Anyone who has ever been to a dairy meeting knows all about labels. Folks visiting your farm are often eager to leave behind a hat or something else with their logo on it to remind you of their company and the services or products they offer. A label can either be positive or negative, depending on what it represents to the person wearing it and to the person who sees it. That’s why companies work so hard to protect their brand; they want to make sure their label is always seen as something good.

Sebright jayne
Communications & Marketing Director / Center for Dairy Excellence

So what about the labels we are given within our own families? I grew up in a family of five siblings, and we all inherited labels during the two decades we grew up together. I was labeled as the airy sister, the one who had her head in the clouds. I got the label honestly because, in my pre-teen and early teen years, I was the one often caught singing and not paying attention while milking in the barn. I would also get lost for hours down by the creek and could never be found to help when needed. I was the dreamer, the writer and the one who never seemed to have her feet on the ground.

When it came time for me to decide what I wanted to do for the rest of my life, I knew my path wasn’t on the family dairy farm. It wasn’t just because I had different interests than what the farm offered. It was also because I felt I would never be taken seriously if I stayed on that farm. I would always be labeled as the one with her head in the clouds, even though I had grown up from that girl I once was.

In my role at the Center for Dairy Excellence, I often encounter farm families who struggle to move forward because they cannot set aside the labels they had ever since they were children. “Well, he was always a rebel, so we can’t trust his decisions.” “Well, she is the baby of the family, so she doesn’t know what she is talking about.” “Oh, he has always been a loose cannon, so we’re not sure he can manage people.” The biggest challenge with most family businesses is: They don’t know how to separate the family from the business and, unfortunately, that can lead to a breakdown in both the family and the business.

While labels give us a sense of identity, they can also become stifling, especially when the line between family and business is blurred. That is why it is important to release each other from these long-standing labels and relate to one another as individuals. But how do you create space for this to happen?

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Here are some ideas I found in articles I read recently:

  1. Create written job descriptions. At the center, our job descriptions are what we use to develop performance goals and expectations. They are also how we determine whose responsibility is what and if someone is working outside their area of responsibility. It’s also important to remember that a job description is not to be written and put on a shelf. It needs to be a breathing document, regularly reviewed to ensure the description aligns with the position and its goals. Changes to the job description need to be a two-way conversation between the supervisor and employee to ensure understanding of the role. Without well-developed job descriptions, there is simply no objective way to evaluate individual performance.
  2. Develop clear performance measures and opportunities for success. In most non-family businesses, employees will know what their performance goals are and what they have to achieve to demonstrate success. Sometimes in a family business, this isn’t as well defined. Taking the time to create a measurement tool to evaluate each employee’s performance can be how you can hold people accountable. It can also help prevent any accusations of favoritism or bias toward or against specific individuals, especially family members.
  3. Provide an open forum for idea sharing. Recently, I heard someone talk about the value of brainstorming and how different individuals brainstorm differently. Some people like being in a group setting with the opportunity to just spitball ideas around the room. Others may be more introverted and would rather have an idea board where people can share their ideas without the fear of someone shutting them down. A family farm business could offer both those forums – one could be a dry erase board outside the parlor and the other could a bi-weekly team meeting to share ideas for improvement.
  4. Place a non-family member into a leadership role. This is probably one that farm families don’t naturally embrace. But having a non-family member on your leadership team could bring several benefits to your farm. It could be a longtime employee who has demonstrated their management abilities or an outside dairy consultant who can act as an adviser to your team. Either way, they bring a level of objectivity family members simply don’t have. They also can bring a wealth of knowledge and experience you can tap to benefit your farm.
  5. Limit work time spent focused on family issues. In a non-family business, personnel conflicts are not allowed to distract from the focus on the bottom line. But too often in a family business, that can be what happens. Be careful to limit time spent in the business dealing with family issues. Encourage individuals to focus on the common goal everyone shares of seeing the business succeed and have them work out issues on their own. Sometimes stepping in too early without allowing them to resolve it on their own can just make the situation worse.
  6. Encourage empathy and self-awareness. I recently listened to a podcast where they discussed how we have an empathy deficit in this country. It’s a “Me Versus You” culture with little interest in looking at the situation from the other person’s perspective. Make sure that lack of empathy isn’t seeping into your own organization. Three things you can do to prevent that from happening are to engage in discussion, not debates; to embrace differences in opinion as an opportunity to learn a different perspective; and to just be kinder. The old adage we tell our kids still holds true: “Do unto others as you would want them to do to you.”  
  7. Practice active listening and grace. I recently interviewed a dairy farmer who just went through an ownership transition with his father. He said one thing that made the transition successful was: His father never held onto anything too tightly. There were a lot of open conversations in which they had to really listen to each other and to what they each wanted. There also was a lot of grace and forgiveness along the way. If we never forgive each other for mistakes we make, we can never learn from those mistakes and move forward.

As I said earlier, labels can give you a sense of identity and purpose in who you are. But they can also be that roadblock that keeps you from achieving all you could be. Make sure the labels you give family members are not limiting your family farm business’s ability to grow into achieving all it can be.