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Personality Plus

May 4, 2010

Greg Dell is squirming in his chair like a first grader waiting for a reprimand from the teacher. Before him is a file containing an assessment of his leadership and management style.

"I'm not sure I really want to know that much about myself,” he says, in the half joking, half serious manner that is so characteristic of his personality. Kevin Spafford, Farm Journal succession planning expert, nods knowingly. This reluctance to delve into the more personal aspects of the business is common as he consults with farmers.

"Leadership assessments,” as Spafford calls them, are a type of personality test that the family business adviser uses to better understand each farm business partner as he shepherds them through the process of farm transition and succession. The idea of the exercise is not to identify individual strengths and weaknesses but rather to reveal inherent managerial styles.

One reason Farm Journal selected the Dell family as a Legacy Project case study is that, like many farm families, the Dells are struggling to identify successors as they juggle multiple generations.

"Perhaps the most challenging aspect of building a farm succession plan is planning for management continuity,” Spafford says. "The Dells let nature take its course and two brothers have been sharing the responsibility upon Dad's retirement. That was complex enough, but the third generation is already in line and the fourth is starting to pitch in with chores.”

While the Dell farming partners are all related, each brings a unique blend of talents and ambition. Each successive generation has its own perspective on what the business culture should be, too. Add the normal frustrations of working together and a tendency to avoid talking about anything more volatile than the futures markets, and the need to understand the personality of each individual begins to make sense.

"You probably wouldn't dream of picking out a corn hybrid without matching its characteristics to your local conditions,” Spafford notes.

Early in the succession planning process, each of the Dell family partners were asked to answer a series of 66 standardized questions aimed at revealing the person they are, rather than the person they want to be. The answers were crunched by an independent consulting firm and interpreted by Spafford to provide a snapshot of how each respondent handles various issues and situations.

Initially reluctant, Greg was surprised (and relieved) to learn that the reason he enjoys working with son Tommy is because they are quite different. "We tend to balance each other instead of competing,” Greg says. "I guess I already knew this, but it helped to see it on paper.”

The test also pointed to the fact that Tommy's entry into seed corn sales fits his personality and that he's a good negotiator. His brother Doug, who is a firefighter and works as needed at the farm, learned that he loves structure and stability.

The third brother, Gary, wasn't surprised to learn of his strong-willed nature. "I took a similar test several years ago and I'm still hardheaded,” he laughs. "I'll need that trait as I keep moving toward more independence with the dairy business.” Spafford notes that Gary's scores for endurance nearly topped the charts.

Spafford likes to see the new generation structure skills so they avoid enterprises or areas of responsibility that are already staked out within the business. Learning to complement each other is not only good for father/son (business head/successor) relations but also good for the business.

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FEATURED IN: Farm Journal - Late Spring 2010

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