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The strategic approach to managing employees

AME Management: It's important to foster a culture of employee engagement so people feel respected, motivated

If you own or manage an agricultural business of any size, you likely have a number of employees (family members or otherwise) working with you. And you have them for good reason. Employees come with many benefits, or at least they should.

Employees with specialized skills can provide missing competencies and networks, allowing the business to grow in new directions. Front-line supervisors and hourly employees provide the benefit of additional oversight and production capacity. They also provide significant operational efficiencies by allowing more highly paid talent to focus on running the business, analyzing results and making strategic decisions, rather than being perpetually caught up in the business of everyday “doing.”

Finally, as a business owner or senior manager with capable employees, the possibility exists for you to have a more balanced life: to take vacations, take care of your health, take care of your family and ultimately, ensure that your business continues to thrive.

Despite all these potential benefits, it may be surprising that one of the most disliked aspects of business is managing employees, according to research by Berrett-Koehler in 2011. This may be especially true for first-time and front-line managers.

One study by the consulting group Development Dimensions International (DDI), found that the top reason why newly promoted front-line managers took the job was for more money (50 per cent), not because they aspired to lead others. The majority (57 per cent) learned their leadership skills by trial and error.

Of these, over one-third regretted being promoted, largely due to the stress of being ill prepared to manage others (read “Finding the First Rung” on the Development Dimensions International website).

Farm owners and senior managers participating in Agri-Food Management Excellence (AME) programs have similarly shared their reluctance for dealing with poor performers or for taking on additional tasks essential for managing others, such as: regularly and enthusiastically communicating the organization’s vision, values, goals and results; facilitating participative problem-solving and decision-making meetings; developing effective and engaged teams; and providing ongoing performance feedback.

In the HR section of the AME programs, I focus on helping the participating managers and business owners reflect on their current strategies for managing others and identify specific opportunities to better align their approach with the strategic intents of the business. The framework used was first developed at the Harvard Business School by Michael Beer and Bert Spector in the early 1980s, in response to declining international competitiveness within the U.S. manufacturing sector.

The first area of the framework is known as “employee influence,” which is the extent to which employees are well informed about the business and have the opportunity to influence their own areas of responsibility. Seeking employee opinion when purchasing a new piece of equipment, for example, can contribute to a better decision and garner support for implementation.

As well, fostering a culture of employee engagement in which people feel respected and motivated to regularly go above and beyond generates proven positive bottom-line results.

The second area is “reward systems,” which include the wages, bonuses, and benefits employees receive in exchange for their labour, as well as the sense of pride and accomplishment that comes from a job well done. Taken together these rewards form the employee value proposition (i.e. what the organization provides in exchange for the heads, hands and hearts of its employees).

Organizations with a clear and competitive value proposition are better able to attract and retain employees with the skills and attitudes required.

The third area of the framework is “human resource flow” i.e. the practices that influence the flow of employees into, through, and out of the organization, such as recruitment and selection, training and development, and performance feedback.

Many employees today are looking for jobs where there is a commitment to ongoing training and development. They also want their work to be socially beneficial. Emphasizing these opportunities on the company’s website and in any job advertisements can help build a positive employer brand and attract greater numbers of applicants.

When assessing applicants, managers are well advised to augment their interviews (which are inherently unreliable predictors of performance) with tests that replicate typical job demands. Asking potential employees to use or fix a piece of equipment, to make a presentation, or to serve a customer, for example, can help to avoid costly selection errors.

Once hired, instead of the dreaded annual performance review, research has found that it is far more motivating to provide ongoing performance feedback, ideally by putting in place a system that enables employees to monitor their own progress against agreed-upon goals, thus providing them with the opportunity to adjust their own performance as needed.

When employees consistently fail to meet expectations, managers must remedy the situation by providing additional training or support, adjusting the individual’s work responsibilities, or terminating the relationship.

Finally, we talk about “work systems” and the management of effective teams. People are inherently competitive and self-interested. In order for a team to thrive, it is essential that its leader ensure certain attributes are in place, such as common goals, clear roles and accountabilities, effective communication systems, and a culture of trust.

Taken together, these four elements comprise an organization’s strategic approach to managing people. While much of this may seem like common sense, in practice, many of these suggestions are not common at all.

That is why, when done right, and once cemented in an organization’s culture, a competitive advantage can be achieved.

Julia Christensen Hughes, PhD, is dean of the College of Business and Economics, University of Guelph and an instructor with AME. For more information on the University of Guelph’s MBA program in food and agribusiness management. For information on AME visit agrifoodtraining.com.

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