RL highlights: Isobel Knight
Planning for success...ion
In 2013, a host of diverse women from around Australia were recognised as emerging leaders through the Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation’s Rural Women’s Award.
Winners from the states and territories were honoured for their achievements in an array of fields, from mental health to forestry.
One of perhaps the timeliest awardees however, was NSW/ACT winner and national runner up, Isobel Knight.
2014 heralds the International Year of Family Farming, and Isobel has been recognised for a project designed to tackle one of the most important elements of family farming in Australia: Succession planning.
While her husband is involved heavily in running the family farm at Loomberah, near Tamworth, Isobel has launched herself into an area where she says many farming families are often ill-prepared.
Through her small business, proAGtive, Isobel says she is one of the few working in the succession planning landscape who specialise in understanding the dynamics and many layers that the process encompasses.
“People being proactive about succession planning has not been great in rural Australia,” she says frankly.
“Very few people actually seek professional help.”
Isobel received a $10,000 bursary as a part of the State award, as well as an additional $10,000 bursary as national runner-up.
She is going to use this funding to develop an online platform for succession planning that rural businesses and families can easily access and use.
“I am hoping that through the platform I’m creating, it will cause people to become more proactive and better educated,” she says.
“There are really no existing institutions for succession planners, and no standard for delivery. Often services offered to farming families are very solutions-oriented, rather than establishing needs first,” she explains.
“Those who undertake succession planning in a more proactive fashion are better off. The ones who leave it until it’s too late don’t have the same outcomes. It begins with good communication, and when left too late this is quite challenging,” she says.
“If families put more structure into their business, that’s the tip of the iceberg. But they need more tools and help. That’s where we come in.”
A lawyer and psychologist, Isobel says she has tailored her skills to aid families through effective succession planning.
“I saw such an enormous need, so I steeled my determination to study for it, and I’ve been studying for 20 years,” she says.
Add to this trips to the United States to visit families grappling with succession planning and the services available to help them, and her own passion for farming and rural life, and Isobel has a huge amount of empathy for families faced with the question: when is it time to hand over the farm reins and who is equipped to take them?
“It’s important that the issues facing families are not taken lightly… And they can smell a phony a mile off,” she adds.
“But there’s not much they can throw on the table that I don’t have experience of. I live and breathe the same world they do; my father was a farmer, my grandfathers were farmers and I’m married to a farmer. It’s why I choose to work in this area I’m passionate about,” Isobel says.
The 2014 International Year of Family Farming was declared by the United Nations as a chance to stimulate policies for the sustainable development of farmer families, communal units, indigenous groups, cooperatives and fishing groups. It will mean different things from nation to nation. In Australia, Isobel says it is all about realising that our farming community is also a business community, and the greater awareness there is of this, the more the sector will prosper.
“I believe families are the best custodians of our land. They believe in the long-term future, and if corporates come to dominate, we’ll end up in social turmoil. Families have got to get their act together.”
And while Isobel says she doesn’t really think of her work in terms of leadership, she acknowledges that she has spent many years blazing a trail in this complex area.
“I think leadership can get tainted by some of what goes on in politics,” she says, as preface.
“If we’re going to lead, we need to lead from a humble place. A lot of our best leaders are quiet, humble people and they’re often hidden in rural Australia. I think they’re the people who really lead.”
Isobel attributes a lot of her own leadership style to a willingness to share.
“I think it’s really important we have people doing better in this area, and I love to see people learning and using some of the leg work I’ve done so that they can have a smooth journey,” she says.
Simply put, this leader is crusading to make families better equipped to either pass on their farms and farm businesses to the next generation, or if necessary, exit strategically.
“I am at a time in my life and with my family where I can now give to rural Australia in some other way. That’s why I decided I could be a part of the RIRDC awards and honour it with the time and commitment required,” she says.
“The idea is to launch the platform through my website www.proagtive.com.au in 2014,” Isobel says.
“Some parts of the platform will have a cost associated with keeping it online and current, but it’s really like a gym membership,” she explains, likening it to an affordable way to improve the ‘fitness’ of Australia’s farming businesses.
“I’d like to get it out there as much as possible, and this is where all the networks that RIRDC has enabled access to will come into play.”
And as for the direction and health of her own small business, Isobel says she treats it like any family enterprise.
“We had our own strategic meeting for our business at the end of 2013, with a facilitator hired to manage our team,” Isobel says with a laugh.
“We try to practice what we preach!”