The Power of Questions
Barb Dartt, DVM, MS
Male farmer leaning on tractor in a field with the sunsetting in the background.

There will come a time during your family business succession journey when progress requires you to give up what you love to do and what you are very good at…to make room for successors to learn, grow and flourish. This is some of the hardest work of succession.

Part of the trauma in this process has to do with watching your successor—bright, passionate, energetic and someone you have great confidence in —make decisions that you’ve made for 20 or 30 years. As you would expect, they make some missteps. They collect the wrong information. They take too much time. They move slowly on small decisions and too quickly on big, complex ones. They don’t treat people right. They screw up.

As the senior team member (some prefer seasoned team member), it is often hard to know when to step in. How do you ensure they make some mistakes but none that are too big? How long do you let them bark up the wrong tree?

Recently, I had the honor of watching Scott, one senior generation member (who would NOT appreciate that title), hit the ball out of the park while guiding a successor.

Scott is the CEO and the oldest of a four sibling ownership team. He is fast paced, smart and loves to engage in stimulating conversation. Scott, while effective at his job, does like folks to know how smart he is. And Scott does not suffer fools lightly. He can easily dominate a conversation. Over the 26 years he and his brothers have worked together, his brothers have taught themselves to defer to him. And why not? Scott is almost always right. His guidance has brought the business a lot of success.

However, Scott (and his brothers) have recognized that his natural style—which has been a strength of the business for a long time—will not position it for long term success.
Scott’s youngest brother, Derek, is the successor in the business – he is 15 years younger than Scott. And today, Derek presented a feasibility study to the owner team about a potential significant investment that he (and Scott) had developed. Scott has traditionally done the majority of this kind of work and he’s been the one to present and lead discussion.
Derek had worked very hard to be ready for the presentation. He’d done his homework, gotten Scott’s input and worked with an outside consultant on both the content of his report and his presentation style.

I have watched Scott in similar situations before. When he already understands the content of a report, Scott has a hard time staying patient. He fidgets. He sometimes adds a point but then takes the conversation off topic. Scott’s become aware of these tendencies and their effect on other’s confidence.

Today, Scott was a superstar—just like Derek was. He was relaxed. He listened well. And when he thought Derek missed something, he asked a question. And it was a great question. The tone was truly curious. He deferred to Derek’s knowledge and really asked his opinion on the topic – it wasn’t a rhetorical question that he already knew the answer to (well…it didn’t sound rhetorical).

Questions can be transformative. And sometimes very hard for experts to ask effectively. Questions can make the asker vulnerable—someone out there might think you don’t know something when you ask a question. And for the CEO, who’s been charged to know everything for a very long time, vulnerability can be a very hard place to put yourself.

Another situation that can be transformed with questions is when you’re called upon to be a great listener. Maybe someone in your family or business has approached you with a business concern. Maybe someone is objecting to your viewpoint and you’re feeling a little heated. Maybe you’re giving them feedback they aren’t excited about hearing (like their poor performance or disruptive behavior). In this case, it can be very powerful to paraphrase what they have said—not a question, technically. But certainly an opening for another to respond. Use something like the following: “So what you’re saying is….,” Or, “If I understand, what you mean is….” Another benefit of this approach is that it slows YOU down. Gives you time to get control of your emotion and to ensure you truly understand another.

As a business and opinion leader, the next time you are tempted to add your perspective or to leap into an important and potentially tense conversation, take a deep breath first. And then respond in the form of a question. A real question— not one designed to point out what you know or to score points. And get the tone right…tone probably contributes 90 percent of the effectiveness of a question.

And when you get it right, watch the successor bloom with confidence and initiative. Or enjoy participating in a meaningful exchange where you really begin to understand someone, rather than escalating a tense situation.

What an honor it was to watch Scott and Derek become a case study in how some of the hardest work of succession pays off.

Barb Dartt is a consultant with the Family Business Consulting Group, working with families and management teams to help them keep their business healthy and the people happy. Barb can be reached at 269-382-0539 or

The opinions stated herein are not necessarily those of GreenStone Farm Credit Services.

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