthey actually take the time and make the effort to be directly involved in raising them.