Farmers finding a competitive edge with leadership training

Across the country, more farmers are signing up for in-depth leadership training, and they’re using it to transform the way they farm and do business

There’s a saying that if you aren’t moving forward, then you’re falling behind. Never has this been more true than in agriculture today. But something else is equally true. It’s that more farmers are keeping up with this need for change by dedicating time and effort to cutting-edge studies on leadership.

For 46-year-old Kelly Dobson, it meant enrolling in a graduate degree in leadership development from Royal Roads University in Victoria, B.C., despite the demands of his 4,100-acre farm near Fairfax, Man., where he grows grains, oilseeds and confectionery sunflowers.

Dobson now sees his decision as a sort of foundation for how he is able to lead and manage his farm. “At the end of the day, I chose to study leadership over an MBA,” Dobson explains.

Partly that was because he had been careful to observe more executives in other companies, and he could see how crucial leadership could prove for business success. Partly too, it was because as a farmer, he could hire accountants, lawyers, agronomists and others to source the advice needed to manage diverse aspects of his farm, “but you can’t contract out leadership.”

Dobson says that today, he lools back and recognizes he had actually been hampered by shortcomings in his old business leadership, a key one being that he had felt that running a farm successfully really boiled down to financial management, marketing and operations.

Today, when he thinks of that management style, he sums it up as thinking that, “All problems can be solved by lifting the lid of your laptop.”

Now, he considers that short sighted, addressing only half of the challenge.

Not to put too fine a point on it, the more he has learned about modern, scientific research into leadership, and the more he has seen how it can drive organization performance, the more he realized that there’s a danger if he as a farmer doesn’t keep up.

“The attitude was that if you give orders, that makes you a leader,” Dobson says. “That isn’t going to get us where we have to go.

“The goalposts in agriculture keep moving, and the human part of it — the emotional intelligence and the things that we never talk about — they’re all going to be crucially important.”

The Royal Roads program covers a wide swath from systems thinking and organization design to specific, hands-on discussion of team building, communication, and how to manage change. To do that, the program does requires significant investment. It takes two years, and although it is designed for working professionals, it still demands two residency periods, plus $23,000 tuition.

For Dobson, though, it’s been a series of eureka moments, for instance seeing how Meyers Briggs personality assessments can be used to make a real difference not only in employee performance but also in employee satisfaction and commitment.

It’s not about calling all the shots. “Shared leadership is necessary,” Dobson says. “No one person can have all the information. Nothing great that’s been achieved has been done by an individual. The reality is that it was a group of people working together collaboratively.”

Meanwhile, 35-year-old Jennifer Doelman, who farms 2,800 acres with her family and runs a farm supply business in eastern Ontario, chose the Advanced Agricultural Leadership Program (AALP), a 19-month executive development program based in Guelph, Ont. to further develop her leadership skills.

“Leadership training has helped me see the big picture,” Jennifer Doelman says. “I can connect the dots and act as a catalyst.”

“Leadership training has helped me see the big picture,” Jennifer Doelman says. “I can connect the dots and act as a catalyst.”
photo: Robin Andrew – Unposed Photography

Doelman credits the leadership skills she learned through AALP with helping her take their business to the next level, especially through improved insights and improved processes involving human resources. “We were able to find people with take-charge, ‘can-do’ attitudes who have the potential to really move our business ahead,” she explains.

There are now three people doing the job that Doelman once did by herself. “We have a number of people in our business who are exceptional and bring more to their jobs than I could have on my own.”

Doelman says that as a Type A personality, she had been guilty of doing everything herself. Now, she has learned to ask for help and to say “no.” She also learned tools to help her separate emotion from business, which can be especially important in a family structure.

AALP helped her learn to find the strengths in people, to allow them to use their skills and interests for maximum benefit, and also to create synergy among team members, she explains.

Doelman is also putting her new-found leadership skills to use at the community level, as a Certified Crop Adviser and president of the Renfrew County Soil and Crop Improvement Association. Doelman tries to represent agricultural interests, and she credits AALP with helping her bring a better perspective to those roles. She has also put her media training to use. “It taught me a level of professionalism that ag should be showing.”

With two young children, Doelman has had to decline some volunteer work. “Part of being a good leader is knowing what skills you have and the commitment you can offer.

“My leadership training has helped me to see the big picture,” she adds. “I can connect the dots and act as a catalyst to help steer committees and projects at the ground level. My formal training helps me to effectively chair a meeting, as well as to set measurable goals and timelines.”

Other AALP participants report similar gains. For instance, 27-year-old Sara Wood who farms with her family near Mitchell, Ont., says she got involved in AALP to build her leadership skills, but then learned a lot about herself in the process.

This self-awareness helps on the farm, Wood says, and it has also helped her become a better and more active board member, giving her the confidence she needs to participate in effective ways despite being in the minority. Not only is she usually one of only a few women involved, she’s also 30 or 40 years younger than most farmers.

“I’ve learned to ask the right questions, and to challenge the norm,” Wood says.

AALP has also exposed her to a professional standard that she might not have experienced in an on-farm environment — professional conduct and respectful workplace decorum can take second place when your boss used to change your diapers.

There are other benefits too, Doelman adds. She finds for instance that her leadership training has been a fantastic networking tool. “I was a budding eastern Ontario agronomist, training side by side with egg farmers, dairy farmers, OMAFRA staff, managers from the seed industry, insurance and banking,” she says. “The transfer of information in a course like this with a tight-knit group of classmates is irreplaceable and absolutely necessary to move ahead in our industry… every day I find a new way to use the skills and information I learned during my AALP years.”

Such views are shared by thought leaders in the business community who say the role of leadership is changing and evolving. Daniel Goleman, a psychologist and author of Leadership: the Power of Emotional Intelligence, cites the ability to identify and monitor emotions (i.e. your own and others) and to manage relationships as being essential for leadership. His list of leadership qualities includes self-awareness, self-management, resilience, empathy, and listening.

Meanwhile, Terry Betker, president of Backswath Management in Manitoba agrees with Dobson’s take on the realities facing agriculture. He says there is a fundamental shift taking place, and farms are becoming more complex in how they’re structured. The needs of the farm family are outgrowing their skill sets, and can outgrow their advisory resources too, says Betker.

Farmers tend to have a passion for operations, which is understandable, but many need to put more focus on management, says Betker. “They need to decide how they will manage the business, and to determine what they are good at and what their weaknesses are,” he says. “And they need to decide what is needed with regards to managerial development.”

Once they have assessed their needs they can develop a plan for how they will fill the gaps. One of the challenges for everyone is to apply what they’ve learned. “It’s difficult to change,” says Betker. “That’s human nature.”

One way to ensure that new skills are applied is to create accountability. For example, Betker suggests writing down your goals and then reviewing these goals six weeks later to see if there has been follow-through. Another option is to create an external check by buddying up with another farmer or hiring a consultant to keep you on track.

Executive coaching is gaining ground in agriculture as an efficient mechanism for developing leadership skills. Michelle Painchaud, president of Painchaud Performance Group in Winnipeg says that as farms grow and become more sophisticated, with more regulatory issues and more staff, farm business owners and managers often find themselves feeling unskilled in some areas of business, particularly in the area of leadership.

Traditional training can be expensive, time consuming and inconvenient but executive coaching can be an efficient use of time for farm managers, Painchaud says. “Effective coaching allows the business owners to have a customized learning partner that not only helps the owner learn and grow, but holds them accountable to that growth.”

Dobson is already seeing a payoff on the farm from his leadership training. He says he’s become a better communicator and a better listener, and he is asking more questions. “This has improved the work environment, and we are having more fun,” he says.

Farms are great places to learn about crops, says Dobson, but not the science of leading.

Farms are great places to learn about crops, says Dobson, but not the science of leading.
photo: Robin Andrew – Unposed Photography

The level of management required to stay competitive has increased, says Dobson, especially with today’s volatile markets and weather. His work on the board of the National Sunflower Association of Canada and as the industry co-chair of the Special Crops Value Chain Roundtable has also opened his eyes to the challenges and opportunities facing agriculture in the next 10 to 15 years.

As farm business complexity increases, it will be impossible for a single owner to possess all the talents and knowledge needed to make the best decisions, Dobson believes. Farm owners will need help from skilled farm workers, and those workers are going to want to have input into how the work gets done.

“Farmers with poor leadership skills may find it impossible to retain good help when better working environments can be found on the next farm,” Dobson predicts.

Farmers are brought up to “do it our way,” says Dobson. This can be a strength, but it can also be a limitation.

Being good at the technical, task-oriented skills will continue to be important, he adds, but it just won’t be enough anymore.

As an example, Dobson thinks that as farm business gets more comples, communication and conflict resolution skills will prove increasingly valuable. “They can go a long way to avoiding unmet expectations and the inevitable anger and frustration,” he says.

Unfortunately, continues Dobson, these aren’t the kinds of skills that farmers easily pick up around the farmyard. For example, he believes farmers don’t see good examples, so they often struggle with having difficult conversations and dealing with conflict. “We don’t tend to learn these skills anywhere,” he says.

From her farm near Ottawa, Doelman shares Dobson’s goal of turning that farm limitation into an advantage.

Besides, says Doelman, working toward improved leadership is also its own reward.

“Leadership development is an ongoing process,” Doelman says. “Once you start to develop personally, it’s like a bug. You get hooked, it keeps you from stagnating.”

This article was originally published as ‘The leadership edge’ in the December 2015 issue of Country Guide.

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