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James family uses delegated meeting process for family meetings

By Jean Caspers-Simmet

Date Modified: 02/24/2014 11:24 PM

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AMES —With three generations involved in various enterprises, the James Ranch has had to perfect the process for efficient and effective family meetings. Family members who are part of the James Ranch at Durango, Colo., shared their process at the recent Practical Farmers of Iowa annual meeting.

David and Kay James have raised beef cattle on their 450-acre James Ranch since 1961. Daughter Julie Ott and her husband returned around 1993 to grow landscaping trees and raise pastured chicken eggs. Daughter Jenn James Wheeling and husband Joe added a fresh produce enterprise. Other family members make artisan cheese from their Jersey herd, raise pigs and operate the on-farm Garden Grill and Greens for visitors.

Three generations generate five farm family incomes.

"The importance to us to have our family together and be successful and the love we have for each other really influences this conflict issue," said David James. "We want to be successful and love each other and produce these wonderful products. When you have that driving you, it just makes it so much fun."

The James family holds family meetings three to four times per year where big structural issues are discussed.

"We have 12 to 22 participants because depending on when we meet makes a difference in whether the grandchildren are available," Wheeling said.

The problem with meetings is that often one person dominates, there's no agenda or there is "an agenda with the agenda," Wheeling said.

When he worked for a multi-national company, he learned about Alain Cardon's delegated meeting process. The family has adapted it for their use.

"The whole premise is to develop people," Wheeling said. "It's also your biggest challenge because people don't like to give feedback or they don't know how to give appropriate feedback, but we felt that was really important because if we're going to move forward as a family, everyone has to be ready to move forward."

The James' family makes group decisions based on consensus.

Delegated meetings have designated roles with specific responsibilities that rotate among family members.

"That's the development piece," Wheeling said. "Someone will be a great moderator. Someone else won't, but everyone has to learn."

The moderator creates the agenda and meeting structure. The moderator designates a timel ine for decision making and keeps the family focused on the agenda.

"The moderator is the conductor of the band," Wheeling said.

The pacer manages the timing and rhythm of the meeting.

"The pacer is the drummer," Wheeling said.

The scribe records decisions, confirms them and distributes the minutes as soon as possible.

The decision driver encourages family members to develop solutions. When there is consensus, the decision driver moves things on to the next level.

The coach gives feedback at the end of the meeting or will do so during the meeting.

"This is the most important and difficult role," Wheeling said. "The goal is to improve for the future. A good coach knows when to utilize positive or negative feedback."

The James family added the role of goal keeper. If a decision is going to break with the family's big picture holistic goals, the goal keeper keeps the group focused on quality decisions.

"The whole concept is to leave the game at the table," Wheeling said.

A host who provides a meeting location, plans for food, which is generally potluck, and organizes childcare or activities for children who are too young to participate.

Depending on the size of a family operation some of these roles can be combined but a minimum of three to four people are needed to make it work, Wheeling said.

"You rotate through all the roles and you find some family members are really good at one role but not so good at another," Wheeling said. "That's okay. With consensus decisions, everyone is responsible for the outcome. It's a whole lot of handshaking and working together to make it all work."

During the PFI conference, the James family also presented a session on growing farm family incomes while retaining family harmony and led a discussion on multi-generation farming.